Paul's Case

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"Paul's Case" is a short story by Willa Cather. It was first published in McClure's Magazine in 1905.[1]


Paul, a suspended high school student in Pittsburgh, is frustrated with his middle-class life and the people around him not understanding his love of beautiful things, and he runs away to New York City.

The term "Paul's case" is the way teachers and his father refer to Paul concerning his lack of interest in school. It has been suggested that it enables Cather to "[impersonate] the voice of medical authority."[2]

Plot summary[edit]

When Paul meets with the principal and his teachers from Pittsburgh High School after he has been suspended for a week, they complain about his agitation in class, and about his apparent repulsion of other people's bodies. He then goes to work at the Pittsburgh Carnegie Hall but he is early, so he just tarries in the picture gallery. He then proceeds to usher in the audience. After the concert he follows some of the singers and marvels at their glamor. He then walks back to his house but decides to sneak into the basement. Being so late in coming home, he fears that his father will think him an intruder and possibly try to kill him.

Paul despises the "burghers" on his respectable but drab street, and is unimpressed by a plodding young man who works for an iron company and is married with four children, although his father would like to use him as a role model for his son. However, while Paul longs to be wealthy, cultivated and powerful, he lacks the stamina and ambition to even attempt to change his condition. Instead, Paul escapes his humdrum life through visiting Charley Edwards, a young actor, and works as an usher at Carnegie Hall. Sometime later, as Paul makes it clear to one of his teachers that his job there is more important than his lessons, his father prevents him from continuing to work there.

Later, Paul takes a train to New York City. He now works for Denny & Carson's and has stolen a thousand dollars for his trip. He buys an expensive wardrobe, checks in at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, walks around the city, and meets a young San Franciscan who shows him around the nightlife until morning. His few days of impersonating a rich, privileged young man bring him more contentment than he has ever known before. On the eighth day, however, when most of the money has been spent, Paul reads in the Pittsburgh newspapers that the theft has been made public, and that his father has returned the money and is now on his way to New York City to fetch his son. Unable to face a return to his dull, middle class life, Paul kills himself by jumping in front of a train.

Importance of setting[edit]

Around the turn of the century, Pittsburgh was a highly industrial, very grey and drab city, while New York City was an art-centered city that sported many rich people, many museums, the finest hotels and the some of the best music performances in the world. The transition from Pittsburgh to New York City in the story translates to a change from reality to the ideal.


  • Paul, the eponymous protagonist. He is tall and thin, something of a dandy. He was born in Colorado and his mother died a few months later. He is bored by school, but passionate about music, especially the opera. He hates his middle-class life and longs for luxury.
  • Paul's father, kindly and respectable but with little understanding of or sympathy for Paul's restlessness with his life
  • The Principal of Pittsburgh High School
  • The English teacher, a well-meaning woman whom Paul disdains
  • The Drawing master
  • The guard in the picture gallery of the Carnegie Hall
  • The soloist in the opera at Carnegie Hall
  • Paul's sisters whose mundane interests further alienate him
  • A young man whom Paul's father wants Paul to model after, but who embodies the middle-class life that Paul hates.
  • Charlie Edwards, Paul's friend who works as an actor
  • The college boy who spends a night with Paul in New York

Allusions to actual history[edit]

Literary criticism and significance[edit]

The story has been called a "gay suicide".[3]

It has been argued that the story revolves around the literary topos of opera queendom, often commingled with a suicidal sense of self-loss.[2]

It has also been suggested that this might be a portrait of Willa Cather's "own desire for aesthetic fulfillment and sexual nonconformity".[2]

The story is also seen as an investigation of the relationship between art and life, which Cather saw to be in "irreconcilable opposition."[4]

James Obertino from the University of Central Missouri wrote an article suggesting Paul suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.[5]


The story was the basis for a chamber opera in two acts with music by Gregory Spears to a libretto by Spears and Kathryn Walat. It premiered in April 2013 at the Artisphere in Washington, D.C.[6] and was then performed for the PROTOTYPE opera festival in New York City, performed at HERE, 145 6th Avenue.[7]

"Paul's Case" was adapted into a TV movie in 1980 directed by Lamont Johnson, starring Eric Roberts.[8]


  1. ^ Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, University of Nebraska Press; revised edition, 1 November 1970, p. 261
  2. ^ a b c Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire, Gay Men's Press, 1994, pp. 28–29
  3. ^ Eric Haralson, Henry James and Queer Modernity, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 137
  4. ^ Quirk, Tom. Bergson and American Culture: The Worlds of Willa Cather and Wallace Stevens. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990, p. 109.
  5. ^ Obertino, James (21 May 2012). "'Paul's Case' and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder". The Explicator 70 (1): 49–52. doi:10.1080/00144940.2012.663009. 
  6. ^ "Skillful singers bring a short story to life in UrbanArias Paul's Case" by Roger Catlin, The Washington Post, 23 April 2013
  7. ^ "New—And Improved: In Paul's Case, a Young Opera Festival Yields Its First Masterpiece" by James Jorden, The New York Observer, 14 January 2014
  8. ^ Paul's Case (1980) at the Internet Movie Database

External links[edit]