"Paul's Case" (1905) by Willa Cather

A Brief Analysis

By Detroit Publishing Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Background

“He felt something strike his chest - his body being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs gently relaxed.  Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things” (214). Willa Cather’s short story, “Paul’s Case” is the tale of a boy who feels so at odds with the world that he eventually must find a way out of it.

Paul is different and he is treated differently, oppressively, by those who are in command of him.  The story takes us on his journey through a “normal” day and weekend. The narrator describes to the reader how Paul gets himself through a school board’s scrutiny, through the school day, how he spends his nights, and how he makes it through the long, boring weekends.

In his story, Paul is described as a bit of a vagabond, a wanderer. He does everything in his own way and time. It is said, at one point, that he has a “bad case,” but, in fact, he is just recognizably and unacceptably different. The reasons for this difference, Cather presents to us deliberately throughout the story. 

Story Analysis

While some of these reasons are natural and apparent, others are dark and disturbing. However, it is not the reason for his differences, but society’s refusal to accept him for who he is, which dooms Paul to be an outcast and which eventually lead to his destruction.

Essentially, “Paul’s Case” is a story about a homosexual boy who cannot find his place in the world. No one understands him, or perhaps everyone understands but cannot accept him. Paul loathes normal family life, but not out of strangeness or teenage angst. He despises all that is “home” because his father destroyed that notion for him while he was still a little boy.

 

Paul’s other eccentricities, the flowers in his coat and the sparkle in his eye, are not intended to be insulting or mischievous but are simply markers of a different type of character, a different type of boy. The only place Paul feels safe and content is in the theater, another world, like his home, which is eventually tarnished for him by his abusive father.

It is at that point in the story, not at the end when he knows his father is coming for him, that Paul realizes there is nothing left for him there. He tries his best to get away from the influence of his father and “Cordelia Street,” stealing away to New York city and the darker life. 

In the end, though, it is to no avail. The whole experience boils down to a one-night stand which he regrets and a binge of warm baths and scented flowers. At least, though, when Paul does choose to leave life behind, he is true enough to himself to go out in a style that is all his own.

Notable Quotes

“His eyes were remarkable for a certain hysterical brilliancy [ . . . ] peculiarly offensive in a boy” (202). 

“There was something about [Paul] which none of them understood” (203).

“He had the feeling of not being able to let down; of it being impossible to give up his delicious excitement which was the only thing that could be called living at all” (205).

 

“He could not be accosted by his father tonight . . . he could not toss again on that miserable bed” (206). 

“Even when he was a little boy, it was always there - behind him, or before, or on either side.  There had always been the shadowed corner, the dark place into which he dared not look, but from which something seemed always to be watching him” (210).