Paul’s Case by Willa Cather Analysis

Paul's Case

“Paul’s Case” is a short story by Willa Cather, first published in McClure’s Magazine in 1905 under the title “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament”.

As a New Zealander, I have a longterm interest in Katherine Mansfield. I’m coming late to American Willa Cather, but the first thing I notice is that she was writing short stories in the same era as Mansfield. Unlike Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather wrote novels as well as short stories. Cather lived a full life, to the age of 73. Mansfield died of tuberculosis age 34. Many have wondered if Mansfield would have eventually written novels had she lived longer, but I feel this wondering is afflicted by the belief that novels are somehow a ‘graduation’ of the short story. Short stories are an art form in their own right. Many successful novelists find short stories impossible.

Cather was a bit older than Mansfield, born in 1873. Mansfield was born in 1888. A lot was happening around that time, especially regarding women’s rights. There may well have been a generational difference between the two women (as well as a geographical one). Also, Mansfield was right into Freud, whereas Willa Carther may not have even heard of him. (Does it make any difference, when it comes to ideas that pervade the culture and influence writers?)

What interests me after reading the title of “Paul’s Case” is the writers’ shared interest in the field of psychology. “Paul’s Case” is an exploration of a high school student’s inner thoughts. One of Mansfield’s short stories is even titled “Psychology“. That said, “Paul’s Case” reminds me most of Mansfield’s “Bliss“: A character exists in a dreamworld where everything is perfect, but in ‘returning home’ (actually in Paul’s case, metaphorically in Bertha’s case), our main characters are forced to face the mundane existence of their actual lives.

He spent more than an hour in dressing, watching every stage of his toilet carefully in the mirror. Everything was quite perfect; he was exactly the kind of boy he had always wanted to be.

Paul’s Case

She hardly dared to look into the cold mirror but she did look, and it gave her back a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips, with big, dark eyes and an air of listening, waiting for something . . . divine to happy…

— Bliss

  The original full title is “Paul’s Case: A Study In Temperament”. These days, we tend to use ‘personality’ for humans and ‘temperament’ for pets.

Paul’s Case” is available to read online, and there’s an entire Wikipedia article about it. My own interest is in the plot structure, from a short story writer’s point of view.



Paul grows up in comfortable, white, suburban Pittsburgh. He has no understanding of his own privilege and despises the entire place. I suppose the irony is that if it were a more culturally diverse place, it would be more interesting to someone like Paul. Yet he despises what little cultural diversity does exist.

Later the story shifts to Newark. Unlike Paul, Willa Cather herself didn’t grow up in Pittsburgh, but did live there as an adult for 10 years, working as a young teacher. Like Paul, she later transplanted herself to New York, as Paul transplants himself to New York to start a new life (with a wholly invented back story).

This is a world in which it’s easy to run away, never to be found again. Pre Internet, pre-DNA, when businesses dealt in cheques rather than direct transfers. It’s entirely plausible that Paul might get away with his crime.

New York is described like this:

Paul took a carriage and drove up Fifth Avenue toward the Park. The snow had somewhat abated, carriages and tradesmen’s wagons were hurrying to and fro in the winter twilight, boys in woollen mufflers were shovelling off the doorsteps, the avenue stages made fine spots of color against the white street. Here and there on the corners were stands, with whole flower gardens blooming under glass cases, against the sides of which the snow-flakes stuck and melted; violets, roses, carnations, lilies of the valley, somehow vastly more lovely and alluring that they blossomed thus unnaturally in the snow. The Park itself was a wonderful stage winter-piece.

Which reminds me very much of another Katherine Mansfield short story, also about a fantasist who doesn’t really belong in the city — “The Tiredness of Rosabel“.

Rosabel looked out of the windows [of the bus]; the street was blurred and misty, but light striking on the panes turned their dullness to opal and silver, and the jewellers’ shops seen through this, were fairy palaces.

Like Rosabel, Paul gets to his room and flops about in a tired fashion, loving the city but viewing it as an outsider, accustomed to doing so after a lifetime (thus far) of imagining his situation is better than it really is.


“Paul’s Case” is basically a ‘character study’. Paul might be any number of young men of this era.

But even the most interesting ‘character studies’ are not stories in their own right, until they include the following seven elements. In a character study short story, these elements sort of take backseat to the narrator’s description of character. But they’re still there.


Paul is described as a ‘dandy’ which is now a comical word in English. I remember my native-Japanese Japanese language lecturer giving us a Japanese word then telling us that it means ‘dandy’ in English and the entire class laughed spontaneously.

Literary scholars have named Paul as an example of ‘the village sissy’ trope.

But at the turn of the 20th century, ‘dandy’ described a certain kind of well-dressed man who was also self-absorbed. The dandy was transgressive, gender-wise, which Willa Cather explains in her narrative. Transgressing gender norms provokes an uncanny response in a culture which works with a clear gender binary. So Paul has that against him.

Paul’s on-the-page shortcoming is revolves around the huge gap between his ideal imagined life and his reality.

Cather begins the story speaking as a distant narrator, but here we are inside Paul’s head:

Paul alighted from his car and went slowly down one of the side streets off the main thoroughfare. It was a highly respectable street, where all the houses were exactly alike, and where business men of moderate means begot and reared large families of children, all of whom went to Sabbath-school and learned the shorter catechism, and were interested in arithmetic; all of whom were as exactly alike as their homes, and of a piece with the monotony in which they lived.

If Paul were a child of one of those business men he so despises, he might actually be happier. Nothing breeds unhappiness like affluenza, as we might now call it. Paul wants to live in an exotic world, “a tropical world of shiny, glistening surfaces and basking ease”.

in Paul’s world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness…a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty

Instead, he lives in an environment which test his phobias:

He was horribly afraid of rats, so he did not try to sleep, but sat looking distrustfully at the dark, still terrified least he might have awakened his father.

Willa Cather uses what others have called ‘side-shadowing‘ to describe the way Paul thinks about his life. He plays numerous circumstances out in his head. I do wonder how common this is, in a population. Here, Paul goes through all the scenarios that might happen if his father caught him sneaking in through the window:

Suppose his father had heard him getting in at the window, and come down and shot him for a burglar? Then, again, suppose his father had come down, pistol in hand, and he had cried out in time to save himself, and his father had been horrified to think how nearly he had killed him? Then, again, suppose a day should come when his father would remember that night, and wish there had been no warning cry to stay his hand? With this last supposition Paul entertained himself until daybreak.

(I’m glad I live in a country with strict gun control. My father was required to hand in his inherited antique WW1 gun in the late 1980s. He couldn’t buy bullets for it anyhow. I have never once wondered if an action might lead to me being shot.)

Paul has a holier-than-thou, condescending attitude towards the people who sit on ‘stoops’ — the word itself is in rubber glove quote marks, showing he doesn’t approve of the word, or of the practice.

Paul is eventually revealed to be a full-on fantasist. Willa Cather reveals the extent of Paul’s lying slowly. At first she reveals that Paul lies to himself. This feels harmless. After all, doesn’t everyone fantasise about a better life sometimes? But as often happens in stories, when a character has an active imagination, Paul is eventually revealed to be an outright liar:

When these stories lost their effect, and his audience grew listless, he became desperate and would bid all the boys good-night, announcing that he was going to travel for a while, going to Naples, to Venice, to Egypt. Then, next Monday, he would slip back, conscious, and nervously smiling; his sister was ill, and he should have to defer his voyage until spring.

Fantasists can have huge moral shortcomings. An interesting portrait of a fantasist, played by Emily Blunt, is Tamsin in My Summer Of Love — a film which I felt from the beginning would fit nicely into Katherine Mansfield’s oeuvre.

Is Paul really gay? Willa Cather is thought to have been lesbian, and well-used to portraying a different persona in an era when same-sex love is illegal, let alone taboo. The dissonance between Paul’s reality and his illiberal environment are his main off-the-page psychological shortcoming.

Fictional Paul reminds me of real life Stephen Fry. While Paul is coded as ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ by some scholars, Stephen Fry was driven by bipolar disorder, as yet undiagnosed, when at the age of 17 he stole a credit card from a family friend, ran away from home and had a grand old time in Swindon. He was required to serve 3 months in a Pucklechurch prison.

Stephen Fry has published a letter to his 16-year-old self, which may as well be written to Willa Cather’s fictional Paul.


Have you noticed the gendered nature of fantasists in fiction? It’s far easier to come up with a list of female fantasists—from dreamy to dangerous—than to come up with male equivalents.

Willa Cather’s Paul may be an exception, gendered male, but Cather codes him as feminine and gay.

The idea of fantasist overlaps with our idea of ‘liar’, since fantasists are so often depicted as lying, either to themselves or to everyone else around them. There is a long history of women portrayed as liars, in fiction, in media, in pop culture. Fantasy is on the lying spectrum.

There is a ‘silence’ (and a hole in the market) for stories about masculine male characters who are fantasists.  Male fantasists certainly exist in real life, but we don’t tend to think of them as such. For instance, a male stalker fantasises about dominating a woman, controlling every aspect of her life. This type of man is nothing if not a fantasist. Yet in fiction we are rarely allowed inside his head. An exception would be Paul Spector in The Fall, in which we see the scribbled notebooks kept by a male serial killer.

Don Draper is another male fantasist, though his own invented backstory is depicted as accidental and purely pragmatic — we get no indication that Draper fantasises inside his own head about what it might have been like to enjoy a completely different childhood. Yet I suppose he must, because his entire job was about coming up with fantasies in order to sell products to consumers. Instead, Mad Men offers the character of Peggy as more of a classic fantasist. When Peggy goes to dinner with a potential suitor, boasts about her important Madison Avenue job and starts smoking—although she doesn’t normally smoke—she is shown up in a humiliating way as a complete phoney, and with fantasist overtones.

Ultimately, though, Paul is lonely. Main characters with the psychological shortcoming of ‘loneliness’ are very common in short stories. Some have even suggested the short story is all about loneliness, specifically:

“Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society…. As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness.”
—Frank O’Connor


Paul is in love with Charley Edwards, or with the Romantic image of Charley Edwards. He wants to spend as much time as possible with this young man, but he must also keep it secret.

In case we mistake his intentions, Willa Cather tells us what Paul doesn’t want:

He had no desire to become an actor, any more than he had to become a musician. He felt no necessity to do any of these things; what he wanted was to see, to be in the atmosphere, float on the wave of it, to be carried out, blue league after blue league, away from everything.


Because if Paul’s father knew he was sneaking out to see Charley Edwards he would not approve. (We are told that the father has a gun. Is this Chekhov’s gun?)


Paul asks his father for money to ride the car — I guess this is what we’d call a train — to study with another boy when he’s really going to visit Charley at the theatre.

He has also secured a job as an usher, which gets him into that theatre world. His father approves because he think Paul should be earning a little money of his own.

In part two, which has its own 7 steps, the reader remains in audience inferior position as we learn after Paul arrives in New York that he’s done a Marion Crane and stolen money from his work, planning to escape at the weekend to start a new, more glamorous life. (In fact, Hitchcock re-used a trope employed by Willa Catha, not the other way round.)


This story is interesting because of what Willa Cather chose to dramatise and what she chose to summarise. Here she summarises a big struggle rather than dramatising it:

The upshot of the matter was, that the principal went to Paul’s father, and Paul was taken out of school and put to work. The manager at Carnegie Hall was told to get another usher in his stead, the doorkeeper at the theatre was warned not to admit him to the house, and Charley Edwards remorsefully promised the boy’s father not to see him again.

So that’s not the Battle, as such. The general writing rule is that the Battle must be dramatised. Otherwise the reader feels like the story has no ‘point’. We feel ripped off.

Battles don’t always look like fights and arguments, by the way. They quite often happen entirely inside a character’s head.

Like Mansfield does in “The Wind Blows“, the psychological Battle is preceded by a description of setting which heightens the atmosphere:

His head whirled as he stepped into the thronged corridor, and he sank back into one of the chairs against the wall to get his breath. The lights, the chatter, the perfumes, the bewildering medley of color—he had for a moment the feeling of not being able to stand it. But only for a moment; these were his own people, he told himself. He went slowly about the corridors, through the writing-rooms, smoking-rooms, reception-rooms, as though he were exploring the chambers of an enchanted palace, built and peopled for him alone.

In contrast, Mansfield manages to make a big struggle scene out of wind blowing plants by a quiet beach — Willa Cather has more to work with in this city environment.

At this point in “Paul’s Case” he crosses the boundary between ‘fantasist’ to ‘deluded’. He’s hallucinating now. His lies have become so habitual that he has fully convinced himself:

He doubted the reality of his past. Had he ever known a place called Cordelia Street, a place where fagged-looking business men got on the early car; mere rivets in a machine, they seemed to Paul—sickening men, with combings of children’s hair always hanging to their coats, and the smell of cooking in their clothes.

Now the Battle is purely psychological. Once more, Cather cuts out the argument (or whatever happened) between Paul and his potential new buddy:

The young man offered to show Paul the night side of the town, and the two boys went out together after dinner, not returning to the hotel until seven o’clock the next morning. They had started out in the confiding warmth of a champagne friendship, but their parting in the elevator was singularly cool. The freshman pulled himself together to make his train and Paul went to bed.


When Paul runs out of money, he realises it’s money that is the difference between his ideal life and his middle-class reality and he has no idea how to go about getting that amount of money, partly because he’s in a discombobulated state.

His father was in New York; “stopping at some joint or other,” he told himself. The memory of successive summers on the front stoop fell upon him like a weight of black water. He had not a hundred dollars left; and he knew now, more than ever, that money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted. The thing was winding itself up; he had thought of that on his first glorious day in New York, and had even provided a way to snap the thread. It lay on his dressing-table now; he had got it out last night when he came blindly up from dinner, but the shiny metal hurt his eyes, and he disliked the looks of the thing.


Paul is dead.