“Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament” by Willa Cather (1905)

Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament by Willa Cather

“Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament” is a short story by Willa Cather, first published in McClure’s Magazine in 1905. That year, it also appeared in a collection of Cather’s stories, The Troll Garden. This analysis of “Paul’s Case” is by Sarah Wyman, Associate Professor of English at SUNY-New Paltz:

You probably know someone who reminds you of Paul, someone who does not seem to fit in with others in society. Paul’s mannerisms are tense and nervous. He appears antisocial with his classmates, confrontational with his teachers, and emotionally estranged from his family.


A departure from male gender constructs

The early twentieth-century middle class Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania community in which he lives offers neither inspiration nor role models to whom he can relate. Paul seems detached from the real world, and puts on a show of sorts in order to cope.

The narrator describes him in terms that emphasize his sense of drama, “His eyes were remarkable for a certain hysterical brilliancy, and he continually used them in a conscious, theatrical way, peculiarly offensive in a boy.”

The text suggests a degree of anxiety, as Paul veers from typical male gender constructs. Hysterical, from hyster (womb or uterus), for example, refers to an explicitly female condition, a diagnosis that ties illness or abnormality to gender.

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The Troll Garden

“Paul’s Case” appears as a short story in The Troll Garden and Selected Stories (1905)

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A contrast between home life and the world of theater

Cather builds the major contrast of the story between Paul’s Cordelia Street neighborhood and the transporting realm of the theater. She paints a crushingly dismal picture of the deadened home life Paul cannot abide:

The nearer he approached his house, the more absolutely unequal Paul felt to the sight of it all: his ugly sleeping chamber; the cold bathroom with the grimy zinc tub, the cracked mirror, the dripping spigots; his father, at the top of the stairs, his hairy legs sticking out from his nightshirt, his feet thrust into carpet slippers…. Paul stopped short before the door.

Such a deadened life does not give Paul what he needs. The world of the theater, however, where he takes an after school job, brings Paul great joy and leads him into another dimension where he comes alive.

It was at the theatre and at Carnegie Hall that Paul really lived; the rest was but a sleep and a forgetting. This was Paul’s fairy tale, and it had for him all the allurement of a secret love.

The moment he inhaled the gassy, painty, dusty odor behind the scenes, he breathed like a prisoner set free, and felt within him the possibility of doing or saying splendid, brilliant, poetic things. The moment the cracked orchestra beat out the overture from Martha, or jerked at the serenade from Rigoletto, all stupid and ugly things slid from him, and his senses were deliciously, yet delicately fired.

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Paul's case by Willa Cather

Read the full text of “Paul’s Case”

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Transporting to the world of imagination

Even a mediocre orchestra that “beats” and “jerks” out music proves enough to electrify Paul’s sensibilities and transport him to the sustaining world of imagination and sensuality that counters his emotionally impoverished existence.

Paul’s mother had died soon after his birth, and his father figures as a terrifying threat. In order to avoid his father’s wrath, Paul carries out a sort of self-burial, hiding in the basement.

When he chooses his method of self-destruction, he refuses his father’s gun but goes for an even more violent, confrontational end with a train. Perhaps Paul selects his sole friend, the actor Charley Edwards, as an alternative father-figure.

The matronly opera singer he follows represents Romance for him, not in the figure of an alluring female, but rather a substitute mother figure who might have supplied the nurturing love Paul lacks.


An artist of the self

Paul’s outsider characteristics, coupled with the private performance he stages when he runs away to New York City, make him seem an artist of the self.

His escape to the city is carefully “rehearsed” and once there, he sets the stage with material objects, fancy dress and flowers, as though preparing for a performance. In his hotel room, leased with stolen cash, “Everything was quite perfect; he was exactly the kind of boy he had always wanted to be.”

Yet, he is only a failed quasi-artist, one who can take in and appreciate the artificially constructed but cannot create his own life as a sustainable work of art. To him, the world of art museums and concert halls is a means to evade dull reality.

Paul cannot distinguish between the power of money (which allows for his escape) and of authentic spiritual transcendence, that which he feels when transported by others’ art, but cannot maintain or generate himself.

His moments of creativity — putting on this show, and presenting himself as a dandy throughout the story — fail to generate a lasting sense of belonging or peace.


Oblique reference to gay identity

Many read Paul as a homosexual youth, living in a society that would not allow the expression of his orientation. Willa Cather was a lesbian at a time and in a culture when public acknowledgement of such feelings was taboo. Various textual details point obliquely and overtly to the source of his great fear, that which seems to lurk in the corner for him.

“Paul had done things that were not pretty to watch, he knew” is one expression of some aspect of himself that seems to haunt him.

When Cather employs terms such as gay and faggot, ones that carried connotations of homosexuality even in 1905, she underscores this implication. His all-night interactions with the freshman from Yale seem cryptically described as well and may allude to a homosexual encounter.

Throughout the story, Cather uses images of water in all its manifestations from “treacherous waters” to whirling snowflakes, to weave a tight texture of language. The accumulation of watery imagery serves as a sort of metaphorical foreshadowing of the more intense moments of figurative drowning and ultimately, death.

Paul had been “drowning” at home: “the tepid waters of Cordelia Street were to close over him finally and forever”; “The memory of successive summers on the front stoop fell upon him like a weight of black water.”

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Willa Cather - My Antonia

A review of My Antonia by Willa Cather
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The moment of crisis

The moment of crisis, that which motivates Paul towards his radical action of departure, is revealed in retrospect with a clever inversion of traditional, linear narration. The plot development comes across as fated as a Greek tragedy: “when they had shut him out of the theater and concert hall, when they had taken away his bone, the whole thing was virtually determined.”

At the moment of death or oblivion, if you prefer, he summons a vision of the “blue of Adriatic water” again evoking the fated Greek nature of the plot.

Before his demise, Paul buries or drowns a defiant carnation in the snow. The flower could symbolize his originality, his artfulness, his seeking after beauty, all sorts of things. A few readers argue that Paul does not in fact die, but rather achieves a final sense of belonging in the cosmos. This interpretation is up to you.

While Paul is not a particularly likable character, clearly flawed, deeply unhappy, the writer does a tremendous job of bringing us to know him in a few short pages.

Although the story purports to be an objective, even clinical “study,” according to the title, the narrator’s tone seems sympathetic. Many readers share a sympathetic attitude towards this frustrated youth as he struggles to make his life a work of art.

— Contributed by Sarah Wyman, Associate Professor of English, SUNY-New Paltz

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Paul's case film based on the short story by Willa Cather 1980

“Paul’s Case” — a short film starring Eric Roberts (1980)

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More about “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather

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