Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament

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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.