The romance of materialism in “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather

Best remembered for her novels O Pioneers! (1913), Song of the Lark (1915), My Ántonia (1918), and A Lost Lady (1923), Willa Cather is most often thought of as a writer about the pioneer American West. The themes of her work are intertwined with explorations of the rise of civilizations, the drama of the immigrant in a new world, and personal involvements with art. A strong sense of place, subtle presentations of human relationships, an often unconventional narrative structure, and a style of clarity and beauty characterize her fiction (“Willa Cather”).

In 1905, Cather published The Troll Garden, a collection of seven short stories exploring the allure and dangers of art and the struggles of artists and youth of artistic or sensitive temperaments in a commercial world. It includes the story “Paul’s Case,” which brought Cather to national attention. Based on an actual incident that occurred while she was teaching high school English in Pittsburgh (“Paul’s Case”), “Paul’s Case” is about a romantic boy named Paul who is enamored with the exotic, glamorous world of art, music, and theater. Scorning his mundane, conventional, middle-class life, Paul prefers to live in a world of illusion. His desire to dissociate himself from the everyday reality he holds in contempt renders him a social misfit, and estranges him from his family, teachers, and peers. Eventually forced to leave the music hall and theater—his places of solace, where he truly feels at home—Paul steals his way to New York and for a week lives the high, luxurious life he has always wanted to have. However, running out of money and facing a return to his old, monotonous existence, Paul chooses instead to end his life.

Subtitled “A Study in Temperament,” critics tend to interpret “Paul’s Case” in either of two ways: as a story of a sensitive, artistically-inclined boy who suffers under the pragmatic, materialistic American standards and an ugly, dreary environment or as a study of maladjustment or a pathological state (“Paul’s Case”). In one view, Paul is a victim of circumstances, and in the other, he is destroyed by his own illusions.

Despite his great fondness for certain art forms and his disdain for those who work in order to make something of themselves (meaning, to be financially successful), Paul is not an artist, and neither is he averse to materialism. Though art stimulates him to have some zest in life, he does not feel the artistic desire to create or perform—he does not want to be an actor, a painter, or a musician, he just wants to experience art. However, his emotional attachment to art cannot be rightly called an appreciation of art, since it is born not out of an interest in art itself, but out of his connection of art with the lavish, upper-class lifestyle he desires to have, and of the ability of art to intoxicate him, to loosen his anxieties and feelings of restriction and to make him feel alive. “It was not that symphonies, as such, meant anything in particular to Paul, but the first sign of instruments seemed to free some hilarious and potent spirit within him” (Cather 4). However, as seen in his acts of contempt towards the statues of Augustus and Venus de Milo (3), Paul has little appreciation for art that does not transport him into a heightened state of consciousness.

Although he scorns the hard reality of work and the people who lead what he sees as dull lives trying to make a living, Paul is very materialistic. Not only does he esteem people based on their socio-economic class, by their apparel, the hotels they stay at, their leisure activities, and their professions, but he also desires things indicative of wealth. He loves to listen to stories about the “iron kings,” steel magnates who have made a name and a fortune for themselves, and desires what these men have achieved, but he has “no mind for the cash-boy stage,” he is not willing to work to gain wealth, he just wants to be rich right away—and therein lies the problem.

America during Paul’s time—at the turn of the century—experienced a great expansion in business and industry brought by the second Industrial Revolution. Fortunes were made in the steel and iron industry, and many industrialists, like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and J. P. Morgan made vast amounts of money during this period. Pittsburgh then was the center of steel manufacturing in the United States, and was the site of many factories, and thus, jobs (“Paul’s Case”). With the growth of industry and increasing opportunities for profit, economic advancement became the measure of success, and the way to it, hard work, and the values that went with it, like church and family life, were celebrated. However, Paul did not want to work, and disdained middle-class values. He was, in some ways, against the American dream; he was, so to speak, an anomaly.

Instead of accepting his everyday reality, Paul opts to immerse himself in a more exotic, romantic environment. However, this world of art and music and theater is not as rosy as he thinks it is. His perceptions are skewed; “the gassy, painty, dusty odour” (8) of the theater, “the cracked orchestra [that] beat out the overture … or jerked at the serenade” (8) all seems wonderful to him, although in reality, they are not so. Even the actors and actresses of the theater think that Paul’s stories about them are but “fervid and florid inventions” (8), far from a bleaker reality. Instead of following the prescribed path to success, he chooses to use unscrupulous means, to use the fruit of others’ hard work, to be able to live his dream—in effect, to live a lie.

We may perhaps sympathize with and even admire Paul for his daring to dream, for living the life he has always wanted to have, for seeking escape from a world in which he feels he does not belong. But it is his inability to let go of fantasy, to face reality, to adjust to his circumstances, to gracefully fall into the pattern of things, to embrace the American work ethic that comes with American aspirations, that eventually destroy him. In a materialistic world that demanded of its inhabitants pragmatism and realism, a wild dreamer such as Paul cannot exist. And though in the end he is finally able to “[drop] back into the immense design of things,” it is with a sense of regret for the things he left undone, the potentials he left unfulfilled.

Works Cited

Ahearn, Amy. “Willa Cather: A Brief Biographical Sketch.” The Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. Oct. 2007. U of Nebraska-Lincoln. 11 Jan. 2008. Web.

Cather, Willa. “Paul’s Case.” The Oxford Book of Women’s Writing in the United States. Eds. Linda Wagner-Martin and Cathy N. Davidson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print. 1-17.

Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1953. Print.

Paul’s Case.” Notes on Short Stories. Answers Corporation, 2006. Answers.com 10 Jan. 2009. Web.

Willa Cather.” Reclaiming History. University of Illinois at Chicago. 11 Jan. 2009. Web.

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