In Willa Cathers short story Pauls Case we learn of a young man who is fighting what he fears most: to be as common and plain as his world around him. How others perceive Paul only encourages him to fulfill his dream of escaping his monotonous lifestyle. Paul feels he is drowning in his everyday environment and his only breath of air is his savior: the theater.
Paul has very little interest in his class studies. This leaves him open to distraction and eventually criticism. Although Pauls appearance is that of a perfect gentleman, his teachers find his behavior inappropriate and unacceptable. The narrator draws particular attention to Pauls eyes describing them as remarkable for a certain hysterical brilliancy(Cather 245); this is followed by the response of his teachers who find it peculiarly offensive in a boy(Cather 245). Pauls meeting with the schools principal continues as each of his teachers get an opportunity to voice their disgust with Paul. The whole time Paul stands there never losing his smile. This is dubbed irritating to the last degree (Cather 246). For Paul this is his sign of strength. He refuses to allow his teachers, of such simple minds, to tear at his soul. They have no understanding of Pauls behavior and do not wish to learn. After the meeting his teachers felt remorse for their onslaught against this mere boy. One remarked on the similarity to a miserable street cat set at bay by a ring of tormentors (Cather 247). However none of this affected Paul. He was untouched and unscaved by his teachers cruel remarks. That was just his way. Paul was in another world, above all these petty judgments. The words of his teachers could not harm Paul; he was simple outside their reach. This sort of belief held by Paul
leave’s him to judge himself. No amount of discipline could ever change his set ways unless Paul did so of his own free will.
Pauls home life was not the least different. His father was constantly judging and questioning his way of life. Paul felt he was constantly under observation, that there would certainly be inquiries and reproaches (Cather 250). His father was a man of strict discipline and strong ethics. His father did his best, feeling he understood Paul, to prepare him for a successful life. After continuing problems at school his father decided to take action, in the most sincere ways. He pulled Paul out of school and sent him to work as an accounts assistant with his fathers firm. This was the first blow that broke Pauls spirit.Now he was unable to be lost in his imagination, to have his thoughts of grandeur, and to feel above his boring surroundings. To add to Pauls sorrow, his life light was extinguished. Pauls father not only forbid him to attend the theater, but went as far as to summon those who work at the theater to prevent Paul from entering, knowing Paul would directly disobey his fathers wish. This was a punishment unfitting of the crime with tragic consequences. The theater was Pauls secret love; between theater visits was noting but sleep and forgotten (Cather 253). When Paul was at the theater he breathed like a prisoner set free (Cather 253). That is exactly how Pauls life was, that of a persistent jail. His schools, his home, his neighborhood all were to him prison walls. Paul was in an endless depression divided only by sporadic short spurts of life. Only at the theater at Carnegie Hall did
Paul really lived (Cather 253). However, with his father deprivation of the theater, Paul was dead inside, a lifeless body moving through constant motions without any emotions, only the thought of escape. When Paul was allowed to attend the theater, as a spectator or an usher, he had a sudden zest for life (Cather 248). This freedom he endured always feel short. Like an addiction, the theater would send him into heaven only to fall harder and harder into his dismal existence. He suffered a physical depression(Cather 250) only surpassed by the theater that was the only thing that could be called living at all(Cather 249).
I observed a correlation between Willa Cathers Pauls Case and William Shakespeares classic tragedy Romeo and Juliet. In Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet their love for each other is forbidding by their respected families. Yet this love was too strong to deny. In the end the tragic death of Romeo is accompanied by the dramatically tragic death of Juliet. I find Paul to be befitting of the role of Romeo and his forbidding love for the theater to play his Juliet. One could not stand to live without the other. When Paul had left from New York City he had sampled the lifestyle he dreamed of and he could not live to face Cordelia Street, the yellow wallpaper, the cracked mirror, the somber essence of it all. He had tasted his sweet dream and feared the despair and misery that would accompany his return. He had the old feeling that the orchestra had suddenly stopped, the sinking sensation that the play was over(Cather 260).
In the end Paul chose death over his drab lifestyle back in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His infatuation with the theater allowed him to live forever in a single moment. He grew more and more vivacious and animated and the color came to his cheeks and lips(Cather 248). He lived within the theater, in the atmosphere(Cather 254). The theater gave Paul life, an escape from flavorless, colorless mass of everyday existence(Cather 250)
Cather, Willa. Pauls Case. Perrines Literature Structure, Sound and Sense.
Ed. Laura Webb. New York: VG Bild-Kunst, 2001. 245-62