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Paul’s Case–Willa Cather

Probably the most often anthologized of Willa Cather’s short fiction is “Paul’s Case.” Quite unlike “Neighbor Rosicky,” written a quarter century later, “Paul’s Case” tells the story of a young man who finds himself insatiably dissatisfied with his station in life. Bored with his school work, Paul finds his excitement in his work as a theatre usher at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall. Taken in by the transitory nature of the performing world, Paul cannot separate the artifice of the stage from the reality that surrounds it. Unlike his English teacher, whom he seats in the audience one evening, he cannot be satisfied with a few hours of entertainment. Instead, he seems to want life to always be like the magical season when the lights go down.

Paul’s father encourages him to work hard and take a successful, but rather dull, young man in the neighborhood as a role model. Rather than working hard to find his own way in the world, Paul absconds from his father’s place of business with $1,000 and heads to New York for however long the money will last. At this point, Paul seems a great deal like Holden Caulfield, bored, unrealistic, and shiftless. Unlike Salinger’s character, however, Paul comes to a messy end, killing himself rather than facing his father, who has come to New York in order to bring the boy back home.

Can Paul be viewed as a tragic hero? I don’t believe he can. Drawn to the glitz of the theatre, he is also drawn to the superficial aspects of wealthy life. Had he intended to start a new life, breaking away from an oppressive and manipulative father, Paul might have rationed his loot more efficiently, allowing him to develop a sustainable situation. Instead, he begins living large immediately, knowing, if he has any self-awareness at all, that the funds will dry up fairly soon.

Paul’s father, while drab and somewhat narrow minded, should not be viewed as a particularly bad fellow. While his vision perhaps does not allow him to see a proper life for his son beyond business, there is no real evidence that Paul has any better vision. Certainly he cannot be credited with vision for being a good usher.

This story, it seems to me, is reminiscent of the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Paul, dissatisfied for an unknown reason with his life at home, does not ask for his share of the family treasure but instead steals some small fraction of it from his father’s employer. (His father’s ability to quickly repay the missing money suggests him to be fairly well off.) As Paul runs off and lives riotously, the father pursues him.

But what is the father’s motivation? Is he pursuing in anger? Does he come to New York to exact revenge, to set his son to work in a counting house until every penny is repaid? We cannot know the answers to those questions, but I would suggest that Paul’s father has some of the qualities of the one Jesus describes. He repays the money. While this action might have been a face-saving move, I would suggest it more to be a son-saving move. With the money repaid, Paul’s father seems to have kept the law away from his son. Similarly, by going after Paul himself, the father ensures that the boy will be brought back without handcuffs.

“Paul’s Case” is a tragedy, but I’d have to nominate the father as the tragic hero. Raising a son without a wife, the father seems to have done the best he can. He has worked hard, but he has apparently been present for his son. While he lacks the imagination to motivate his son, this father clearly wants the best for the boy, even obtaining a position at the company despite the boy’s spotty record.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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