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Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament

Willa Cather

A Clinical View of a Suicidal Young Man

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

The Self-Absorption of the Clinically Depressed

“Paul’s Case” is notable for its complete absence of dramatized scenes. Typically, short-story writers strive for a balance of exposition (discourse in which the narrator simply provides information and description for the reader) and dramatization (fully drawn scenes in which characters speak to each other). “Paul’s Case” is composed entirely of exposition. It contains only three pieces of dialogue: Paul’s weak explanation of his bad behavior, the art teacher’s mention of Paul’s mother’s death, and the young clerk’s awed account of his boss’s productivity. Even these words of dialogue come in the midst of exposition.

The story’s subtitle, “A Study in Temperament,” provides the explanation for this unusual structure. Cather is less interested in writing a traditional short story than she is in providing a case study of a suicidal young man. Each piece of exposition explains or elaborates on a motivation for Paul’s eventual suicide. By the time Paul leaps in front of the train, we recognize a number of reasons for his action: the death of his mother, his longing to join the upper class, his idealized love for the arts, his homosexual tendencies, his alienation from society, and his impossible craving for money. By doing away with dramatized scenes, Cather produces the effect of a story extrapolated from a doctor’s notes on the causes of a patient’s suicide. Modern critics have diagnosed Paul as delusional and narcissistic. These terms were not in common usage when “Paul’s Case” was first published; Cather wrote the story several years before Freud became popular in America. However, the story certainly anticipates America’s fascination with analysis, and Cather’s subtitle emphasizes her own interest in studying Paul’s psyche.

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