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“Paul’s Case” a Short Story by Willa Cather Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 19th, 2020


Willa Cather authored the short story, Paul’s Case, around 1905 while residing in the city of Pittsburgh. Cather’s short story constitutes a simple plot that involves Paul, a high school student, who experiences untold suffering at school and home. Paul depicts a flippant attitude towards his teachers as he wears a red carnation while appearing before a faculty committee. Despite the poor family relations and undesirable character at school, Cather reveals the ambitious attribute of Paul, who seeks to be like the theatre performers at Carnegie Hall instead of working in the mills and factories like his father (77).

However, the author integrates the theme of temperament to reveal the extent to which such a problem could lead to individual failure. In this regard, analyzing Cather’s work in Paul’s Case is relevant for instilling an in-depth understanding of the various factors that contribute to temperament in an individual. This paper provides a critical analysis of the short story, Paul’s Case, by Willa Cather.

The inefficiency of socializing agents

Axiomatically, the author reveals the failure of key socializing agents in shaping the values, attitudes, and behaviors of the individual in a given society (Urgo and Skaggs 102). Importantly, the author shows that the family unit and the school institution fail significantly in instilling the necessary values that facilitate the bringing up a young individual in a way that is compatible with the shared culture.

However, given that Paul’s mother passes away after she gives birth to him, the nurturing aspect of the acceptable qualities can be jeopardized since his father is usually busy in the factory and mills seeking to sustain his family (Urgo and Skaggs 78). Therefore, the author pinpoints that the inadequate attention that Paul receives from his father contributes to his character of deception and temperament that manifest at both school and home (Ku 74). Notably, Paul’s father allows him to engage his labor as an usher to sustain himself. Apparently, the father should play this role given that the boy is still young.

For example, “He asked Paul whether he could not go to some boy who lived nearer, and told him that he ought not to leave his school work until Sunday; but he gave him the dime” (Cather 21). As seen, the relationship between the father and his son involves deceit, and thus, revealing the degree to the family unit fails to integrate the value of honesty, which is important in fostering healthy relationships (Wasserman 125).

In this light, despite knowing that Paul is lying, the father allows him to go ahead with his intention of earning from the ushering activities at the theater. Consequently, the behavior transcends to the school setting where Paul uses deceit to cover up for his unacceptable behavior.

At Pittsburgh High School, the poor conduct of Paul renders him answerable to the Faculty Committee after engaging in questionable acts. In this case, the failure of the family unit to instill the appropriate values in the young man affects his relations with other individuals in the school setting. As a result, the lack of respect for his teachers cultivates dissatisfaction with the conduct of the student among the teachers leading to his suspension from the school a week earlier. Cather posits, “Paul stated, politely enough that he wanted to come back to school. This was a lie, but Paul was quite accustomed to lying—found it, indeed, indispensable for overcoming friction” (15).

In this regard, the failure of the fundamental agents of socialization to contribute to the construction of exemplary characters and personalities in the society manifests in the Pittsburgh setting (Ku 78). As a result, the failure of the two institutions facilitates the development of detrimental or harmful behaviors such as stealing as seen in the case where Paul steals from his employer before fleeing to New York City. Consequently, the indiscipline attribute that grows out of the ineffectiveness of the two institutions in socializing Paul influences him to purchase a gun once he lands in New York. The overwhelming character adopted by the young man results in his suicidal attempt that succeeds at the railroads.

The self-absorption of a depressed Paul

The author artistically uses the claustrophobic approach to expose the psychological disequilibrium that influences Paul’s behavior at the school and home settings. Notably, the author uses the third person aspect of narration to reveal the extent to which the experiences of the main character affect his thoughts and actions. In this sense, the author manages to inform the audience that Paul is drowning in his thoughts and barely shows his concern for others, thus, showing the depth of his unhappiness.

In this regard, the author exposes that Paul’s depression influences the construction of the temperament attribute that describes the main character. As such, the escalation of the level of temperament can affect the rationality of the decisions made by Paul, as seen at the end where he stands in front of an oncoming train.

Evidently, Paul does not talk much about his family members as noted in the case of mentioning his sisters in passing while seeking a chance to lie to his father. Cather writes, “On this last Sunday of November, Paul sat all the afternoon on the lowest step of his “stoop,” staring into the street, while his sisters, in their rockers, were talking to the minister’s daughters next door” (82). In this case, Paul shows less concern for the people that matter in his life, thus, revealing the degree of social alienation that continues to ruin his interaction and relation with others.

As such, the depression that inflicts Paul contributes to his social detachment and alienation leading to thoughts that seek to improve his life. The author reveals that Paul rarely considers the feelings experienced by his father after losing his mother at a tender age. In response, Paul avoids, ignores, and lies to his father since he regards him as a source of annoyance. The height of his clinical depression manifests where he fails to appreciate the love showed by his father.

For instance, the father pays money that Paul has stolen before heading to New York City to find him. Therefore, Cather’s focus on the mental state of Paul reflects the degree of self-absorption as denoted by the dissatisfaction of his teachers and family members with his egoism (Summers 105).

Notably, Paul finds interest in idealizing certain figures such as the Charley Edwards, the soprano, and the Yale comrade. The figures appear surreal, and they only exist in Paul’s fantasyland, which is preoccupied with money and theatre life. For instance, Paul regards the Charley Edwards as a magical theatre star, yet, in the real sense, Charley is an upcoming performer in the local troupe. Thus, Paul portrays his self-centered character by fantasizing about figures he hardly knows besides pushing away people who love him, including his family in a way that also denotes the level of his clinical depression.

Paul, a suicidal young man

The author characterizes the tale, Paul’s Case, with less dramatized instances. Normally, short stories entail the maintenance of equilibrium between exposition and dramatization. However, in Cather’s work, the exposition dominates the text. Particularly, exposition in the short story manifests in instances where Paul’s description of his poor conduct, the teacher’s comment on his mother’s death, and the narration regarding the boss’ productivity as observed by the clerk. In this regard, the author dictates her text with exposition in various instances instead of drama to characterize the events.

However, the author subtitles the short story as “A Study in Temperament”, thereby, hinting that it would entail at least one dramatic instance (Urgo and Skaggs 81). Therefore, in explaining a case study regarding a suicidal young man related to her personal experiences in Pittsburgh, the author does not create the story in the traditional approach that upholds the dominance of drama.

In most cases, every instance of exposition reveals or explains the motivation that leads Paul towards committing suicide (Wasserman 122). Notably, mentioning the death of his mother by his teacher denotes the emotional discomfort in Paul, which exposes the possibility of an eventually gruesome incident. Furthermore, the author uses illustrations likened to those involving suicidal events to describe Paul’s situation. Cather notes, “…noted with amazement what a white, blue-veined face it was; drawn and wrinkled like an old man’s about the eyes, the lips twitching even in his sleep, and stiff with a nervous tension that drew them back from his teeth” (16).

The description of his eyes, face, lips, and teeth denotes the eventuality of an ugly end to the short story, thus, suggesting the temper that characterizes the boy will haunt him. Additionally, Paul’s desire to move to the upper social class, his homosexual interests, romanticized love for the arts, obsession with monetary gains, and alienation from the society lack dramatic scenes but instead involve exposition, which prepares the reader for a dramatic end to the tale (Summers 104).

Notably, after Paul alights from a train in New York City, the audience anticipates him to engage in undertakings that would see the realization of his ambitions, however, based on his personal choices. Surprisingly, Paul fails to attain the lavish life he has envisioned earlier as he engages in activities that portray the absence of a sense of direction and purpose in life. As per the description given in the story, the author manages to show the audience the likeness of Paul’s physical and emotional state.

Therefore, by getting rid of dramatized instances while exposing Paul’s situation, the author creates a story similar to that derived from the notes of a doctor regarding the triggers of suicide, where she identifies temperament as the main cause. Hence, the author portrays Paul as a narcissistic and delusional character ready to explode at the end (Díaz 157). In this respect, the style devised by the author shades light on the analytic approach embraced, thus, cultivating fascination. The epitome of Paul’s Case shows the reader that certain factors lead to particular eventualities just like a physician examines a condition based on the medical manifestations. In the end, the author unearths the results of the analysis by explaining that

He felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things (Cather 23).

The author confirms that the unexamined life is not worth living as depicted by the tragic end of Paul’s life. Furthermore, in the expository scenes, the author points out that the lack of direction and indiscipline could override one’s ambitions in life, as revealed by Paul’s failure to realize the envisioned lavish lifestyle complemented by theatre arts and performances.


In the literary work, Paul’s Case, the author demonstrates a shift from the traditional story-telling approach. Primarily, the author reveals the preconditions that can lead to the adversity and the eventual catastrophe of an individual. Poor socialization by the school and the family institutions contribute to Paul’s failure in life, thus showing Cather’s analytical approach. Furthermore, the inefficiency of the mentioned institutions leads to the development of an emotional imbalance that triggers Paul’s suicide.

Besides, the dominance of exposition in the short story instead of dramatic scenes gives Cather’s work a tasty recipe in the menu of short stories. The author weaves the theme of temperament into the story to highlight how such a character can lead an individual to failure and self-destruction as seen in the case of the protagonist, Paul.

Works Cited

Cather, Willa. Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament, New York: SS McClure, 1905. Print.

Díaz, Loreto. “Irrationality and Narcissism in ‘Paul’s Case’: An Explanatory Study of his Suicide.” Opening Writing Doors Journal 10.1 (2013): 151-186. Print.

Ku, Chung-Hao. “A Boy under the Ban of Suspension: Renouncing Maturity in Willa Cather’s Paul’s Case.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 61.1 (2015): 69-89. Print.

Summers, Claude. “A Losing Game in the End: Aestheticism and Homosexuality in Cather’s” Paul’s Case.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 36.1 (1990): 103-119. Print.

Urgo, Joseph, and Merrill Skaggs. Violence, the Arts, and Willa Cather, Plainsboro: Associated University Press, 2007. Print.

Wasserman, Loretta. “Is Cather’s Paul a Case?” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 36.1 (1990): 121-129. Print.

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