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Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament

Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament


by Willa Cather

Analysis: What's Up With the Title?

Nancy Drew and the Case of the Old Clock Tower. He's got a bad case of the flu. "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria." Suzy's got a case on Timmy. Case study. "Flowers … in glass cases" (2.64).

Sit tight, Shmoopers, because we've got a lot to work with here.

A Case of Nerves

So, the most obvious clue (LOL) to how to read this "case" is the subtitle: "A Study in Temperament." This subtitle dumps us pretty explicitly in the realm of psychological case studies, like the super-famous "Dora: Fragment of an Analysis a Case of Hysteria" published in 1905 by everyone's favorite cigar-smoking psychoanalyst, Dr. Sigmund Freud.

Also published in 1905: "Paul's Case."

Coincidence? Yeah, sure, maybe. But it also points out that people at the beginning of the twentieth century were obsessed with figuring out how to understand the motivations behind people's behaviors. This is the era that brought us neurosis, transference, and the Oedipus complex, after all.

With the title "Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament," Cather is saying not only that this is a pretty interesting dude (even if he's also pretty annoying), but also that we can use this "study" to understand people like Paul. Just like Freud's Dora became the typical example of a hysterical woman, we can take Paul to be the typical example of an arty emo kid.

A Case for the Police

Okay, but that's not all. "Case" also has pretty strong associations with the kind of cases that need to be solved—you know, mysteries. And the big mystery of Paul is: What the Shmoop made him this way? Is he the victim of his oppressive social atmosphere? Or is he prey to some inward genetic trait, like depression?

The cool thing about combining the psychological case study with the detective case story is that Cather gives us the details of the case and essentially implies that we're supposed to be figuring out why he threw himself under a train. Using the facts at hand—and we definitely don't have all the facts—we have to figure out what in the world would make some ordinary kid from Pittsburgh genuinely, truly believe that he belongs in a Manhattan penthouse.

A Case for Paul

"Whole flower gardens blooming under glass cases" (1.47) and "flowers in glass cases" (2.64): Guess who else is like a flower (remember that "red carnation" [1.1]) behind a glass case?

Gee, let us think. Um, Paul?

So, the "case" has at least two meanings, here. For one, it's like a box that Paul is in. He feels totally constricted by his ordinary, everyday life, the "tepid waters of Cordelia Street" that are about to drown him (2.57).

But "case," especially of the glass variety, could also refer to the story itself. The story is a like a glass case making Paul look all pretty for us to examine. Yeah, a little creepy.

One thing is that, when Cather republished the story fifteen years after its 1905 appearance in McClure's Magazine, she took out the subtitle and the two times that "glass case" appears in reference to flowers. The first time, she changed it to "glass windows" (1.47); the second time, "show windows" (2.64).

So, are we supposed to think that Cather made these revisions to deemphasize the connection between the title and the glass cases? Is the more important use of the word the "not a usual case" (1.3) and "a bad case" (1.36) that she left in?

Or is it possible that a more mature writer thought, you know, maybe I'm being a little heavy handed with the symbolism?

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