“Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament”
[Willa Cather image to be replaced]
Willa Cather took me by surprise.
As a voracious reader in high school I was fortunate to have an English teacher–unlike Paul, whose story is discussed below–who shared with me the fruits of her twenty-plus year collection of literature and its study: medieval, classic, contemporary, literary fiction, essays on Baroque art and passion plays, luxurious reference books with rich, bold paintings and images to help me envision the worlds I studied in my free time. I immersed myself in private study and thought life was grand.
Hence my surprise when the world I inhabited was taken by storm following the reading of a short story introduced in class–“Paul’s Case” or, as I have also seen it titled, “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament.” Paul is a dissatisfied high school student living in early-twentieth-century Pittsburgh, a boy with great passion but little direction, who sneers at his teachers and loathes his neighborhood. His father wishes for him to aspire to the life of a family man and a respectable job, but Paul longs for music, art, the culture he was born to live. He ushers at the symphony, longing to live the life of luxury experienced by the German singer but “trapped” in a week-long suspension and meant to answer for it as the story opens. Leaving school for the working world, Paul soon after makes off to New York City–a glamorous town and the height of culture–financed by stolen money and lives for several days the life he feels he is meant to live.
Cather weaves words through Paul’s experiences with such finesse that at some moments I was taken aback with the sudden realization I had somewhere transitioned to another scene or moment; and mused at how the author used this ability to reflect the manner in which persons sometimes exist from one moment to the next until the understanding dawns that an entire lifetime has gone by. She also writes with a nostalgia overflowing with deft observations of human inclinations–especially impressive for an adult female as she portrays a teenage boy discontented with his life and the failures he already sees in his father’s aspirations for him.
“Paul Case” is perhaps the first I’d read up until then in which his story–or “case,” as the teachers reference his attitude–simultaneously depicts the examination of an individual temperament. Indeed, the entire work is a literary case study wrapped in layers of guise, motifs and escape, perpetrated by protagonist and author alike, each playing their respective parts in the world’s immense design. Through our shared love of art (albeit in different forms) and dedication to its continuity in our lives (though a different means of expression), I saw how we were a bit alike, that having been a very solitary year for me. But we were also so very different and the manner in which Paul’s art influences him and winds its way through the story awed me into a number of further readings following another realization that I had acquired a new favorite author. I was later moved to put to paper my own analysis of Paul, so fascinated and disturbed as I was by this boy who in life might be quite unlikeable, but under Cather’s direction bestowed with a quality rendering him unforgettable.
Willa Cather is also the author of My Antonia and Death Comes to the Archbishop. She grew up in Nebraska, an environment that was to have a great influence upon her outlook and writing. Initially working as a journalist, she later won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours. “Paul’s Case” was published in 1905 as part of The Troll Garden.
[Carnation image to be replaced]
Paul had his secret temple. . .his bit of blue-and-white Mediterranean shore bathed in perpetual sunshine.
It perhaps would be easy to sympathize with a boy such as Paul, who is moved by “starry apple orchards” and who feels a zest come into his life at first sight of the instruments that set free his inner spirit. However, those intoxicants with which Paul is able to forget his dreadful English teacher are the same that enable him to dismiss the inconsistencies, the contradictions of both his resentments and desires.
Upon first encountering Paul, we recognize the duality of his nature: rebellious, yet sensitive to the criticisms of others. He is somehow able, at least to a certain degree, to hold the teachers under his sway; his behavior unsettles them. One instructor feels that he senses a boy who is haunted, not strong. Perhaps the teacher—significantly, the drawing-master—sees him as somewhat of an adolescent Keats, burdened with an image of “feminine” sensitivity and weakness. Another likens him to a helpless cat, tormented by a group as vindictive as their own gathering.
The flip side is, of course, that of a Paul who seemingly bounces back without exerting much effort. He runs, after all, with a light-heartedness he hopes will enrage his teachers. So self-sure is he that it takes being sat upon to calm him of his glee. The boy seems to possess a glee that might take him to the fine places he desires to be in if he applies himself. He by no means is lacking in some artistic gift, for he only needs a spark, a thrill “that ma[kes] his imagination master of his own senses, and he could make plots and pictures enough of his own.” Perhaps he misapplies himself; he denies the drive toward acting and music, yet nothing is made of writing, to which his natural abilities seem to point.
Unfortunately, Paul fails to progress beyond this stage of rebelliousness, as he is far too undisciplined and lacks the drive with which to challenge himself. Although his teachers believe him to be perverted by racy books, Paul’s sensitivity is not a result of absorbing fanciful stories, for he rarely reads at all. He is dissatisfied with his life, but his preferred alternative is to exist in a world of “glistening surfaces and basking ease.” He has the desire to partake of such a fine existence, but has “no mind for the cash-boy stage.” He would like the status of “Saint” Andrew but, as we see, desires not the martyrdom of the twelve-hour toilers.
Paul therefore escapes into the romantic world of the symphony—at least as he views this world to be. For him it is not a world that includes indolent husbands and the necessity for skillfully stretching a Mark or a dollar. Nor is it a world where limited season subscriptions or an ordinary sore throat might send one spiraling downward. Indeed, this universe is one of endless champagne bottles and mysterious dishes (brought to him, naturally) in warm, lighted buildings. This is Paul’s temple, the wishing-carpet in which will lead him to all these grandly decorated concert halls peopled only by individuals of superior taste—no English teachers—and succulent dishes to soothe his palate.
For all of its grandness, however, Paul fails to reside on his “Mediterranean shore bathed in perpetual sunshine” for the black motif running through the story, invading his world. A secreted temple with subterranean halls shades his sunbath, and we see him attempting to elude this reality throughout. It is perhaps his pretentiousness, which fools even himself, if at least, for a time: a red carnation in his buttonhole, violet water tucked away in his drawer, his self-consciousness and contrived gestures. Later these will be replaced by a parching dryness, dying flowers and the succumbing to the lurking blackness.
For the time being, however, Paul lives his days (in consolation?) with hysteria and lies. His wild eyes are suggestive, but not indicative, of drug addiction, and he utilizes his facial expressions for shock value. His gestures are also used in this manner, as we see when he bows to the assembled teachers in farewell. Given his self-consciousness we may also wonder whether his latest face-pulling and evil gestures at artwork are designed for this purpose as well.
Running throughout “Paul’s Case” also is a flower motif. Following the surface assumption that the youngster, in his fancies, equates flowers perhaps with his romantic bent, we are given to realise that these delicate beings are very much Paul himself. As his bow is a repetition of the carnation cheekily perched upon his coat, the various flowers are symbolic of Paul in separate stages, and not only of his frailty.
Like the flowers in the shop window bravely defying fierce winter, Paul looks out from his eighth-floor window into a raging snowstorm. As he resides in the hotel by way of stolen funds, by artificial means, so too do the flowers in the park. Violets, roses, carnations, lilies-of-the-valley, all behind the glass, “blossom thus unnaturally in the snow.” Later, dressed for supper, the floral images are reflected: actual flowers, many-colored wine glasses, the rosy tinge of his champagne.
Although Paul attempts to balance himself equally in the opposing elements of his world, the sunbath of the Mediterranean blinds him, as did the lovely German soloist, to any possible defects. On the other hand, perhaps he spends too much time in the dankness of his secret temple, his subterranean paradise, the darkness of which is not conducive to the growth of a delicate flower. Even memories of the sunny sands were, after a time, of no use. These become overtaken by memories he wishes to be rid of, memories that repulse him and “f[all] upon him like a weight of black water.” Like the black thing in the corner, which threatens him at every turn, the memories come rushing at him as a tidal wave, crushing him with their blackness and superior strength.
“The thing was winding itself up. . . .” The whole world is the street he hates so, containing the cooking smells, and horrible yellow wallpaper; there seems no escaping it, and to only this “reality” has Paul now resigned himself. As he makes his way to his final destination, the scenery reflects Paul’s own inner landscape: dead grass and dried weeds are scattered about, and even the once-lively, gleefully scandalous red carnation in the boy’s coat clings to the button with what little life it has left.
Once more, the beautiful array of flowers in the park is as Paul. From the safety of their respective protective devices do Paul and the arrangement of flowers mock the world that threatened each of them. Now he subjects the carnations a black fate; by covering them with snow, he smothers them with the darkness he himself has feared for so long. As they have parallel existences in life, so too will flowers in death, again reclaiming their space in the earth, once more becoming part of “the immense design of things.”
This post previously appeared in 2014 at the blog’s alternative location.