Joseph C. MurphyText: Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction. Ed. Virginia Faulkner and Mildred R. Bennett. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 1970. 243-61.
"Paul's Case" (1905) and "Behind the Singer Tower" (1912) are products of Cather's early phase, when she was working as a magazine editor in the Eastern cities of Pittsburgh and New York and finding her own voice in American literature. Both stories reflect upon the aspirations and the burdens of urban cultureˇXthe world of art and beauty that hovers above a bedrock of exploitation, materialism, and middle-class drudgery. These contradictions in city life enriched Cather's complex understanding of America, as she moved from her upbringing on the Nebraska prairieˇXanother place that wedded dreams with violenceˇXinto her adulthood as urban literary artist. These stories are therefore perceptive studies of urban settings. They are also keen representations of American identities, and examples of Cather's developing experimentation with narrative form.
"Paul's Case" is set in Pittsburgh in the early twentieth century, when the city was a major American center for the production of iron, steel, and glass. These industries defined the city at every level, bringing extraordinary wealth to industrialists like Andrew Carnegie, opportunity of advancement to the middle class, and high-risk jobsˇXfrequently resulting in injury or deathˇXto the immigrant poor. These industries also defined the city's cultural life in a contradictory way. Millionaires like Carnegie found relief from their hectic enterprises by building vast estates and attending lavish social events. At the same time, Carnegie and other millionaires became philanthropists and endowed the city with museums, concert halls, and libraries for the enrichment of the public good. However, the capitalist system gave the working poor and the middle class little time or incentive for leisure. "Paul's Case" is about the struggle of a highly sensitive young man amid these contradictions. Living in Pittsburgh from 1896-1906, Cather understood her subject well. It was the city's expanding wealth that first brought her there as editor of the women's magazine Home Monthly. In that position and as a free-lance journalist, Cather came to know firsthand the rich, the middle class, and the poor. Later as a high school teacher, she became familiar with young people like Paul who were trying to get their bearings in the city's bewildering industrial culture.
The title "Paul's Case" suggests the story of a misfit who, by the standards of society, needs to be reformed; a case, after all, is a problem to be solved. However, the subtitle, "A Study in Temperament," suggests a more neutral or even sympathetic perspectiveˇXthe exploration of an individual's unique sensibilities. As the story unfolds, there is ample evidence for both these perspectives. Certainly the teachers before whom Paul appears as the story opens view him as an abnormal case. As the drawing master points out, noting Paul's "haunted" smile, "There is something wrong about the fellow" (245). This abnormality is represented in the red carnation he sports before the faculty in the opening sceneˇXsymbolizing somehow his "hysterically defiant manner" (243). Later Paul's father supports this view, seeing in his son a case of rebellion against the work ethic, and he forces Paul into an office job.
It is important to notice, though, that the narrator distances herself from Paul's perceptions. Paul's temperament inclines him toward unrealistic views. The soprano soloist at the concert hall, for example, is "by no means in her first youth, and the mother of many children," but Paul sees her as "a veritable queen of Romance"ˇX imagining her to be "an old sweetheart" of the conductor (246-47). Likewise, the stage entrance of the theatre "was for Paul the actual portal of Romance," even though the actors are quite ordinary people. Art, music, and theatre are for Paul a means of escape, providing "the spark, the indescribable thrill that made his imagination master of his senses" (252). Paul does not himself want to become an actor or a musicianˇXhe doesn't want to work that hard. It is the artificialityˇXnot the realityˇXof the arts that attracts him: "Perhaps it was because, in Paul's world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness, that a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty" (251).
The plot of "Paul's Case" rides unrelentingly on a succession of settings: the high school, Carnegie Hall, Cordelia Street, the stock theatre company, the train, the Waldorf Hotel in New York, and the snowy tracks where he dies. Among these Paul's home on Cordelia Street is ground zero, because it represents everything he is trying to escape in each of the other settings. What is it about this "highly respectable street," where all the houses are alike, that is so distasteful to Paul? Two clues (and there are others) are the pictures of George Washington and John Calvin above Paul's bed (248). George Washington, first president of the United States, is an icon of honesty and patriotism. John Calvin is the originator of Calvinism, the Protestant tradition from which Presbyterianism, the establishment religion of Pittsburgh, descends. Since the nineteenth century, Calvinism has been associated with a "work ethic" founded in the notion that God favors those who succeed in business. How does Cordelia Street embody the ideals of Washington and Calvin, and how does Paul respond to these ideals?
Paul takes decisive action against Cordelia Street by stealing money from his employer Denny & Carson and using it for a getaway to New York City. But the climax of the story is Paul's recognitionˇXas his money runs out and his father approaches to take him homeˇXthat "all the world had become Cordelia Street." Paul recognizes "now, more than ever, that money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted" (259). How does Paul reach this conclusion, and why does he decide that his only alternative is suicide?
In some sense, Paul dies as he has livedˇXat the edge of reality, in a fog of romance. He diverts his attention away from his suicide plan by focusing on the images "of everything he had seen that morning," and he views the drooping carnations as justifying his own deathˇXbecause revolt against the winter is a "losing game" (260). (Cut flowers have appeared throughout the story, in the principal's office scene, in New York, and here. What exactly do they suggest about Paul's identity and predicament?) But as he falls toward the approaching train, Paul recognizes "the folly of his haste . . . with merciless clearness" and "the vastness of what he had left undone" (260). Was there an alternative for Paul? Notice that in the end "the picture making mechanism" in Paul's brainˇXthe thing that has been the engine of his romantic lifeˇXceases to function, and Paul "dropped back into the immense design of things" (261). Cather significantly broadens the perspective hereˇXsuggesting an "immense design of things" of which the capitalist system, and Paul's designs against that system, are only imperfect parts. In other words, Cather opens up a window to a reality outside Paul's "case." In the process we have to wonder: was it Paul's case alone that needed treatment, or is the "case" really the society that has trapped himˇXan imbalanced society whose capitalist means are irreconcilable with its artistic and spiritual aspirations?