Paul’s Scorn for the Middle Class

Some of the most memorable passages in “Paul’s Case” are the descriptions of Paul’s neighborhood, which seethe with anger and resentment. Paul’s beloved worlds of theater and money are often described in vague terms because Paul knows almost nothing real about them. In contrast, the world of Cordelia Street brims with concrete details, and it is these details that are so upsetting to Paul. The narrator describes Paul’s wooden bed, the cushions on which the housewives sit, the bellies of the men, the conversations about the children’s progress in school, and the portraits of George Washington and John Calvin that hang in Paul’s room. The details that horrify Paul the most get repeated: the yellow wallpaper, smell of cooking, and love of arithmetic. The repetition of these details reveals the class hatred that plays continuously in Paul’s mind. Every mention of the neighborhood and its trappings drips with loathing. Paul hates the piety and work ethic of the people he comes from. He despises the very place that is most real in his mind and longs for the abstract world of the upper class.

The angry tone of these passages brings up an issue that recurs throughout the story: the extent to which the narrator—and, by extension, Cather—sympathizes with Paul. On first reading, it is tempting to conclude that the narrator presents Paul as a hero or at least a traditional protagonist. We might assume that the narrator considers Paul’s suicide the only way out of a world that does not understand him. A closer look, however, shows that the narrator is highly critical of Paul. In the passages about his middle-class neighborhood, the narrator is showing, rather than sharing, Paul’s fury. Cather wants her readers to understand that despite what Paul believes, the residents of Cordelia Street are actually hardworking, decent people. And although Paul’s depression is treated with sympathy, his scornfulness and other shortcomings are not. Cather asks us to recognize that Paul’s anger at his family and his neighbors is the typical product of teenage sullenness, not a reason for suicide.