Some people are like square pegs in the world of round holes, and Willa Sibert Cather eloquently tells a story of one of such individuals in “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament.” Paul is a high school student from Pittsburgh who lives with his father and reluctantly tries to conform to his surroundings − too ordinary, dull, and predictable. Ultimately, the character decides to run away from the home city and everything it symbolizes. He escapes to New York for several reasons, which will be discussed in the following paragraphs.
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The primary reason why the character decides to run away is the disconnectedness with the reality in which he lives. Prior to departing to New York, Paul is exposed to criticism and expected to comply with common norms of behavior. Even on the street where his house is located, everything is standardized and confirmed:
It was a highly respectable street, where all the houses were exactly alike, and where businessmen of moderate means begot and reared large families of children, all of whom went to Sabbath-school and learned the shorter catechism, and were interested in arithmetic; all of whom were as exactly alike as their homes and of a piece with the monotony in which they lived (Cather I).
Cordelia Street is a symbol of normal life. It is a perfect place for an average person who seeks social status and who is blindly willing to devote their own lives to the pursuit of the ghost-like ideals imposed on him or her by society. Such a person may never find a true passion in life, stand out, or even realize the constraints in which he or she is placed. Paul is the antagonist to this type of person, and he does not fit in. However, the boy is never expansive about his true nature, mainly because he feels that it will not be accepted by others. To some degree, this assumption seems to be valid. For instance, his teachers consider that “there is something wrong about the fellow,” and the same idea could probably occur in the minds of his classmates as well (Cather I). Thus, Paul is in continuous disaccord with everything around him, and the fact that he is not accepted by others only heats up his loathing and repulsion associated with them.
Secondly, it is possible to regard the boy’s escape to New York as an attempt to achieve freedom and self-realization. As is mentioned above, Paul does not conform to the rules and norms that are considered acceptable among the residents of Cordelia Street and members of the school community. Paul’s interior experiences, which he carefully hides from everyone around, make a drastic contrast to this bleak external reality in which he is involuntarily placed. There are some moments when he can feel “a sudden zest of life” (Cather I), and it is when he ushers at the theater and the concert hall, hears the orchestra music, and observes performers. At the same time, it seems that his admiration is not directed to a particular object but is rather abstract − through the music, he could touch on the splendor that was never present in his regular life.
It allowed him to see beyond the triviality and discover a “hilarious and potent spirit within” (Cather I). It seems that Pittsburgh is an inappropriate environment for such a character, and the city itself does not allow Paul to act out. Conversely, New York is associated with everything he strives for − a life thick of events, splendor, and entertainment. Thus, the escape to New York for him is an opportunity to be the person he wants to be. The farther from his homeland the character goes, the less the disturbing shadows of the past seem to haunt him. When he reaches the city, he feels less pressure. It is the time when he stops being tormented by fear which “had been pulling the muscles of his body tighter and tighter” for a significant period (Cather II). Although he has made a wrong deed stealing the money for this venture, he feels right:
He was now entirely rid of his nervous misgivings, of his forced aggressiveness, of the imperative desire to show himself different from his surroundings. He felt now that his surroundings explained him (Cather II).
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In New York, Paul lives in accordance with his dreams and his nature. Based on this, the escape from Pittsburgh can be considered the act of self-affirmation.
From another perspective, Paul’s decision to live in the native city is provoked by despair or revolt against the pressures. He was suspended in school and ultimately taken out from there. What is more important, he was forbidden to usher at Carnegie Hall and was put to work in the office. Due to this, Paul had no opportunity to take his mind off the dull life which he was forced to lead. No source of consolation was left for him, so probably the escape to New York was the only way out.
The complicated relationships of the boy with the father, who appears to be a suppressive person, could contribute to his decision to leave as well. In some way, the figure of Paul’s father is represented as the main symbol of everything the young man does not like in Pittsburgh. In the hero’s perception, his father’s figure is in close association with the house and everything in it: “his ugly sleeping chamber, the cold bath-room, with the grimy zinc tub, the cracked mirror, the dripping spigots,” the “horrible yellow-wall paper,” and so on (Cather I). It is possible to say that Paul’s father tried to run the son’s life and imposed expectations on him.
For instance, he had the “dearest hope” that Paul would follow the example of a young man who lives in the neighborhood and works as a clerk at the great steel company, who has a wife and children and leads a life that could be regarded in all ways normal. The father’s excess control could have a depressing effect. Later, when Paul is already in New York, it is the thought about his father that awakened the fear of the gray and monotonous life which awaited him in Pittsburgh. When the young man learns that his parent has headed East trying to find him, he has a feeling that “the tepid waters of Cordelia Street were to close over him finally and forever” (Cather II). Paul’s unwillingness to see his father be accosted by him again and continue to obey his authority is so strong that he rather prefers to commit suicide than go back.
On the other hand, in the second part of the story, it becomes clear that the character is not just a victim of the circumstances, but all the wretchedness he experienced in Pittsburgh was, to a large extent, handmade and supported by the falsehood to which he adhered all the time. Readers may come to the conclusion that Paul could try to run away from lies which he weaved for a long period and which contributed to his profound self-isolation. For a short time in New York, he feels courageous, and this feeling surprises him because “he had always been tormented by fear, a sort of apprehensive dread that, of late years, as the meshes of the lies he had told closed about him” (Cather II). Without a necessity to lie and pretend, Paul is relieved, and this new sensation is as significant as the feeling of belonging he experienced in the few days spent in the hotel.
Overall, Paul is torn between the interior and exterior reality, and this conflict ultimately pushes him towards a desperate move. The tragic outcome of Paul’s Case demonstrates that the hero’s short-living self-indulgence during the escape to New York is nothing but a “brave mockery” and “revolt against the homilies by which the world is run” (Cather II). On the one hand, his escape from Pittsburgh can be considered as the act of self-affirmation in the sense that he remained true to himself until the very end. However, the not-so-happy consequences also point at the boy’s extreme vulnerability and weakness that did not let him break the wall of the self-made isolation.
Cather, Willa Sibert. “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament.” The Willa Cather Archive, Web.