Escapism in “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather

Paul is described to be fragile in physique and in character. “Paul was tall and very thin with high, cramped shoulders and a narrow chest” with abnormally large pupils and a tendency to wear flowers in his shirt pocket. In class, his teachers called him defiant, disorderly, and impertinent. The issue was that he didn’t hide his contempt; they complained that he made every physical sign—twisting away from their touch, shading his eyes, smiling at the wrong time, twitching, and gazing out the window–of withdrawal. For this, they wanted to suspend him. They wanted to suspend him. They wanted to suspend Paul simply because it made them feel insulted or uncomfortable; Paul was being punished for being slightly out of touch. “I didn’t mean to be polite or impolite, either. I guess it’s a sort of way I have of saying things regardless.” Is having no regard such an offense? The teachers finally realized that the boy was no defiant but had nervous tics and consequently they felt “humiliated to have felt so vindictive toward a mere boy”. The tables turn.

Paul is an usher at the local concert hall, where he gains access to and frequently enjoys the company of Gounod, Raffaelli, Rick, Augustus, and Alexandros of Antioch. “He was a model usher; gracious and smiling…nothng was too much trouble…as if it were his greatest pleasure in life…and all the people in his section thought him charming, feeling that he remembered and admired them.” Paul felt as if he were the host and was delighted, if not proud of himself and his status.

The juxtaposition of the settings reaffirmed what a place can make a person. In one, he is a mockery where pretentious and false persons openly expose their fangs and claws to rip the young boy to pieces; in the other, the “high” society of art, history, and culture, he is loved and adored. His smile is no longer a menace but of earnestness. Ironically, Paul subsequently looks down patronizingly at his teacher (who had been invited as charity), thinking “what business had she here among all these fine people and gay colors?” He decided that she was not “appropriately dressed and must be a fool to sit downstairs in such togs.” Paul had become as caustic and false as his teachers. He, like his teachers in theirs, had become too comfortable in his realm.

A person is bound to feel haughty and miserable when the feeling of home is a place that is exclusive: the place they seek refuge wants nothing to do with them. Yet, for this person, the real home is unwanted and disposable, taken for granted, even though maybe, in this real home the person is loved and wanted. A person is bound to feel dislocated and scornful if they feel loathing towards their own house: “he approached it tonight with the nerveless sense of defeat, the hopeless feeling of sinking back forever into ugliness and commonness.” It is unfortunate to be unable to reconcile both the common and the grand; they can both live within a person. It is truth. The cosmic greatness of creation lies within us and the cosmic insignificance lies there too–the world is greater than our tiny cares and worries. This is Paul’s lesson.

Paul worries too much’ he’s utterly afraid of the realness of the world and aggrandizes irrationalities: he can’t sleep because of the imaginary rates; he imagines his father shooting him, mistaking him for a burglar; he imagines this until daybreak. Why do we fantasize about the most unlikely threats?

Paul’s father talks idly to a model young man, the poster boy for industrial Pittsburgh: employed in a steel corporation, married, father of four, and utterly opposite to Paul’s imaginary life.  Paul inadvertently compares himself to the young man, reinforcing his feeling of inadequacy.

Paul only feels alive at the house of art, “the rest was but sleep and forgetting.” It was in art that “all stupid and ugly things slid from him. Paul’s case is our case.

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