The nineteenth century was the time when America built itself up from a rowdy collection of colonies with a thirst for independence into one of the most industrious nations in the world. Pittsburgh, PA was at the center of that as a titan of the steel industry during the time Willa Cather lived here and when she wrote Paul’s Case. While the exact definition of “The American Dream” has changed throughout the decades, the core of that dream in all forms boils down to the desire to be free. Whether the dream is to be a pioneer, an entrepreneur, or simply a home-owner with a family, they are all expressions of one’s freedom. The titular character of this story is in possession of those same dreams and at the beginning of the story is consumed by his desire for a better life than the one he currently leads.
While the story begins with Paul in front of a disciplinary board at his high school, the first glimpse we get of the real Paul is after this hearing when he heads into work at Carnegie Music Hall as an usher. “It was at the theatre and at Carnegie Hall that Paul really lived; the rest was but a sleep and forgetting” (p. 113). Much like a drug, Paul’s exposure to the popular culture of the day – paintings, symphonies, and operas – numbed him to the point where he could bear his normal everyday existence on Cordelia Street.
At the disciplinary hearing, we could take away from that scene that Paul is nonplussed and does not fear authority. The main complaint of the faculty was his “hysterically defiant manner” (p. 107) and much is made of the red carnation he wears in his lapel. Yet, I do not think this is the case. It is this cultural opiate that awaits him nightly that is responsible for his cool and calm in the hearing. He didn’t much care what happened in that meeting, so long as he still surrounded by song, stagecraft, and Charley Edwards.
It could easily be argued that Paul is perhaps a latent homosexual, given his lack if interest in girls, his affection for Charley, and the vague wording of his encounter with the San Francisco boy on page 118. If forced to pick between heterosexual and homosexual to describe Paul, the latter would seem more apropos given what the author shows us about the character. Yet, perhaps he is neither. Paul is disinterested in much of everything excluding the theater. In Charley’s dressing room, the way in which Cather describes their relationship does have some homoerotic undertones. Yet, what’s truly important is that Charley “recognize[s] in Paul something akin to what churchmen term ‘vocation’” (p. 113). Charley sees something special in Paul and feels that he was born to be in the world of theater, whereas at home this world is looked down upon by his family, specifically his father.
The most important moment in the story when it comes to the psychology of Paul is when his father takes him out of school and puts him to work. Yet, it is not his removal from school that matters to Paul. He hated it there and most likely wanted to abandon his studies sooner. Being forced to leave his position as an usher not only inspired his flight from Pittsburgh to New York City, but also crushed his spirit, his very will to live. American readers are used to their protagonists not succeeding in their endeavors, but what is remarkable about this story is that Paul does not even possess a dream, let alone the willpower required to face adversity to achieve one.
His problems are easily relatable. He succumbs to temptation to steal the money from Denny & Carlson and is then caught. Rather than face the music – with only his father, as the paper reports that the firm is not going to prosecute (p. 119) – he seemingly decides to end his life. “[H]e knew now, more than ever, that money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted” (p, 120) and it seems as if it is here that Paul decides to end his life. And had he merely toddled off to the tracks and launched himself in front of that train, there would be little room for doubt. Only, Paul already has a gun. The train only becomes an option when Paul decides that the gun does not provide a dramatic enough exit for such a tragic character.
The entire trip to New York is Paul’s attempt to turn his entire world into the theater. He has no desire to perform himself. He prefers to be a spectator surrounded by luxury, with little regard to whether he belonged there or not. He possesses no desire, no drive to achieve. What he loathes that stands between him and money is working for it. “He liked to hear these legends of the iron kings, that were told and retold on Sundays and Holidays…these stories appealed to his fancy, and he was interested in the triumphs of these cash boys who had become famous, though he had no mind for the cash-boy stage” (p. 113). Paul was a boy in limbo who went through life with disdain and loathing, save for the few blissful hours he would get to spend in the company of opulence.
So when his teachers and his father decided that he had been “perverted by garish fiction” they took away the one true joy that he had in an otherwise ugly life (pp. 114-115). Paul had high hopes to travel the world, but once this happened he saw his time as limited. “[W]hen they had taken away his bone, the whole thing was virtually determined” (p. 116]. The question becomes then, what exactly does Cather mean by “the whole thing?” Paul has such a disdain for these industries whose champions’ stories he so admired, that he has absolutely no qualms about stealing from them. Charley Edwards and he had daydreamed about how his trip to New York (pp. 115-116). Yet, I think we can infer that Paul had decided to do away with himself, if only because Paul is not a hopeful character.
Throughout the story the author mentions flowers, particularly red carnations and Paul’s deep affection for them. Perhaps this is because Paul sees himself as something of a flower: a beautiful, fragile thing that springs forth from dirt and when clipped, when freed from those roots, slowly begins to die. Paul is “clipped” when he is shut out of the theater. He is taken by the flowers in Central Park, encased in glass and surrounded by snow, because they are not supposed to be there just like he isn’t supposed to be in New York. It is perhaps this contradiction – vibrant flowers in the dead of winter – that strikes him so deeply since “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” (p. 113). Finally, as the story draws to a close, Paul reflects on both those flowers from the park and the carnation in his coat, both of which were withered, ugly, and dead. Paul’s burial of the carnation is his way of burying himself.
Paul was freed when he was closed out of the theater, but rather than making his way to New York to be an usher on Broadway, he goes to New York to continue to spectate. Paul was probably many things to Willa Cather and perhaps one of those was a warning about the desire for luxury without earning it through education and hard work. Throughout the story, Paul is a hopeless creature that only finds happiness in a world of pretend. When that is taken away from him, he merely gives up. His trip to New York is an escape from the garden that contains his roots and when he gets there, he encases himself in glass, shying away from contact with others, to safely regard others while he himself blends into the scenery, like so many flowers.
Gioia, Dana, and R.S. Gwynn. The Art of the Short Story. First. New York City, Boston, et. al.: Pearson Longman, 2006. Print.