Paul's Case by Willa Cather, 1905
by Willa Cather, 1905
As its subtitle suggests, "Paul's Case" is also "A Study in Temperament," confirming the reader's suspicion that the story is intended to be a case history of a particular pathology. In this case it is a certain hypersensitivity that makes Paul uneasy company for his high school peers and his teachers. Collected in The Troll Garden, this early piece by Willa Cather—roughly contemporary with Gertrude Stein's pioneering usage of her own clinical training to write fiction—spends its first pages offering the reader data on which to venture a judgment of Paul's "case." His theatrical use of eyes of a "certain hysterical brilliancy" and size is, for example, compared to the effects of belladonna addiction, though as the narrator knowledgeably notes, "there was a glassy glitter about them which that drug does not produce." Clearly Cather intends to introduce Paul as a scientifically observed character who nonetheless remains something of a mystery until his own demise.
Nor is Paul a typical member of his peer group. He works as an usher at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Hall, and we observe him rushing off to work whistling the "Soldiers' Chorus" from Gounod's Faust, unusual musical fare for a young man then or now. Cather's character is a belated descendant of nineteenth-century European romanticism, German and French varieties especially. His stifling American surroundings have not given him the release he senses in the Parisian and Venetian scenes that hang in the orchestra hall's picture gallery and that "exhilarated him." Cather, no more a sentimentalist about the American landscape than Hamlin Garland or her mentor Sarah Orne Jewett, nevertheless judged character against the standard of interiorized harmony with nature. But even in the presence of such interior harmony, the world of art could prove a disruptive force, a catalyst that could cut a person adrift from his or her moorings. Or as a popular song of the era would put things, how could you hope to keep a person down on the farm after he or she had glimpsed "Paree." Paul knows no farm, but he thinks he has seen Paris.
Working as an usher, Paul grows "more and more vivacious and animated, and the colour [comes] to his cheeks and lips." The soprano soloist has for him a "world-shine" that makes her seem "a veritable queen of Romance." Paul follows the singer to her hotel and sees it as "the fairy world of a Christmas pantomime," whereas the house he must return to on Cordelia Street is Christian, conservative, and tawdry. Not a reader, Paul wants most of all "to see, to be in the atmosphere" of the world of art, to which the local theater was "the actual portal of Romance." He is punished by being taken out of school, deprived of his usher's job, and cut off from his theatrical contacts. Ripe for radical change in his life, Paul is almost immediately seen en route by train to New York.
Paul's capacity to lie convincingly and his theft of money from his employer take him to a room in the Waldorf, where for the first time he feels freed of the dread that has haunted him all through his life. New York is filled with "the rumble and roar, the hurry and toss of thousands of human beings as hot for pleasure as himself," and Paul burns "like a faggot in a tempest." He feels at home with people who are like himself but whom he has no desire to know, and he wonders how there could be any honest people in the world, given the opportunity to steal—and to have what he has had. Hearing that his father is in pursuit of him, "he had the old feeling that the orchestra had suddenly stopped, the sinking sensation that the play was over." Back in Pittsburgh they have decided that "Paul's was a bad case." But he has no regrets; he plays his role like an actor and rejects the theatrical ending of death by revolver-shot. Instead he makes his feverish way back to New Jersey, watches his characteristic red carnations droop, and jumps in front of a Pennsylvania Railroad locomotive.
Paul's death is indeed theatrical, and at the moment he jumps to it he seems to feel "as though he were being watched." The narrator's voice becomes extraordinarily omniscient, as in Paul's last split seconds of life he could not only regret the "folly of his haste" but also "the vastness of what he had left undone." Again "there flashed through his brain, clearer than ever before, the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands." In a sense Paul's death recapitulates Crane's soldiers dying in Algiers even as it foreshadows Camus's Meursault and the futility of his existence.
The story "Paul's Case" straddles two centuries of action and idea, and like many a more recent fiction it ends openly, equivocally. "Paul's Case" is in the end also a police report and a testament to our inability to come up with a wholly convincing answer as to why we do what we do. Cather's hasty character dies with the blues and yellows of an impressionist landscape in his brain. Yet these also fade at once to black, "the immense design of things." What design; whose design? The story teases by means of what it does not say; our towns are filled with Pauls whom we will never understand.
Paul had lived on Cordelia Street, which he found depressing. He also lacked a mother, and we know little about what the protofeminist Cather might have said about that lack, nor whether in this early story we are meant to read "Paula" for "Paul." Death by locomotive was, after all, already a convention of late romantic/early realist fiction by the time of Tolstoi. The missing Ms. Lear may or may not be part of why we cannot yet say with any certainty that Paul's case is closed.