Published in McClure’s, “Paul’s Case” was included in Willa Cather’s first collection, The Troll Garden (1905), a volume of seven stories about artists. “Paul’s Case” is Cather’s most anthologized story and one of the few she allowed to be reprinted in her lifetime, judging it representative of her best work. Of all her stories, it continues to prompt the most critical commentary.
The story’s protagonist, Paul, is a Pittsburgh high school student who adopts the pose of an aesthete to express his alienation from the middle-class neighborhood where he lives with his father and sisters. Paul resents the cloying Christian dogma and the religion of material success that provide the structure for daily life on Cordelia Street. Cather presents subtly scathing descriptions of the unimaginative but responsible people—especially Paul’s father and schoolteachers—who try to draw him into the daily routines of middle-class conformity. To maintain a defiant distance, Paul tells elaborate lies about his world travels and his affiliations with performers at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall, where he works as an usher in the evenings. When viewing art or hearing music, he enters a trancelike state he resents leaving. In desperation, he steals money from an employer, goes to New York City, and spends several decadent days at the Waldorf Hotel; in a state of excited fantasy, he fulfills all his sensuous desires not for art but for fine clothes, food, wine, and flowers. Knowing his father is on his way to retrieve him, he leaves the Waldorf in a state of deep depression, takes a cab to the outskirts of town, and throws himself in front of a train. His last thoughts are of romantic foreign vistas.
Cather’s story is densely patterned. A number of motifs, such as sleep and drunkenness, provide unity among successive scenes. The story’s dual perspective allows readers to identify with Paul’s alienation in a drab middle-class community and to enter his fantastic dream world but also to engage in critical analysis of his behavior. As its title indicates, the story is a psychological study of a personality type. Some readers have suggested that Paul is an example of the weakwilled person for whom art can become a selfish escape. Others see the story as a contrast between real artists and those who strike bohemian poses, or a criticism of the “art for art’s sake” movement of the 1890s. Edward W. Pitcher argues that Paul is Cather’s creation of the Faustian temperament as it had evolved in music and literature by the turn of the century. Another analysis suggests that Paul is a homosexual living in a representative American community whose members are unprepared to accept his “feminine” desires or his sexual orientation. The critic Eve Sedgwick sees in the story the imprint of Cather’s conflicts with her own lesbianism. As a commentary on American capitalism, the story can be read as a tragic study of an imaginative boy born into an economy in which art is a leisure commodity for the upper class.
Cather, Willa. Willa Cather’s Collected Short Fiction, 1892– 1912. Edited by Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.
Pitcher, Edward W. “Willa Cather’s ‘Paul’s Case’ and the Faustian Temperament.” Studies in Short Fiction 28 (1991): 543–552.
Rubin, Larry. “The Homosexual Motif in Willa Cather’s ‘Paul’s Case.’ ” Studies in Short Fiction (Spring 1975): 127–131.
Sedgwick, Eve. “Across Gender, across Sexuality: Willa Cather and Others.” South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989): 53–72.