Willa Cather first published “Paul’s Case” in a 1905 issue of McCall’s Magazine and almost since the day that edition was delivered to doors across the country, the story has been one of the most anthologized in the history of . The sad, strange tale of a young man who may be simply nothing more than a simple non-conformist has since been interpreted in a number of interesting ways from a portrait of something that has come to be called a “gay suicide” to an intensely focused psychological profile ending with a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder for the title character.
What Cather’s remarkably tenacious short story is unqualifiedly about is what it is like to be live in dread of the life that one sees spread out before them. What is Paul’s case, exactly? It is the unnecessary medical terminology employed by those on the outside to the inside of a mind that is struggling with everything at its disposal to put all kind of distance between the life they are living and the dream of what that life has the potential to be.
They say denial ain’t just a river in Egypt and one of the things that it is the defense mechanism that Paul employs to deal with the reality that is most assuredly not the one in which he would prefer existing. In this, it can be effectively argued that there is definitely a connection between Paul and his creator, Miss Cather. Much of Cather’s literary output is highly suggestive of a woman whose spirit rejected the conformity that Paul so despises. Cather’s actual life, however, does not necessarily reflect that she was able to escape the dread of conformity that eventually drives Paul to an extreme solution.
The fact that Paul is living a life of denial becomes quite apparent early on when he is undergoing interrogation at the school. Readers should take special notice of the Paul’s decision to wear a red carnation, his happy-go-lucky demeanor and, most especially, the complete lack of concern on his part whenever he delivers a whopper to the question the teachers asked because he knows his best route to getting through the process is to simply say what they want to hear. The fact Paul can so easily lie in a way that makes people happy because they are hearing exactly what they want to hear is just another in a series of demonstrations that he is all about artifice. And Cather wrote the story because she was very much interested in the dichotomy that existed between art and artifice and between reality and illusion. Not to mention the potential for happiness that lies within the possibility of creating happiness by fictionalizing a life. What Paul wants without actually having to do what it takes to get it is to live the life of a rich aesthete. Failing the desire to put the work that is necessary to become a rich aesthete, Paul decides to fictionalize the life of a rich aesthete.
“Paul’s Case” is a case of denial that leads to a fictionalizing one’s life in response to the dread that overcomes you when you peer into the future and see the worst of all possible outcomes.