Commentary by Karen Bernardo
The title character in Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” is one of the most beautifully-drawn figures in modern literature, and the epitome of Cather’s depiction of the sensitive artist.
We are first introduced to Paul in the high school principal’s office, and we see him, not through the eyes of his peers at school (we actually never see him that way) but through the eyes of his teachers. Paul is, in his teacher’s opinion, a little odd. On what is supposed to be sort of a begging mission a week after his suspension, his appearance is a little ostentatious, with “something of the dandy about him”; he wears a carnation in his lapel and an oval stud in his tie, and his unusually large eyes are also unusually brilliant and dilated, somewhat reminiscent of someone on drugs.
Paul isn’t on drugs, but he does live in an altered state of consciousness. For Paul, both school and home are dull and dreary, and the theater where he works (and where he hangs out on Sundays) is where life is. While Cather tells her story in a very serious, almost analytical fashion (the story is called, after all, “Paul’s Case,” as if it were some kind of medical dossier), Cather allows the narrative to be pierced now and again by brilliant flashes of light—and these flashes of light always have to do with the theater or music.
After school, Paul works at the local performing arts theater, and here he is completely in his element; or, as Cather says, “It was very much as though this were a great reception and Paul were the host.” He hands out programs “as though it were his greatest pleasure in life.” Later, when we see him visiting his actor friend Charley Edwards at “one of the downtown theaters” on Sunday afternoons, we are told that “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 things.” In Paul’s Walter Mitty-like dream the world of the theater sets is real life; the garish satins and rhinestones are real silk and diamonds; and the glamour of the actors and actresses is real class.
On the other hand, the scenes of Paul’s schools and homes are described with the utmost drabness. His schoolroom—“bare floors and naked walls,” the teachers in “dull gowns” with “shrill voices”—could hardly present a greater contrast to the world of his two theaters. Only Paul’s home is drawn in shabbier colors. Paul’s room has “horrible yellow wallpaper,” a “creaking bureau” and pictures of George Washington and John Calvin—obviously intended by his father as appropriate role models for Paul.
Cather describes Paul in three ways, then: in terms of what other people think of him; in terms of what he feels; and in terms of what he loves. Of the three, the most emphasis is laid on what he loves, because Paul is a boy obsessed with things. After running away from home and arriving in New York, the first thing he does with his stolen money is buy himself a ‘street suit,’ a frock coat, dress shirts, a hat and shoes—even silver brushes and a scarf-pin. His room at the Waldorf conforms in every respect to the residence of his dreams except for a lack of cut flowers, so Paul immediately orders some. He drinks champagne, rides in carriages, dines to the accompaniment of a string orchestra.
Paul is a true sensualist, and he is rebelling against the ordinary, the drab, the everyday. Each sentence of “Paul’s Case” is filled with the sensual. Even when Paul realizes that the jig is up, and he will soon be caught and returned to the little garret room with the horrendous yellow wallpaper, surrounded by flat nasal voices, and probably never permitted to go to the theater again, Cather shares these ideas with us in the most graphic, sensual way. We feel, rather than just understand, the full weight of this sentence on Paul’s spirit—and we can’t really blame him when he decides he would rather kill himself than go back to that soul-numbing world.
This story can be found in the collection The Troll Garden.
It is available in paperback from Amazon here:
and as a Kindle download from Amazon here.
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