- Is Cather's Paul a Case?1
"Paul's Case" is Willa Cather's most popular story—deservedly so, although one of the reasons for its preeminence is that for many years it was the only one Cather would allow reprinted. It remains still the first choice of anthologists, as a glance at any half dozen current collections will show, and it has been dramatized in a popular public television series. Until recently, however, "Paul's Case" received little critical notice. One reason, doubtless, is that Paul's story seems admirably clear-cut: a sensitive adolescent, attracted to music and the theater, is pushed by a callous, commercial society into a desperate theft. Facing discovery, he takes his own life by falling under the wheels of a locomotive, symbol of the iron industrialism and grinding materialism of the age. Certainly that is how students respond to the story, attracted, naturally, by any picture of misunderstood youth and no doubt inclined to sympathize, too, with Paul's aversion to lady high-school teachers, with their shrill voices and "pitiful seriousness about prepositions that govern the dative" (Troll Garden 112).
No doubt a second reason is that "Paul's Case" resists being assimilated to Cather's other work. It seems to lack her stamp. In place of vast prairie horizons or silent cliff dwellings we have a "smoke palled [End Page 121] city" (111)—turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh—and a boy who markedly lacks the vibrancy we expect in Cather's central figures. Paul's specialness is a kind of inarticulate stubbornness: his teachers think of him as a cornered alley cat. Further, as this example suggests, the sweep of imagery and allusion that marks Cather's style elsewhere is missing here—the narrative voice feels cribbed and confined like her hero's actions and purposes. In fact, these actions and purposes are the real trouble. Could the Cather who wrote so frequently against materialism regard with sympathy one who spends stolen money on a week of high living in a New York hotel and who, confronting death, reflects that he knew now "more than ever, that money was everything" (119)? The answer from the critics is no; in fact, the gathering consensus is that her story is bathed in irony.
Serious criticism began by confronting a task that has proved troublesome—fitting the story into the collection where it first appeared, seven stories having to do with art and artists that Cather titled The Troll Garden, her first book of fiction, published in 1905. The title and epigraphs suggest certain dangers in art, the work of not-quite-human trolls, fascinating to "forest children" peeking into their garden (the epigraph is from Charles Kingsley's The Roman and the Teuton). Cather made these dangers more puzzling and ominous by a second epigraph, from Christina Rossetti's "The Goblin Market": "We must not look at Goblin men, / We must not buy their fruits. . . ." Considerable critical acumen has been expended on this suggested framework. E. K. Brown, Cather's first biographer, asserts rather lamely that "Paul's Case," the last of the seven, makes a "fitting coda" (114). James Woodress, in his Introduction to his definitive edition of The Troll Garden, and in his biography, speaks elliptically of a "forest child destroyed by . . . the forbidden fruit," the assumption being, it would seem, that Paul transgresses a moral boundary and that theater and concert hall themselves exude a malevolency ("Introduction" xvi-xvii, Life 172-175).
Other commentators are more explicit or venturesome. Susan Rosowski, in her study of Cather's romanticism, stresses the tempting dangers posed by the troll/goblin artists and the horror of the "bewitched" boy who has "lost his soul" to an "inhuman" fantasy (19-23). Marilyn Arnold finds Paul indeed a case, a psychological one, "eccentric, maybe even half-crazy," mistaken even about grimy Cordelia Street where Paul, motherless since birth, lives with his father and two shadowy sisters (43-45). Where Paul sees grey ugliness, Arnold sees a respectable neighborhood of white-collar workers, full of children and plans for the future. Paul is equally blind about the world of art, mistaking glitter for real...