It was Paul's afternoon to appear before the faculty of the Pittsburgh High School to account for his various misdemeanors..
He was 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.
Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things..
Brief lights, big city
"Paul's Case" may or may not be Willa Cather's best short work, but it is her best known. Mainly because for many years it was the one story she allowed to appear in anthologies.
It is a very good story. But when you read it along with her other stories and novellas, you find it—and perhaps "A Wagner Matinee"—stand near the end of her early, self-consciously literary period and before she adopted in the short form her later more relaxed, sprawling and engaging works.
They also come when Cather is still extolling the big-city cultural life, before she learned to love the bleaker environment and warmer people of the American Midwest that she later wrote about in short works and novels that made her famous. In "A Wagner Matinee" a boy's aunt from Nebraska visits him in Boston and after he takes her to a symphony she doesn't want to return. In "Paul's Case" a high school student feels stifled in his middle-class existence in Pittsburgh, where his biggest excitement is working as an usher at a local concert hall, and he steals money to escape to the brighter lights of New York where he lives a cultured life of privilege he's yearned for—until his money runs out.
In the latter story though, there are hints that the captivating life of sophistication may be somewhat illusory. Paul may be intensely happy with his eight days of high living in the big city but the reader picks up through Cather's writing that this is a rather superficial—and certainly temporary—experience. Paul, however, would rather die than go back to his previous dull life.
Cather's early stories are psychological portraits, comparable to Henry James's stories, as the pretentious subtitle "A Study in Temperament", which is sometimes used, might indicate. And as with James's characters, Paul's psychology in Cather's story is presented somewhat ambiguously. This has given rise to competing analyses of the character by critics over the years.
Paul may be homosexual, some have said, as he shows no interest in women and becomes close to another young male in New York. His manner and his obsession with appearing cultivated make him similar to characters in the works of Oscar Wilde, who is thought to have been an influence on Cather's early writing.
Other theories hold that Paul suffers various disorders, including autism, narcissism and post-traumatic stress.
Any of these may or may not be applicable to him. But I'm not sure that they matter. In fact, any emphasis on these in an analysis of "Paul's Case" tends to dilute the story. They provide excuses for dismissing the character's malaise as being due to an extraordinary condition affecting him, and missing the larger social critique. It's like saying Holden Caulfield was alienated from school and family in The Catcher in the Rye because, after all, he was descending into madness.
As much as "Paul's Case" delves into one person's temperament, it is also a study of how the environment shapes and affects that temperament. As we'll see to even greater effect when Cather later finds her characters in far different rural surroundings.