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Book Report: "Paul's Case" by Willa Cather

Erika Scherer*

Resume of the story

Because of his offensive attitude toward his teachers, Paul is called to the Principal's office and suspended for a week. He comes out completely unperturbed, and goes directly to work at the Carnegie Concert Hall as an usher. This is the only place where he feels comfortable and happy, so he stays later than usual, and is afraid to come home, fearing g the reaction of his father. He decides to sleep in the basement of his house and tell his father that he had no money to come home the street car and had to spend the night with a friend. This time he avoids punishment. Two days later he goes to a rehearsal at the theater with his friend Charley Edwards. After that, his attitude toward school gets worse, and his father is asked to take him out. As a result, Paul's father also forbids Paul to see Charley Edwards or to work at Carnegie Hall again, and sends him to work at an office. Paul feels that everything has been taken away from him, and decides to escape. He steals money from his employers and goes to New York, where he experiences the pleasures of the life he has dreamt of for a long time. When his theft is discovered, he feels trapped; he doesn't want to go back to his ugly and common life (and face the consequences of what he's done), and decides the best way out is to kill himself, so he jumps in front of a moving train. At the moment of death, he thinks of all the things he hasn't done, and experiences a moment of suffering before he can finally rest in peace.

Setting, mood and theme.

In this story, the setting is a city. Many stories take place in cities, but the setting in this story has a very special characteristic: it's like two places in one.

The objective of this story is very clear after reading the first pages of the story: first of all, it is necessary that the reader feels the constantly changing mood the story is trying to create, and part of this is done by contrasting the two areas of the city.

It is very difficult to put in concise words the theme of this story, because there are so many things to consider. It's related to the fear of facing one's own bad actions, of being humiliated or rejected, but it's also related to lack of love and understanding, lies, and the search for beauty in life. All of these aspects, and the fact that Paul is an adolescent suggest that the theme is related to "growing up". However, I think the story goes much further that that, so I would say the theme is "fear"; Paul feels it all the time inside of him but never he shows it.

Description of the main character

Paul is a tall and thin boy about 16 years old. He has a narrow chest, and his shoulders are high and bent. He is not a strong boy in the physical sense of the word, but there is something invulnerable about him, as if he couldn't be hurt no matter what anybody said or did to him. This insolent attitude is expressed in every one of his small gestures.

He says what he thinks, but that doesn't mean he is a brave person. On the contrary, his attitude comes from hate and boredom. He does nothing to change his life until everything gets to be too much for him. He is then surprised by his own courage.

But he is a very imaginative person. He has "some hilarious spirit within him, something that struggles there like the genie in the bottle found by the Arab fisherman". Maybe that's why he hates monotony so much and why he admires actors and musicians. Rethinks beauty and pleasure are in a sense artificial, and that's why he associates them which luxury and money, but in the end that's not what he's looking for.

Very deep within him there is fear and a longing to be loved and understood, a need to be himself, to be different, that he hides under a hard mask of lies and hatred so nobody can hurt him.

Conflict in the story

The main conflict in the story is inside Paul. It's between what he would like to be and what he actually is; something we could call his "conscience": "the shadowed corner, the dark place into which he dared not look, but from which something seemed always to be watching him" It's the continuous struggle inside him of two opposing forces. One of them is his imagination, his search of beauty and pleasure. The other one his deepest fears and needs.

These two forces in conflict create in Paul unhappiness and unconformity, as they take turns controlling him.

Attitude of the author towards the character and the situation

In this story, the attitude of the author is both compassionate and understanding towards Paul. The following examples, taken from the text, speak for themselves:

-"I’ve had never lied for pleasure, even at school (...); and he felt a good deal more manly, more honest, even, now that he had no need for boastful pretensions ( ... )".

-" Paul wondered whether he were destined always to shiver in the black night outside looking up at it".


The message this story left me was that dreams can destroy people. Dreaming makes people feel good and relaxed, but makes it harder to live with reality, because living in a dream is like living in a perfect and beautiful world that doesn't exist.

I felt happy for Paul when he died, because he finally obtained the peace he wanted so much, and that showed me that death is not necessarily as cruel and tragic for the dead as for the living, because who knows? Maybe it is not the end but the beginning, the beginning of peace and harmony in the "inmense design of things".

Personal opinion of the story

I enjoyed the story very much because it made me think about a lot of things, and understand a person like Paul. Although the story is somewhat difficult to understand it has a touch of mystery that makes it very interesting.

It is also very moving and appeals to one's emotions and feeling, and that, I think, is very important in a story.

The message this story left me was that
dreams can destroy people. Dreaming
make people feel good and relaxed, but
makes it harder to live with reality,
because living in a dream is like living in a
perfect and beautiful world that doesn't

(*) Estudiante de Licenciatura de Química. Cohorte ' 89.

Universalia nº 8 Sep - Dic 1992