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Character Analysis of Paul's Case by Willa Cather

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In “Paul’s Case,” by Willa Cather, a young man struggles to conform to society’s ideals as he live his daily life. Paul, the young man, treats everyone he meets daily with an aloof attitude. Paul only cares about his job as an usher at Carnegie Hall. He is enchanted with the extravagant atmosphere of the people who perform there and the people who attend the shows. He laments his own poorer circumstances and remains disconnected from his family and school. Due to his apathy to real life, his father makes him quit his job at the performance hall and instead gets Paul a job as an errand boy at firm he (the father) works at. Dissatisfied with the situation, Paul steals money he was supposed to deposit in the bank for the firm and escapes to New York. Once he arrived, Paul squanders the money, living the sparkling lifestyle he always wanted. However before long, he finds out that his crime has been reported in the newspapers and that his father is coming for him. Deciding he would rather die than go back to his bland life, Paul jumps in front of an oncoming train and commits suicide. Through “Paul’s Case,” Cather shows that socio-economical differences can make some people obsessed with the illusion of a preeminent life and may cause them to make brash decisions.

The central character of this story is Paul. Paul is a somewhat elitist person who believes that life should be about being in the spotlight and being famous. Due to this, he often acts superciliously to people who he considers “trivial” (202) For example, Paul eagerly shows his instructors “how heartily he despised them and their homilies” (202). His prejudice is also prevalent when “he looked [his teacher] over and decided she was not appropriately dressed” (197) for the concert hall. However on the other hand, when he sees someone rich and famous, a great change in his attitude occurs. For instance, he views the solo performer as a “veritable queen of romance” (198) because she is able to stand on stage with all the light focused on her. Despite his elitism, it is interesting to note that Paul is not materialistic. When discussing about the iron kings on Sunday and holidays, Paul was “interested in the triumphs of these cash boys who had become famous, though he had no mind for the cash-boy stage.” (201) He only wants to live a life where he can feel that he, himself is an important person and not just part of the crowd of humanity in the average population. Even though being rich is part of that life, it is not the money that he is focused on. Paul is more interested in the fame and status that comes with that lifestyle. In another perspective, Paul’s elitism can also be seen as his impression of his own individuality to be seen as someone different because he is constantly trying to prove himself better than those around him.

Paul is also a rebellious character. He is noncompliant to what his family and society expect him to do, and instead chooses to do what he feels like doing. He considers most of his life “full of Sabbath-school picnics, petty economies … and the inescapable odors of cooking” (201) and had “a shuddering repulsion for the flavorless, colourless mass of every-day existence” (199) of Cordelia Street. When he lost his job as an usher, it was “wonderfully simple” (204) for him to meticulously plan his entrance in New York and rebel against all common sense he was taught. The reason for this rebellion may be because of Paul’s conflict with the authority of his father in the house. Whereas his father wanted him to have a normal job at the firm, Paul wanted to live a life in luxury. On both occasions where his father tried to control his life – first when he took away Paul’s usher job, and second when Paul found out his father was coming to New York to get him, Paul did something drastic to go against what his father wished. In the end, Paul rejects “the grey monotony” (207) of normal life and decided to commit suicide as a rebellion against “the homilies by which the world is run.” (208).

A third trait of Paul’s is that he is very manipulative. Paul was “accustomed to lying” (195) because it helped him deal with problems and resolve them so the outcome is favorable to himself. First, when he associated himself with Charley Edwards, he presented himself as a useful helper when in reality, he was only acting this way so he could hang around the theatre. Next, when he began working at the firm he was able to subtly steal the money so that the firm won’t find out until later. Then, when he checked in at the hotel, Paul “told his story plausibly and had not trouble (203). He “excited no suspicion” (206) from the hotel management and played his role as a rich gentleman perfectly.  He had no remorse for his actions, and only felt bad that he could not live out his fantasy longer. It shows that Paul would do anything to live the life he wanted.

Paul is a static character because he does not change from the beginning to the end. At the beginning, Paul felt “absolutely unequal” (199) to his house and had a “hopeless feeling of sinking back forever into ugliness and commonness” (199). He believed an “element of artificiality” (201) was needed in beauty. This opinion persists throughout the entire story to the end as he commits suicide because he wanted to avoid going back to his normal life. Although when he jumped at the end, Paul reflected “the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone” (209), the thought does not mean he had a change of heart, only that he wished he could have done more things in regards to living his fantasy life. His suicide is actually quite ironic because when Paul died, he did what he hated the most: He “dropped back into the immense design of things” (209). Another way to look at it is that Paul had a pessimistic view of society at the beginning, he did not take things seriously at all, and rejected society. Throughout the story, Paul shows that he is reasonably intelligent due to his success at planning and getting what he wanted. But at the end, instead of working hard and trying to achieve that luxurious lifestyle he is obsessed with, Paul is pessimistic and chooses to give up because he does not believe he can overcome the socio-economical difference of his regular life ad his ideal life.



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