The short story “Paul’s Case” was written in 1906 by Willa Cather (1873-1947), a Pulitzer Prize winning American author mainly recognized for her novels of frontier life. Born in Winchester, Virginia, her family moved, when she was nine years old, to Red Cloud, Nebraska, still part of the wild frontier. Cather’s experiences growing up in the remote far west influenced her profoundly, as she absorbed both the remarkable environment and Amerindian culture. In 1894, she obtained her B.A. in English from the University of Nebraska and in 1896 she moved to Pittsburgh to work as an English teacher in local high schools and as an editor/drama critic for the Pittsburgh Leader. In 1906, she moved to New York City, where she worked as an editor for McClure’s Magazine and wrote a couple of well received novels, such as “Alexander’s Bridge,” before leaving in 1912 to write full time, eventually moving back to the prairies for literary inspiration. Her emotionally challenging works, including the Prairie trilogy, were great critical and popular successes. However, in the 1920s and ‘30s her dated style, conservative politics and failure to express opinions on important current affairs came increasingly under attack. Nevertheless, she continued to write and completed more than twenty acclaimed novels and short story collections during a long and prolific career. Cather died in New York City in 1947 a relatively unknown and reclusive character. However, today there is a renewed appreciation for her beautiful writing and singular style.
“Paul’s Case” is a fine example of Cather’s smooth, highly descriptive writing. The story features Paul, a teenage boy who despises the wretched normalcy of his life: his mundane education, his working class background and the tedious people who surround him. He is intoxicated by wealth, power and grandiosity, dreams of which allow him to escape briefly from the drudgery of his daily existence. He only feels truly alive at work as an usher in Carnegie Hall or at the theatre, basking in the blissful glow of luxury. However, Paul has no desire to actually work to effect change in his unsatisfactory life. Instead, to distinguish himself from his plebeian entourage, he recounts wild tales of his time spent with illustrious actors of the theatre, tales that eventually find their way back to their subject’s ears. His employers deem him to be an unscrupulous and unwholesome personage and fire him, condemning him to his true life. He concocts and carries out a plan to steal a thousand dollars from his father’s bank and travel by train to New York City. There he experiences, for as long as he can, the fortuned existence of the wealthy. But Paul rapidly runs out of money and when he discovers that his father and the authorities are closing in, he knows his time is up. Having already foreseen and accepted that he could never return to his previous life, he takes a carriage out into the countryside where he throws himself in front of a train, a fate he finds preferable to being returned home.
In the story, Cather simultaneously condones and condemns Paul’s attitude to life. Her admiration is demonstrated by the red carnation, the name Cordelia and the phrase “back into the immense design of things” while her criticism is apparent when she alludes to Paul’s phoniness and when she uses the phrase “the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands.”
Cather celebrates Paul’s perspective on his life with the use of the highly symbolic red carnation in three significant scenes. Early on, while Paul appears before his school’s committee of disapproving teachers, “... he wore ... a red carnation in his buttonhole ... His teachers felt this afternoon that his whole attitude was symbolized by ... his flippantly red carnation flower.” In the middle of the story, just after he arrives in the wonderment of New York City “... whole flower gardens blooming under glass cases ... violets, roses, carnations ...” And at the end of the story, in the countryside, just before he commits suicide, “The carnations in his coat were drooping with the cold, he noticed, their red glory all over ... Paul took one of the blossoms carefully from his coat and scooped a little hole in the snow, where he covered it up.” These quotes demonstrate the importance of the red carnation which represents Cather’s tacit support of Paul. First, it symbolizes Paul’s defiant refusal to conform, as the carnation is seen when he blithely faces his teachers, when he acts out his wild ambition and travels to in New York City and, at the end, just before his suicide, when he buries the carnation in the snow, preserving the dream he held so dear and that he now believes fulfilled. And second, in literature the red carnation is generally understood to represent love, passion, affection, fascination, distinction and admiration. Even more significantly it can represent pity, compassion and undying motherly love. The reader can easily attribute these various emotions to Cather, as she seeks to subtly express her empathy and approbation of Paul’s plight.
Paul and his family live on Cordelia Street. Here, Paul spends so many crushingly bland moments that he comes to hate the very name of the street. Yet Cather has chosen the name Cordelia carefully, to once again demonstrate her compassion for Paul. The name Cordelia originates from Shakespeare’s play King Lear. In the play, Lear, an aging king, decides to split his kingdom between his three daughters according to how much they profess their love for him. His two older daughters deliver elaborate, false speeches, but Cordelia is too true and honest for such fakery, choosing not to say anything, refusing to stoop to the level of her sisters. Cordelia is loved by the audience throughout the play for her honesty, integrity, purity and determination. She is a timeless example of the selfless, irreproachable hero/heroine personage.
In “Paul’s Case,” Cather wants the reader to regard Paul with the same light in which Cordelia is seen, as a classic hero, albeit misunderstood, who struggles with the world that governs him. However, Paul despises his home on Cordelia Street, even comparing his despair to drowning. “He approached it tonight with the nerveless sense of defeat, the hopeless feeling of sinking back forever into ugliness and commonness that he had always had when he came home. The moment he turned into Cordelia Street he felt the waters close above his head.” Also, “It was to be worse than jail, even; the tepid waters of Cordelia Street were to close over him finally and forever.” Though Cather uses the street name to slyly indicate her admiration for Paul, he in turn, through his loathing of Cordelia Street, may well be telling the reader that he does not want to be seen as classically heroic. He strives, throughout the narrative, to be different, not ordinary; he wants to be his own man and do things his own way, despite the consequences.
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