In the 1905 short story “Paul’s Case”, author Willa Cather leaves the reader to wonder what exactly Paul’s “case” is. Throughout the story, there seems to be clues left behind by Cather as to what Paul’s obstacles are. Some of Cather’s indications of what Paul is dealing with, make it appear as though Paul is suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), and effects of an unresolved Oedipus Complex. These potential factors of Paul’s ambiguous personality are expressed through Paul’s actions. Examples of some of his alarming behavior would be his views on society and his poor decisions towards the very end of the story.
In Willa Cather’s story, “Paul’s Case”, the opening scene starts off with a meeting discussing if Paul, the main character of the story, should be allowed reentry to school following his suspension a week prior. Following the meeting, it comes up that there was something about Paul that no one could directly understand. It comes out that at a very young age, Paul lost his mother. It’s clear that he wouldn’t remember this experience or remember her at all, but there are plenty of direct effects from losing a parent. An effect of losing a parent could be developing Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This disorder can cause a person to feel as if they’re better than those surrounding them and feel like they’re entitled to more than what they have earned. There are many other symptoms of this disorder such as, “Feeling and behaving in socially distressing ways, limiting their ability to function in relationships and other areas of their life, such as work or school… feeling a sense of entitlement — and when not receiving special treatment, one may become impatient or angry. One may insist on having “the best” of everything…” (Mayo Clinic) These examples of NPD are clearly shown in Paul’s arrogant personality. As Paul’s teachers realize they should be easier on him, he is allowed back into school. Following the meeting, Paul goes to his place of work, Carnegie Hall, where he is an usher. Being an usher, seems to be Paul’s calling in life. He appreciates this occupation and admires what he does, to a point where it is slightly alarming. Paul seems to be infatuated by art and theater, “The instruments seemed to free some hilarious and potent spirit within him…He felt a sudden zest of life; the lights danced before his eyes and the concert hall blazed into unimaginable splendor” (Cather). The author’s descriptions of Paul’s euphoric experience express that art is like an escape for him. However, for someone in a disorderly state like Paul, these kinds of escapes aren’t benefiting him. He is already so out of touch with reality, therefore additional delusions won’t aid his distorted view of the world. Following the symphony, he follows a singer from the show to her hotel, he stood outside daydreaming of what it would be like to live a lavish lifestyle like her. His daydreams of this life he believes he should have reflect the possibility of him inhabiting this disorder. This possibility is reflected through his other actions. His actions also reflect possibilities of other issues within Paul.
Willa Cather describes the street Paul’s house is on as “highly respectable”. As Paul heads home, it’s mentioned that Paul feels a shudder of loathing as he heads towards his street. He hates the simplicity of the lives surrounding him, the author describes his views as, “…loathing of respectable beds, of common food, of a house penetrated by kitchen odors; a shuddering repulsion for the flavorless, colorless mass of every-day existence; a morbid desire for cool things and soft lights and fresh flowers” (Cather). While he still lives a well off life, but still craves for more. These greedy ways about him can be explained by his disorderly personality. When Paul finally arrives home, we uncover new information about Paul. Cather states how Paul had a fear of rats and didn’t like the basement of his home, but to avoid confrontation from his father, Paul chooses to sleep down there. This shows the strong feelings he must have towards his father. However, to the reader, it doesn’t seem like Paul’s father has many strong negative feelings towards Paul. It turns out Paul’s father really wishes the absolute best for Paul, this is reflected later on as well. The following evening, Paul heads over to the theater, to hang out with a friend named Charley, who comes off as maybe more than a friend. Cather describes their relationship as, “For more than a year Paul had spent every available moment loitering about Charley Edwards’s dressing-room…the young actor, who could not afford to employ a dresser” (Cather). Willa Cather also goes on to mention that theater was Paul’s infatuation, but she mentions it in such a way that may suggest something more about Charley, “This was Paul’s fairy tale, and it had for him all the allurement of a secret love” (Cather). This statement seems to imply that Paul may have been homosexual. His feelings towards Charley, his feelings towards his father, and the death of his mother point towards the possibility of an unresolved Oedipus Complex. The Oedipus Complex, a theory by Sigmund Freud, suggests that during a child’s development it is important to have a “…desire for sexual involvement with the parent of the opposite sex and a concomitant sense of rivalry with the parent of the same sex” (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). This is important because it helps mold the personality of a child. When the child eventually subconsciously realizes they can’t be with the parent of the opposite sex, they take qualities from the parent of the same sex to try and be more like them, hoping to find someone similar to them. In Paul’s case, he only had his father for his entire life. If this process by Freud is so crucial to sexual development and molding one’s personality, Paul failed to complete it, leaving it unresolved. This could have resulted in him only being subconsciously attracted to his father, developing a more homosexual personality. Being homosexual could have majorly contributed to Paul’s issues considering the time period and the likeliness of being accepted for what he was by society and his father. These ideas are further proven later in the story when Paul meets another boy. This possible unresolved Oedipus Complex and Narcissistic Personality Disorder could be contributors to Paul’s case. These contributors later have a strong impact of Paul’s fate. Throughout “Paul’s Case”, Paul seems to lose himself and grow more distant as we approach the ending. Paul’s symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder grow as he grows fonder of Charley. Paul begins bragging at school about how close he is with the theater and different actors; a symptom of NPD is, “…exaggerating your achievements and talents” (Mayo Clinic). It becomes alarming for the school and Paul’s father. Eventually, Paul’s father pulls him out of school, and makes him quit from working at the theater. On top of taking away his dream job, he doesn’t allow him to see Charley anymore. Paul’s father didn’t do this to hurt Paul, he actually did this for Paul’s benefit. Following these events, Paul takes an overnight train to New York City. This trip was planned out to every detail, right down to the fresh flowers in his hotel room, “He had gone over every detail of it with Charley Edwards, and in his scrap-book at home there were pages of description about New York hotels, cut from the Sunday papers” (Cather). Upon arrival, Paul is in touch yet again with his NPD. Before Paul departed to New York, he was working somewhere new, he was asked to make a deposit at a bank, but he kept the majority of the money. Now that he is in New York, he decides to live his life the way he has always dreamt to. Paul goes to stores and purchases the best clothes and shoes, and checks into the Waldorf. He lives these few days like he believed he should have lived his whole life. He spends a night watching the orchestra at the hotel, he felt he truly belonged there. The next night, Paul encounters a new boy, this new boy is a Yale student. Paul’s experience with this boy is not detailed or explained much at all, but Cather suggests that Paul and the Yale student had some kind of sexual relations the night they met. “…The two boys went out together after dinner, not returning to the hotel until seven o’clock the next morning…The freshman pulled himself together to make his train and Paul went to bed” (Cather). This is another example of Paul’s unresolved Oedipus Complex, and his homosexuality. Not long after, Paul’s theft has made its way to the newspaper. When Paul reads, he discovers his father paid the money back and was on his way to get him. Paul then thinks about what would be to come, his old street, and the simplicity of life back home, “Until now, he could not remember the time when he had not been dreading something” (Cather). When his last day arrived, he realized what it was he lived for, “…he knew now, more than ever, that money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted” (Cather). After this realization, Paul decides to head towards the train, not to go back home, but to jump before the oncoming train. That is exactly what he does. At this point, it’s clear to the reader that Paul was planning this trip to have a final great experience.
In “Paul’s Case”, the protagonist, Paul, has a traumatic life. He inhabits Narcissistic Personality Disorder and an unresolved Oedipus Complex. He also had a series of bad experiences and felt his calling in life was something he would never achieve. Paul also was not appreciative of much and didn’t have a positive outlook on life or society itself. Paul’s case is he felt like he didn’t belong where he was and needed more money to get there.
Cather, Willa “Paul’s Case” 1905 Print
Mayo Clinic “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” November 8, 2014 Website
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica “Oedipus Complex” Website