Willa Cather

Paul’s Case

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Paul’s Case Summary

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Willa Cather’s short story “Paul’s Case” (1905) was originally published in McClure’s Magazine under the title, “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament,” though the title was shortened when it was republished in the collection The Troll Garden later that same year. For most of her career, “Paul’s Case” was the only one of her short stories that Cather allowed to be anthologized in third-party publications.

The story begins as the main character, Paul, is suspended from school. Paul’s teachers react strongly to his attitude of defiance and physical revulsion at being touched. Paul has worn a red carnation to his meeting with the headmaster, a choice which the adults in attendance interpret as him not being serious or sufficiently contrite.

After Paul leaves, the teachers discuss his case. Though they are offended by his behavior, they know that he is a deeply disturbed person. Little is known about his past except that his mother is dead and he has a poor relationship with his father. The teachers agree that Paul seems troubled by something but he is unwilling to open up and talk to people. They suspend him from school for a week.

Paul leaves the hearing and goes into town. He decides not to go home before his part-time job as an usher at the opera house. Paul is a very successful usher. He is lively and charming, and the people seated in his section take notice of him, considering him a model worker. Paul enjoys the opera and admires the soloist, who he thinks looks dignified and worthy of respect in her gown and jewels.

Afterward, Paul hangs around the stage door and follows the soloist to her hotel. He imagines himself going into the luxurious hotel, leaving behind school and his boring life for a more glamorous existence. However, Paul must eventually return home to a neighborhood he considers boring and conventional.

When he reaches his house, Paul cannot bring himself to go in and face his father. Instead, he goes around the back of the building and sneaks into the cellar to spend the night. He doesn’t sleep since he is afraid of rats but entertains himself with various scenarios where his father mistakes him for a prowler and attempts to shoot him.

The next Sunday, Paul attends Sunday school and then hangs around the neighborhood with his middle-class neighbors. He is put-off and annoyed by the way every Sunday plays out exactly the same. One of the neighbors is a young clerk in a steel company to whom Paul’s father constantly compares Paul. Paul escapes to the theater where he helps an actor he knows to prepare for his evening performance.

Obsessed with the theater, Paul considers it vastly superior to his normal life at school and at home. He can’t help but brag about his connections to actors and actresses to his classmates; when the headmaster finds out, he reports it to Paul’s father. Paul’s father forces him to quit his job as an usher because of this. He gets Paul a job at a business office instead.

Shortly after starting the new job, Paul steals a large sum of money and runs away to New York. Paul’s first stop when he gets to the city is at a clothing store where he spends a long time picking out several new suits suitable for different social events. He then does the same at a shoe store, hat shop, and jeweler. Next, he goes to the Waldorf hotel and books a room for himself.

Relaxing in his hotel room, Paul is relieved to see that it is much how he imagined it would be. He considers it inevitable that he would end up here once he could no longer go to the theater in his hometown.

Paul spends the rest of the day sightseeing in New York, and then he goes to a lavish dinner. He is content to watch the other people in the restaurant not wanting to talk to any of them. Paul enjoys feeling that he is a part of New York society and likes knowing that his clothes help him fit in.

The next day, Paul meets a college student in the hotel and the two spend all night on the town. Something unexplained happens while they are out, and by the next morning, they are cold to each other.

After eight days in New York, word of Paul’s theft reaches the papers. Knowing that people are looking for him, he begins to feel trapped. He catches the train back to his hometown, but once there, he steps onto the train tracks, committing suicide rather than return to his old life.