It's too bad Willa Cather never finished her M.D., because Paul really needs a doctor. The story of a teenage theater-addict's downward spiral into madness, depression, and—spoiler alert—suicide, "Paul's Case" puts later good-kid-gone-bad narratives to shame.
Teenage rebellion? Check. Multiple suspensions and expulsions? Check. The bad influence kid? Check. Possibly illicit sexual behavior? Check, check, and check. (Totally G-rated, though, since this story was published in 1905.)
This whole depressing story takes place in either Pittsburgh or New York around the turn of the twentieth century, right at or after the end of what historians like to call the Gilded Age. Folks like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt—we're pretty sure you've heard these names—made a boatload of money and spent it in pretty spectacular ways. This is the era that gave us Worth ball gowns and the Biltmore—and also some human labor atrocities.
Enter Paul. Paul is emphatically not the heir of a wealthy industrialist family. He's not much of anybody, really. To all appearances, he's a pretty average kid from an average family in an average city. And this is killing him. You know how you used to pretend that you were secretly a princess or a prince or whatever? And that someday your real family would come and you'd jet off to some fabulous new life?
Yeah, Paul never really grew out of that. He is determined to live large, but he doesn't want to do it the old-fashioned way, through hard work and brown-nosing your boss. He's got other plans.
So, it doesn't end well. We know that already. And it's tempting to roll your eyes at Paul, or maybe give him a good kick in the pants. But the thing is, you can maybe think of Paul as a classically American character: a pioneer.
See, Cather is probably most famous for her novel My Ántonia (1918) and others set on the Nebraska frontier. These stories are all about pioneers crossing boundaries and laying new ground in the wide-open world of the American frontier. Sounds pretty different from "Paul's Case."
But like those pioneers, Paul wants a better life for himself, even if the life he's trying to escape—steady job, nice house, cute family—doesn't sound too bad to must of us. He's a dreamer. And sometimes, as we find out at the end of the story (and as any pioneer could tell you), life is a little hard on dreamers.
Maybe you're the arty kid who can't wait (or couldn't wait) to get to college to find people who actually understand you. Maybe you're the too-cool-for-school, prom-court-winning, awesome-party-throwing poster boy for a Colgate commercial. Maybe you can't wait to get out of Pittsburgh; maybe you grew up in the kind of Manhattan penthouse that Paul fetishizes.
Doesn't matter. The point of "Paul's Case" is that it's totally worth trying to understand other people, if you really don't get them at all. We're not saying that all Paul wants is someone to understand him, but that understanding him might just help save you from the living death of Cordelia Street.
After all, if you really want to end up like the guy Paul's dad wants him to copy, the guy with the "ruddy complexion," "compressed, red mouth," and "faded, near-sighted eyes"? Do you really want to sit around talking about how your boss jets around the Mediterranean in a totally sweet yacht?
Dude, of course not. No one wants that. You want to have your own sweet yacht and maybe some Lasik while you're at it.
Well, Willa Cather isn't saying that you should follow Paul's example. But maybe there's a happy medium between Paul's grisly end and the less grisly but no more deadly lives of the Cordelia Street burghers—or an middle-management office drone. Maybe, Cather seems to be saying, we should all be a little more like Paul.
Just not too much like him.