Paul's Case

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"Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament" is a short story by Willa Cather. It was first published in McClure's Magazine in 1905.[1] It appeared as well in a collection of Cather's stories. The Troll Garden (1905).


Around the turn of the century, Pittsburgh was an industrial center, with a successful class of business leaders, the most successful of whom, according to Cather's story, could mange their companies while traveling in Europe. New York City, on the other hand, was a place one escaped to, a center of fine living and society, symbolized by the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The cities offer contrasting models of the humdrum life of routine and life lived in high style.

Paul, a Pittsburgh high school student, is frustrated with his middle-class life. He dreams of another life he associates with concerts and theater, though his appreciation of the arts is more social and superficial than aesthetic. For example, he enjoys a symphony concert not for the music but for the atmosphere: "the lights danced before his eyes and the concert hall blazed into unimaginable splendor". The soprano soloist has "that undefinable air of achievement ... which, in Paul's eyes, made her a veritable queen of romance". He steals money to support a short escapade in New York City and once he exhausts his funds commits suicide rather than allow his father to take him back to Pittsburgh.

Paul's teachers and father refer to "Paul's case", representing him at a distance and as an example of someone to be studied, handled, and managed. The term enables Cather to adopt "the voice of medical authority".[2]

Plot summary[edit]

Paul has been suspended from Pittsburgh High School for a week. He meets with the principal and his teachers and they complain about his "defiant manner" in class, and the "physical aversion" he exhibits toward his teachers. He then goes to work at the Pittsburgh Carnegie Hall and enjoys donning his uniform. He performs his job as an usher with enthusiasm, as if he were the host of a grand social event. He stays for the concert and enjoys not so much the music as the social scene. After the concert he follows the soloist and imagines life inside her hotel. Returning home very late, he enters through the basement to avoid a confrontation with his father.

Paul despises the "burghers" on his respectable but drab street. He is unimpressed by a plodding young man who works for an iron company and is married with four children, although his father considers him a role model for his Paul. While Paul longs to be wealthy, cultivated and powerful, he lacks the stamina and ambition to attempt to change his condition. Instead, Paul escapes his humdrum life by visiting Charley Edwards, a young actor. Sometime later, after Paul makes it clear to one of his teachers that he thinks his job ushering is more important than his schoolwork, his father prevents him from continuing to work as an usher.

Paul takes a train to New York City after stealing a thousand dollars to finance a new life. He works for Denny & Carson's. He buys an expensive wardrobe, takes a room at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, walks around the city, and meets a young San Franciscan who takes him on an all-night tour of the city's social scene. His few days of impersonating a rich, privileged young man bring him more contentment than he has ever known. On the eighth day, however, after he has spent most of his money, Paul learns from a Pittsburgh newspapers that his theft has been made public, that his father has returned the money, and that his father is en route to New York City to bring him home to Pittsburgh. Unable to face returning to his former life, Paul kills himself by jumping in front of a train.

Literary criticism and significance[edit]

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

Wayne Koestenbaum reads the story as a possible portrait of Willa Cather's "own desire for aesthetic fulfillment and sexual nonconformity".[2] he also identifies the literary topos of opera queendom, commingled here as it often is with a suicidal sense of self-loss.[2]

Another critic reads it an exploration of Cather's belief in the "irreconcilable opposition" between art and life.[4]

James Obertino of the University of Central Missouri suggested 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, November 1, 1970, p. 261
  2. ^ a b c Koestenbaum, Wayne (1994). The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire. Gay Men's Press. pp. 28–29. 
  3. ^ Eric Haralson, Henry James and Queer Modernity, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 137
  4. ^ Quirk, Tom (1990). Bergson and American Culture: The Worlds of Willa Cather and Wallace Stevens. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. 109. 
  5. ^ Obertino, James (May 21, 2012). "'Paul's Case' and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder". The Explicator 70 (1): 49–52. doi:10.1080/00144940.2012.663009. 
  6. ^ Catlin, Roger (April 23, 2013). "Skillful singers bring a short story to life in UrbanArias Paul's Case". Washington Post. 
  7. ^ Jorden, James (January 14, 2014). "New—And Improved: In Paul's Case, a Young Opera Festival Yields Its First Masterpiece". The New York Observer. 
  8. ^ Zucker, Carole (1995). Figures of Light: Actors and Directors Illuminate the Art of Film Acting. Springer Science+Business Media. pp. 181–2. Retrieved June 22, 2016. 

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