Skip over navigation

Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament

Willa Cather

Important Quotations Explained

Paul’s Scorn for the Middle Class

How to Cite This SparkNote

1. The members of the stock company were vastly amused when some of Paul’s stories reached them—especially the women. They were hardworking women, most of them supporting indigent husbands or brothers, and they laughed rather bitterly at having stirred the boy to such fervid and florid inventions.

This quotation appears midway through the story, after Paul has been removed from school, and reveals one of the subtler tragedies of “Paul’s Case”: the nonexistence of the art world that Paul dreams of. The art world exists, of course, but it is not the land of romance, happiness, and elegance that Paul imagines. He thinks of theater people as far more refined and elegant than his neighbors are. Ironically, the professionals in the art world must work harder than Paul’s neighbors. The women on Cordelia Street have conscientious husbands and are free to relax on their porches on the weekends; the women of the theater must toil to support their “indigent husbands or brothers.” When these theater women hear about Paul’s “fervid and florid inventions” concerning their livelihood, they laugh “rather bitterly,” a phrase that suggests their impatience with Paul’s unrealistic dreams. It is distressing to reflect that Paul’s hatred of his own life is founded on a misunderstanding. If he knew the truth about the art world, Cather suggests, he would see that it is not more desirable than the world of Cordelia Street.

2. Until now he could not remember the time when he had not been dreading something. 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—and Paul had done things that were not pretty to watch, he knew.

This passage comes after the narrator’s revelation of Paul’s theft and flight to New York. Safe in his room at the Waldorf, Paul feels content, not fearful, for the first time in his life. “[T]he shadowed corner, the dark place” Paul cannot bear to think about may refer to his homosexuality. The ambiguous assertion that “Paul had done things that were not pretty to watch” may be an oblique reference to socially unacceptable sexual acts. The narrator’s evasions and hints about Paul’s homosexuality mirror Paul’s inability to think about his orientation. However, “the dark place” may also be a catch-all phrase to describe Paul’s sizable collection of neuroses and causes for depression. He never knew his mother, does not fit in anywhere, has no friends, is unable to think of anyone but himself, and dreams of losing consciousness. All of these difficulties may be crammed into “the shadowed corner” that Paul would rather ignore than confront.

The passage is also notable for its focus on watching and being watched. Throughout the story, Paul acts as if he is being observed, much as an actor on a stage might. Often, as in this passage, he seems tormented by his imaginary audience. He longs to know that any onlooker would find him well-dressed, debonair, confident, and normal, but he knows that he is none of these things. His discomfort with the idea of being watched may explain his disinclination to be an active member in the art world he idealizes. Paul would much rather be in the audience than onstage.

3. It occurred to him that all the flowers he had seen in the glass cases that first night must have gone the same way, long before this. It was only one splendid breath they had, in spite of their brave mockery at the winter outside the glass; and it was a losing game in the end, it seemed, this revolt against the homilies by which the world is run.

Before he leaps in front of a train to his death, Paul thinks about the flowers that he saw in New York. In this passage, Cather explicitly makes a connection between the glass-protected flowers, which make one brief stand against the winter, and Paul, who makes one brief stand against society. Like the flowers struggling to survive in the midst of winter, Paul is attempting to live in a world that he feels is hostile to him. The flowers’ “one splendid breath” parallels Paul’s eight-day stint impersonating a rich boy. Neither the flowers nor Paul have a chance at survival. They are fragile, out of place, and doomed.

Paul is egocentric, naïve, snobbish, and weak, but in passages like these, Cather shows sympathy for him. She asks us not to condemn him too harshly, despite his unjustifiable actions. She suggests that Paul cannot help his nature any more than the flowers can help their color or constitution. Although it is clear that his ways of thinking and acting are undesirable, it is also clear that, in his way, he is noble. He does try to “revolt against the homilies by which the world is run,” even if his revolt ends up being a misguided failure.

Follow Us