Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament
by Willa Cather
Shmoop is no stranger to troubled teens. Check it out:
Romeo and Juliet (trouble: forbidden love); The Outsiders's Ponyboy (trouble: parents dead, civil war at school, running from the law); Speak's Melinda Sordino (trouble: raped by a classmate); Anne Frank (problem: hiding from Nazis in a basement) and The Book Thief's Liesel Meminger (problem: hiding someone from Nazis in her basement); Harry Potter in that fifth book (trouble: over-reliance on caps-lock); Twilight's Bella Swan (trouble: vampire boyfriend).
When we first meet art-loving, money-obsessed teenager Paul, he's in big trouble. He's been suspended from Pittsburgh High and is at his suspension hearing. The trouble gets worse by the end of the story, when he's absconded with $3000 of his company's money to finance a little jaunt in New York City.
Fine, so that's the trouble he's in. But it's a lot less clear what he's troubled by. Yeah, his teachers aren't too nice, and his dad seems like a bit of an authoritarian, but those are hardly worth ending your life over. Figuring out what exactly is wrong with Paul is kind of the point of the story. It's the mystery at the heart of "Paul's Case."
So let's gather some clues.
His sisters. Paul lives at home with his father (his mother died when he was a baby) and an undisclosed number of sisters. How many sisters? Unclear. They're obviously not a big part of Paul's life. They might as well be his shallow and boring neighbors as his nearest and dearest relations.
Sure, their conversation doesn't seem particularly thrilling, all about "how many shirt-waists they had made in the last week, and how many waffles some one had eaten at the last church supper." The highlight of their week seems to be that sometimes they make lemonade in a "red glass pitcher."
But they must have problems too, and hopes and dreams just like Paul. What we can learn from the way Paul thinks about his sisters is that he doesn't care much about his family—that he's maybe got some core selfishness about him that helps explain why he doesn't think it's a big deal to steal $3000 from his employers.
His father. Does this sound familiar? Paul comes home late. Paul's father waits up and interrogates him about where he's been and what he's been doing. Paul begins to dread coming home and spends more time at the theater. Paul's dad yells at him about not acting like a normal kid. Paul stays away from home even more.
Yeah, it's a vicious circle. Plus, father and son are basically polar opposites. They have entirely different values, expectations, and goals. They'd be natural foils, except that the relationship is all one-sided, and Paul's father is on the good side—the side with all the power.
Dear old dad may be feeling some anxiety about Paul, but he's probably not afraid of his own kid. Paul is the powerless one, here. He's the one terrified of coming home or being at home. He's the one hiding in the wet basement imagining his father wanting him dead. So, it's not too surprising that Paul ends up trying to seize some power for himself.
Here's another problem with Paul's dad. If you were being nice, you'd call him frugal; on a bad day, you'd go all out with "stingy." Paul's dad is obviously trying to build a fortune by working hard and saving. This is all honorable and stuff, but poor Paul's clothes don't even fit him. We learn almost right away that "his clothes were a trifle outgrown, and the tan velvet on the collar of his overcoat was frayed and worn" (1.1). Even an ordinary boy would probably want to have some clothes that fit.
But the major thing here is that, where Paul's dad is trying to move up in the world through saving, Paul is essentially dishonest. When he's sitting in the Waldorf's dining room, he can barely believe that "there were honest men in the world at all." You could say that he even takes the easy way out by killing himself rather than facing up to his crime.
Over all, we have to say that the picture we're building of Paul is pretty unflattering. Selfish, lazy, and dishonest: no wonder his teachers don't like him.
Before he gets to the Big Apple, none of Paul's clothes fit him, not his "outgrown" school clothes or his usher uniform, which only "approached fitting."
Listen up, Shmoopers: nothing good ever comes of a literary character whose clothes don't fit right.
Paul is incredibly self-conscious about all this. Until he's wearing the fancy clothes he buys himself on his New York shopping spree, he's uncomfortable in his own skin. It's as though his actual skin doesn't fit him until his clothes do: "he was not entirely rid of his nervous misgivings, of his forced aggressiveness, of the imperative desire to show himself different from his surroundings."
Totally shallow, right? Well, maybe, but it honesty doesn't sound all that shallow to want comfortable clothes that fit, that we've picked out for ourselves. Okay, so Paul happens to want bespoke linen; we'd be happy with a shirt from H&M that didn't fall apart after one wash. It's still the same idea.
Anyway, after checking out Paul's home life, we were feeling pretty down on him—but checking out his clothes makes us start to feel a little sorry for him.
Paul is not exactly obvious football star material, but Cather spends a lot of time describing his appearance anyway. He is:
tall for his age and very thin, with high, cramped shoulders and a narrow chest. His eyes were remarkable for a certain hysterical brilliancy and he continually used them in a conscious, theatrical sort of way, peculiarly offensive in a boy. The pupils were abnormally large, as though he were addicted to belladonna, but there was a glassy glitter about them which that drug does not produce. (1.2)
So. He's not athletic; he might have been sick as a child (narrow chest is a bit of a giveaway there); but the main thing about him is that there's something wrong with his eyes. It's not exactly clear what, though. They're too bright, and it seems like maybe he rolls them a lot? Or that he uses them to make a point? Either way, they are definitely not meeting accepted standards of masculinity.
And neither is his smile. Paul keeps smiling even when he's getting a tongue-lashing (in his suspension hearing) and even when he's feeling paranoid, as this passage suggests:
Paul was always smiling, always glancing about him, seeming to feel that people might be watching him and trying to detect something. This conscious expression, since it was as far as possible from boyish mirthfulness, was usually attributed to insolence or "smartness." (1.4)
Again, what Cather seems to be emphasizing here is that Paul is different. His smile doesn't fit what people expect a Pittsburgh boy's smile to look like, and they kind of hate it.
This constant chafing between Paul's natural state and people's expectations is pretty stressful. Check out the drawing-master's almost (but not quite) sympathetic observation:
One warm afternoon the boy had gone to sleep at his drawing-board, and his master had noted with amazement what a white, blue-veined face it was; drawn and wrinkled like an old man's about the eyes, the lips twitching even in his sleep, and stiff with a nervous tension that drew them back from his teeth. (1.9)
First, it's no wonder Paul's falling asleep at school, given his nocturnal theater habits. But more important, what we've got here is a very stressed out dude. Even in sleep, Paul's body is telling all sorts of stories about him. He's nervous, he's stiff, he's uncomfortable, he's paranoid, and he's defensive. In short, he's a ticking time bomb.
So maybe you're not feeling too sympathetic toward Paul, but he does seem to get along well enough with kids at school. We don't hear about him being bullied or attacked, although we can guess that his peers get fed up with his wild stories about traveling to "Naples, to Venice, to Egypt." The main things is that he
could not bear to have the other pupils think, for a moment, that he took these people seriously; he must convey to them that he considered it all trivial, and was there only by way of a jest, anyway. (1.33)
Paul actually seems to care about the other kids and what they think, and we never hear him complain about them the way he rags on his father, sisters, and neighbors. In fact, Paul seems to be kind of a popular guy.
And, you know what? This is weird, and it makes Paul's case even tougher to crack. It would be easier to understand him if he were alienated not just from the adults in his life, but also from his peers.
Secrets and Lies
We've checked out Paul's home life, appearance, clothing, and friends, and we've learned that he's selfish, lazy, and dishonest; but also uncomfortable, nervous, and—surprisingly—relatively popular with his peers. This gives us a lot of insight into his character, but it doesn't really help us figure out why his life ends so tragically.
So it seems like there must be more, some secret that haunts Paul and makes him so nervous and paranoid. Near the end of the story, we even learn that he's had suicide on his mind for a while, and that he bought a gun on his first day in New York. But the story doesn't give us much help in figuring out what that secret is:
The only thing that at all surprised him was his own courage—for he realized well enough that he had always been tormented by fear, a sort of apprehensive dread that, of late years, as the meshes of the lies he had told closed about him, had been pulling the muscles of his body tighter and tighter. Until now, he could not remember the time when he had not been dreading something. Even when he was a little boy, it was always there—behind him, or before, or on either side. There had always been the shadowed corner, the dark place into which he dared not look, but from which something seemed always to be watching him—and Paul had done things that were not pretty to watch, he knew. (2.42)
Whatever it is, it's been with Paul a long time, and seems to come from both inside and outside of himself. It also seems intimately connected with his need to lie, both to himself and others. Paul hides the truth from this something, and at the same time, this something seems to be a part of Paul's truth.
The weirdest thing about this passage is that Paul admits to doing things that "aren't pretty to watch." Well, that's awfully vague. Maybe they're things that really would shock us (and the people in Paul's life), or maybe Paul's depression and paranoia is leading him to exaggerate. What's important is that Paul's secrets (whatever they are) are pushing him to despair.
Whatever it is, Paul's hijinks in New York give him the courage to face it. As Paul's fantasy vacation nears its end, we find out that
somehow he was not afraid of anything, was absolutely calm; perhaps because he had looked into the dark corner at last and knew. It was bad enough, what he saw there, but somehow not so bad as his long fear of it had been. (2.62)
Paul claims not to be afraid, but he's about to kill himself. So, what is it that he sees that he's supposedly not afraid of anymore but that is so bad he'd rather die than face it?
Paul's Sexual Orientation
You don't have to decide that Paul's deep, dark secret is his sexuality, but it sure seems like Cather is pushing us in that direction, albeit in a pretty stereotypical way. She emphasizes that his eyebrows, eyes, and smile are atypical; she drops in allusions to violet cologne water and Paul's fear of rats; she makes him seem disgusted by heterosexual relationships; and she makes a sly reference to the "vocation" that actor Charley Edwards and Paul supposedly share.
Oh, and there's the whole "red carnation" thing. See, Oscar Wilde had made wearing a green carnation practically synonymous with being gay—and Cather definitely knew all about Oscar Wilde's trials for "gross indecency."
Obviously, we don't want to make assumptions here. But remember that 1905 was hardly a banner year in the gay liberation movement. Homosexuality had only recently been described as a medical category of sexuality (even though, of course, people had been engaging in same-sex relationships since, oh, the beginning of time). In fact, the word "homosexual" was only popularized in the 1880s. And it's also worth pointing out that Willa Cather herself is widely assumed to have been romantically involved with women.
So, the "Paul-is-gay" theory seems pretty strong from where we're standing. But it's certainly not the only possibility. Maybe Paul has himself a little problem with masturbation, which was a big no-no until about the middle of the twentieth century. Doctors insisted that masturbation could cause all sorts of health problems, including—wait for it—nervousness, depression, and premature aging. Or—climbing on down the ladder of plausible scenarios—maybe he's had an unwanted sexual experience, like one of those actors he's always hanging around got a little too friendly.
In any case, most people assume that Paul's secret has something to do with sex, and Shmoop thinks that's the most likely scenario. But it doesn't have to be. Why do we assume Paul's fear, shame, and secrets have anything to do with sex and sexuality in the first place? Are there other possibilities? Is Paul just insane? Is he possessed by the devil? Does he torture kittens?