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Born to the Purple: Symbolism in Willa Cather's "Paul's Case" (Part 2)

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

oppulence in waldorf astoria

The best example of Cather’s understanding of, and compassion for, Paul is found as he dies at the end of the narrative, “...and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.” This simple, thought provoking phrase clearly helps the reader appreciate Cather’s feeling towards Paul, which until that point has been split between approval and condemnation. In the end, it may well be that the destructive values of society and capitalism under which he has struggled are more at fault than Paul himself. During the story Paul reflects on the beast that is capitalism and the miserable grip it has on him: “There it was, what he wanted ... tangibly before him ... Paul wondered whether he were destined always to shiver in the black night outside, looking up at it.” When, during his debauchery in New York City, Paul finally runs out of money, his condemnation of capitalism is clearly expressed: “He had not a hundred dollars left; and he knew now, more than ever, that money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted.”

Paul can never possess the grandiosity he craves, as money, or the lack thereof, will always stand as an insurmountable obstacle in his path. In the final, exquisite sentence of the story, Cather shows by “the immense design of things” that she concurs with Paul’s conclusion. She asserts that his downfall was already set up by the way society operates, that the immense design of things would never allow him to fulfill his dreams. He was born into the working class and there he was destined to stay and, in fact, die. Cather is sympathetic towards Paul’s hopeless fight against the status quo, condemning capitalism for dooming him from the outset.

Waldorf hotel

Although Cather is at times a proponent of Paul’s approach to life, she is also critical of his phoniness and of his disregard towards activities which society considers necessary to a life of luxury: learning in school, “...he must convey to them that he considered it all trivial, and was there only by way of a jest, anyway.” and working hard. Paul finds the normal route to a better life, through education and application, repulsive. “... business men of moderate means ... all of whom were as exactly alike as their homes, and of a piece with the monotony in which they lived...” At first he simply tries to present himself as something he is not, so that others would see him as superior “...his classmates, telling them the most incredible stories of his familiarity with these people (the theatre actors)...” When this fails disastrously, he changes tack, deciding to bypass the steps of learning and hard work with the theft of his father’s money, so as to become rich immediately, with no effort, a method which fits perfectly with his general arrogance and laziness. Once he has completed this despicable crime, his phoniness is accentuated. He is no longer just telling wild stories that he himself knows are lies, he is living a lie. As he does, he becomes totally delusional, and begins to believe that he was born rich, that he deserves to be rich and that he has always been rich.

He doubted the reality of his past. Had he ever known a place called Cordelia Street [...] where fagged-looking businessmen got on the early car [...] had he not always been thus, had he not sat here night after night [...] He rather thought he had [...] Was he not, after all, one of those fortunate beings born to the purple, was he not still himself and in his own place?           (Cather 51,58)

Cather rewards Paul’s lack of ambition and posturing by ending his spree in New York City after just a few days.  In so doing, she implies that Paul’s brief encounter with wealth can never be justified by the way he obtained it: a dishonourable theft.

adriatic sea
 

Cather is critical of Paul at several points in the story and is at her most disapproving at the culmination of the narrative, as he jumps in front of the train: “As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone. There flashed through his brain, clearer than ever before, the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands.” Upon embarking on his trip to New York City, Paul knows that he would never be able to return home or be jailed. He had already contemplated, and accepted, the possibility of suicide after his fun, having purchased a revolver on the first day. When he learns that his father is pursuing him, he confronts his fear of the looming unknown of death, which he describes as “the dark corner”, and throws himself in front of a speeding train, instead of shooting himself.

algerian sands

Paul's life-long desire for wealth and power having been satiated by his adventure in New York City, he was completely composed and ready to end, with almost ceremonial style, his pointless existence. Cather, so often supportive of Paul’s disposition and circumstances, clearly disapproves of his fatalism.  She condemns him for giving his life away so easily, reminding him, in the last conscious moment before he dies, of the magnitude of what he has given up, the vivid blue water of the Adriatic and the bright yellow sand of Algeria. He realizes, if briefly, the stupidity and haste of his final act and fills with regret at missing such glories. It is only at his death that Paul sees that his life, drab and boring as it was, was never worth sacrificing, for behind the blandness a world of previously unimagined beauty awaited him.

In the story “Paul’s Case”, Paul struggles with the society in which he lives largely because of his eccentric, unrealistic attitude towards life. In a rich, evocative recounting, layered with symbols and allusions, the author both condones and condemns the character of Paul. Remarkably, Cather presents such an even-handed, finely balanced portrait of Paul that the reader is left quite unsure as to whether ultimately she condones or condemns him. Her ambivalence is such that the reader is left to conclude that perhaps both sentiments hold equal weight when it comes to Paul.

1930s train

for part 1, please see

 http://www.infobarrel.com/Born_to_the_Purple_Symbolism_in_Willa_Cathers_Pauls_Case_Part_1

 

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