Paul’s Case: A Struggle in Self-Identity. Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case,” is filled with both symbolism and hidden meaning. Inferences can be made regarding Paul’s sexuality, apparent learning disabilities, abusive father, and motherless household. While there are countless things that go unspoken in the story, a theme of struggling to find one’s self-identity is prevalent throughout. Cather explores the struggle between individuality and conformity, going into further analysis by showing how Paul’s search for individuality leads not only to his isolation but subsequent depression and eventual suicide.
Set in Pittsburghin the early 1900s, the story depicts the dull and conformist overtones the Industrial Revolution and steel industry cast over the city. Carnegie had recently created his steel empire, employing most of the town in the steel mills to work long hours at monotonous jobs. Due to the long working hours combined with low wages, there was little time or money for cultural activities to develop. Despite these challenges, Carnegie was also a philanthropist and established many artistic venues with his wealth; (Hicks)Carnegie Hall being one of prevalence in the story and most well known today.
Although these activities were generally only available for the social elite, their presence alone created aspirations and imagination material for the working class. Paul’s infatuation with this higher class and the privileges afforded to them was a major influence on his quest to find individuality. Paul’s distaste for conformity is shown throughout the story. It is seen in his observations of people and their routines, though primarily his distain is most overtly displayed through his hate for his home.
Cordelia Streetis characterized as conformist in nature as all the houses and their residents are identical. Paul openly critiques the mundane nature of his home and his feeling of entrapment within it. “Paul never went up Cordelia Street without a shudder of loathing…he approached it to-night with the nerveless sense of defeat, the hopeless feeling of sinking back forever into ugliness and commonness that he has always had when he came home. ” (Cather, 342) Later, when in New Yorkand fearing the reprimands of his actions, Paul reminds himself of the dreary life that awaits him at home. It was worse than jail, even; the tepid waters of Cordelia Streetwere to close over him finally and forever. The grey monotony stretched before him in hopeless, unrelieved years. ” (Cather, 352) Cordelia Streetseems to be Cather’s way of constantly reminding us of the conformity Paul disliked. It is always described as dull and artless, where the theater life Paul sought after was vivid with color and imagination. Paul’s love for the arts was Cather’s way of trying to show his quest for individuality. His love for the arts is obsessive and it is displayed often throughout the story.
Cather writes, “It was not that symphonies, as such, meant anything in particular to Paul, but the first sigh of the instruments seemed to free some hilarious and potent spirit within him; something that struggled there like the Genius in the bottle found by the Arab fisherman. ”(Cather, 340) For a while, we are led to believe that Paul is seeking his identity in the life of the arts. We quickly realize that this is also not the case, and that his desire to be an artist would be another form of conformity, just to a different structure.
It becomes increasingly clear that Paul doesn’t know what he wants; “He had no desire to become an actor, any more than he had to become a musician…. what he wanted was to see, to be in the atmosphere, float on the wave of it, to be carried out, blue league after blue league, away from everything. ” (Cather 345-346) There is also further evidence that Paul does not fit in with the theater group as they describe his imagination and inventions as a “bad case. ” (Cather 346) Paul is a typical confused teenager, unaware of what he wants in life.
He enjoys the arts, but not because he aspires to be an artist, but because it provides him with an escape from the mundane life he feels imprisons him. The only apparent desire of Paul’s is to live in a fantasy world; one dominated by wealth and material possessions but he has no intentions of working hard to get there. This is evidenced by his enjoyment of the stories recounted on the stoop of his home: “Yet he rather liked to hear these legends of the iron kings … these stories of palaces in Venice, yachts on the Mediterranean, and high play at Monte Carlo appealed to his fancy….. hough he had no mind for the cash-boy stage. ” (Cather 344) Paul used the theater and arts as an escape from the conformity of Cordelia Streethowever he also avoided the conformity of the elite class that led to the riches allowing for the extravagant lifestyle he desired. Paul is a young man seeking attention and individuality. He finds escape from his harsh reality in the fantasies of the arts and upper class but his fantasies overwhelm his perceptions of life and his place in it.
Even though it is clear that Paul envies the life of the affluent and all their material possessions, his viewof this life is focused only on the luxuries monies afford and none of the effort involved achieving this status. While he feels comfortable in his surroundings in New York: “But only for a moment; these were his own people, he told himself. ” (Cather, 350) he takes comfort in the extravagance of his surroundings and does not involve himself at all in the daily routines of these people. It is only through his imagination that he finds individuality; “rid…of the imperative desire to show himself different from his surroundings.
He felt now that his surroundings explained him. ” (Cather, 350) Paul’s constant search for individuality in an inherently conformist environment forces him to live in an isolated world of fantasy. When his fantasy is forced to end from lack of money, Paul is so fearful of returning to his mundane existence that he chooses death over all his other options. Works Cited Cather, Willa “Paul’s Case A Study in Temperament. ” American LiteratureVolume 2. New York: Penguin Academics-Pearson Education, 2004.