A Case of Discontent
In Willa Cather’s short story “Paul’s Case,” the main protagonist Paul is a seemingly carefree young man. In truth, Paul despises his mediocre, middle-class life and wishes for the finer things in life. His egotistical mindset not only stresses his relationship with his father, it also prevents Paul from appreciating what he has.
By allowing himself to only see the negative, Paul is unable to find happiness and projects this distain onto the world around him. Understanding who Paul is helps the reader gain insight into why his life came to an untimely end and why his final moments expose a powerful lesson. Initially Paul appears to be extroverted; an outgoing, troublesome man who views the world in silent admiration. However, as the story progresses his true nature soon reveals itself.
Cather parallels both sides of Paul’s personality throughout the book. To others, Paul appears seemingly well-mannered; in reality he pays no mind to the desires, feelings, or thoughts of others, worrying only of himself. In fact, it is not until the middle of the story that he reveals he has sisters, yet never discloses anything about them, including their names. Here, in this small detail, Cather perpetuates the idea of Paul’s narcissism.
Cather also utilizes Paul’s final moments to show the audience his true self: “There flashed through his brain, clearer than ever before, the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands” (Cather 85). During his last thoughts Paul is focused on all of the unfinished accomplishments he left behind instead of the family that will grieve him after he is gone.
This small, fleeting moment before his death truly epitomizes Paul’s inner being and his egocentric personality. His thoughtless self-nepotism only serves as an acidic catalyst in the relationship between him and his father. Ultimately, his self-important predilection and distain for his father expunge their relationship.
The relationship between a parent and a child is part of an intricate balancing act that can nurture or poison the attitude and personality of a child. Nature, too, has a role in how a child’s mind develops. Paul’s father is not faulted for his lack of parenting. It is Paul’s innate hubris that prevents understanding. Their relationship is one of indifference wrapped in mutual discontent. The father is seemingly the antagonist in the story.
However, from a parent’s perspective, the father only wants to protect his child. Proof of this desire comes from the father returning the money that his son had stolen to prevent him from going to jail. Yet Paul consistently twists his father’s actions and feelings into negative perceptions of his father’s true intent.
Cather exemplifies this idea by writing of Paul’s thoughts after sneaking in through the window after work: “Suppose his father had heard him getting in at the window and had come down and shot him for a burglar? … Then, again, suppose a day should come when his father would remember that night, and wish there had been no warning cry to stay his hand?” (74-75) Paul’s pattern of misinterpreting his father’s devotion is a reoccurring theme throughout the short story; the totality of these corrupt assumptions, as well as Paul’s animosity for his middle-class life help fuel a rapid demise.
The story of Paul is mostly one of discontent and disgust that eventually flourishes intoa crime spree and an untimely suicide. Paul’s opinion of his life, home, and family are apparent throughout the story. Cather uses a consistent repertoire of adjectives to describe Paul’s feelings towards everything and everyone, such as “ugly,” “cold,” “grimy,” and “cracked” (74).
Paul even places himself above his middle class home. Cather writes that: “The nearer he approached the house, the more absolutely unequal Paul felt to the sight of it all” (74). Even at the end, Paul’s pretentiousness is present, demonstrating Paul’s palpable animosity for his home. The diction used by Cather is only a small part of Paul’s hatred for his home.
She uses Cordelia Street as one of the major symbols in the story, so that Paul could compare it to something abominable or middle-class. The quote, “It was to be worse than jail, even; the tepid waters of Cordelia Street were to close over him finally and forever,” (Cather 83) exemplifies Paul’s notion that he cannot escape mediocrity.
Embedded in this story is the idea that no matter what one has or does not have is of no consequence if no beauty can be found in anything. It is difficult to comprehend the mind of someone who is suicidal. Yet, in “Paul’s Case,” the moments leading up to his death are prominent and hold a deeper meaning into why he died. Paul’s negative thoughts skewed everything worthwhile in his life and left him barren of all contentment.
This story serves to tell that life should be cherished and not compared. Paul’s end was an outstanding example to those who live with hatred in their hearts for the lives they live; that they should enjoy the abundance of love and fulfillment they do have rather than fixate on what they do not.
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