Writing Essays – The New View in Cather’s Short Story, Paul’s Case

As we analyze Willa Cather’s short story, “Paul’s Case,” we must recall that it is more than twice as long as Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and more than three times as long as Joyce’s “Clay.” Thus, as we would expect, the length of the story provides many opportunities for richness of detail and some looseness involving the use of the strong old view value statement and the new view reversal at the end of the story. When you write your essay on the story, take that into account.

The good news — despite all that rich detail, the clarity of the core new view in Paul’s Case still finds a way to make this long, rich-in-detail story understandable.

Step #1: At the beginning of a short story, a strong value statement, an old view, is given by or about the main character.

As the story begins, Paul is in a meeting with his school principal and several of his teachers, being interviewed to see whether he should be allowed off his suspension and back into school-When questioned by the Principal as to why he was there Paul stated, politely enough, that he wanted to come back to school. This was a lie, but Paul was quite accustomed to lying; found it, indeed, indispensable for overcoming friction.

Paul didn’t really want to come back to school because he didn’t like or respect anyone there. The principal and teachers, who weren’t fond of the idea, either, formed a ring of tormentors about Paul as they interviewed him, peppering him with hostile questions.

Their negative evaluation and attitude toward Paul is expressed by the narrator in a strong value statement:

His teachers…[stated] their respective charges…with such a rancor and aggrievedness…this was not a usual case….

A strong, memorable, and vivid symbol is also mentioned-His teachers felt this afternoon that his whole attitude was symbolized by his shrug and his flippantly red carnation flower.

After Paul left the meeting, having been accepted back into school by the principal, a teacher made a second strong value statement about Paul: I don’t really believe that smile of his comes altogether from insolence; there’s something sort of haunted about it. There is something wrong about the fellow.

To this point, we have several strong value statements about Paul, as seen through the eyes of his teachers and the principal. We have been told that,

  • Paul was quite accustomed to lying & needed it to overcome friction.

  • Paul’s was not a usual case.

  • Paul has a sort of hysterically defiant, contemptuous manner.

  • Paul’s whole attitude was symbolized by his shrug and his flippant, red carnation flower.

  • There is something wrong about Paul.

And so now we have acquired two solid parts of the old view strong value statement:

…not a usual case…something wrong about the fellow.

The final part of the old view strong value statement doesn’t occur until the middle section of the story. (Talk about looseness in utilizing the old view-new view relationship!)

When Paul was kicked out of school, his father put him to work as a clerk at a company called Denny and Carson’s. His father also closed Paul’s access to Carnegie Hall and the theater troupe. The members of the theater troupe were vastly amused when they found out about Paul’s many creative stories involving them, and their evaluation fulfills the final portion of the old view strong value statement: They agreed with the faculty and with his father that Paul’s was a bad case.

We can now see all the parts of the strong value statement:

  • This was not a usual case.
  • There is something wrong about Paul.
  • Paul’s was a bad case.

And since that ties in nicely with the title of the story, on the matter of the old view I rest my — errr, Paul’s — case.

Step #2: In the middle of a short story, the old view is supported or undercut with descriptions, conflicts, and resolutions that set up the new view at the end.

DESCRIPTION: One description plays a major role in supporting the old view. Paul lived on Cordelia street, and, after late-night concerts, Paul never went up Cordelia Street without a shudder of loathing. He approached it with the nerveless sense of defeat, the hopeless feeling of sinking back forever into ugliness and commonness that he had always had when he came home. He experienced all the physical depression which follows a debauch; the loathing of respectable beds, of common food, of a house penetrated by kitchen odors.

The description and the name of the street are not coincidental. Cordelia is the name of the rejected daughter in Shakespeare’s play, “King Lear.” It is plain that Paul feels rejected by his father, as Cordelia was by hers. And Paul, in turn, rejects the poverty of his home, the plainness of his life, and the dullness of his life at school, preferring the exotic, unreal life of art, music, and theater to the harsh realities of his real life.

CONFLICT: From various incidents, we find conflict supporting the old view as Paul grapples with his father’s wrath and rejection by constantly lying to him about why he is late coming home, where he has been, or where he is going. For instance, one Sunday he can’t stand his ugly home, so he tells his father he’s going to a friend’s house to study.

RESOLUTION: But he goes instead to hang out with his friend, Charley Edwards, the leading juvenile of the permanent stock company which played at one of the downtown theaters. So Paul resolved his conflicts by lying, going outside reality and associating with people who live the unreal, exotic life of art, music, and theater: Matters went steadily worse with Paul at school. In the itch to let his instructors know how heartily he despised them and their homilies, and how thoroughly he was appreciated elsewhere, he mentioned once or twice that he had no time to fool with theorems; adding-with a twitch of the eyebrows and a touch of that nervous bravado which so perplexed them-that he was helping the people down at the stock company; they were old friends of his.

CONFLICT: Paul was kicked out of school, and his father put him to work as a clerk at a company called Denny and Carson’s. His father also closed Paul’s access to Carnegie Hall and the theater troupe. Paul hated and internally resisted the situation.

RESOLUTION: With his real life of fantasy closed to him, Paul resolves his conflict by lying (as usual, outside of reality) about a deposit he was supposed to make for his employer, stealing about three thousand dollars. And he went to New York to live the life of the gloriously rich. In those days, three thousand dollars went a long ways.

Step #3. At the end of a short story, a new view reversal of the old view is usually revealed.

At the end of the story, Paul has gone to New York where he is surrounded by many people, sort of a ring of admirers who give him respect, the reverse of the ring of tormentors at the story’s beginning, even though the respect at the end is based on his false, stolen wealth. And Paul plays his new role by showing his own respect toward everyone in New York at the end, quite the reverse from how he had been flippantly treating others at the beginning of the story.

The title, “Paul’s Case,” and the use of not a usual case and a bad case in the beginning and the middle all refer to something never specifically verbalized within the story. But the meaning is shown very clearly — Paul has problems with growing up, with school, with home, with identity, with finding himself, and with belonging.

Actually, it is not unusual for a young man to have such problems growing up. In Paul’s case, however, it was not a usual case — it was more than that, it was a bad case. But the ending reveals that Paul’s case was a lot worse than merely bad — it was deadly, it was fatal, since it ended with Paul’s suicide. So we see that the ending of the story emphasizes a drastic expansion of the old view to a new view that is adding, not only reversing, showing that Paul’s case was far more serious and far more dangerous or bad than anyone had realized or imagined.

On the other hand, at the beginning of the story Paul was daydreaming his fantasies about the theater, whereas at the end of the story he was actually living the privileged life of the respected wealthy — even if only for a short time — not merely fantasizing it. That reversal is what counted most — at least, from Paul’s point of view.

Whether you choose in your essay to emphasize the new view reversal of Paul’s situation or the reversal for his teachers, his father, and others at the very end, our analysis of the new view core does provide the lens through which we can clearly see through all the details to the new view reversal and expansion at the end.

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