â€œConformity versus individualityâ€
Willa Catherâ€™s â€œPaulâ€™s Case,â€ displays the conflict between conformity and individuality through the main character, Paul. On a number of occasions, Paul is forced to lie and steal to escape the conformists who wish to control him and stifle his unique imagination. However, his lying, stealing, and attempts to escape the conformists, only force Paul into isolation, depression, and feeling a sense of shame for his individuality. Throughout the story one might see Catherâ€™s constant contrast of individuality versus conformity, as well as Paulâ€™s lying and stealing. Cather seems to draw the conclusion that extreme individuals, much like Paul are simply misunderstood, and not offered the acceptance they desire from conformist society.
One way Cather contrasts individuality and conformity is through detailed descriptions of Paulâ€™s character: Paulâ€™s appearance, Paulâ€™s unusual mannerisms, and Paulâ€™s open criticisms of conformity. Collectively, these three characteristics assert Paulâ€™s individuality. Paulâ€™s appearance is described in detail at the beginning of the story and provides the foundation of his individuality: â€œPaul was tall for his age and very thin, with high, cramped shoulders and a narrow chestâ€(Pg. 1). One only needs to reach the second paragraph of the story and realize Paul does not fit in, which can be accredited to Catherâ€™s careful word choice â€œfor his age.â€ Most young individuals, specifically in Paulâ€™s teenage age bracket, will struggle for acceptance from their peers; however it appears that Paul makes little effort in this regard. Paulâ€™s unusual mannerisms are also worthy of analysis, and aid in creating a mental picture of this unusual young man. Cather uses Paulâ€™s meeting with the faculty of his educational facility to convey the irritating and intimidating qualities of his mannerisms. She writes, â€œHis teachers felt this afternoon that his whole attitude was symbolized by his shrug and his flippantly red carnation flower, and they fell upon him without mercyâ€¦. He stood through it smiling, his pale lips parted over his white teeth. (His lips were continually twitching, and he had a habit of raising his eyebrows that was contemptuous and irritating to the last degree)â€(Pg.2). Combined with the description of Paulâ€™s physical appearance, his mannerisms now give the mental picture a personality, and a rather discomforting one at that. Cather culminates this discomfort in order to give the reader the perspective of the conformist, the opposing argument in the conflict between conformity and individuality.
Paul also openly criticizes conformity frequently throughout the story. Paulâ€™s criticisms can be seen in his detailed observations of people and their routines. However, none of these criticisms compare to Paulâ€™s hate for his home on Cordelia Street. Cather describes Cordeila Street, noting that all the houses are identical, as well as its inhabitants. Following the description of the street, Cather describes Paulâ€™s hatred for his mediocrity plagued home is expressed: â€œPaul never went up Cordelia Street without a shudder of loathingâ€¦ he approached it to-night with the nerveless sense of defeat, the hopeless feeling of sinking back forever into ugliness and commonness that he had always had when he came homeâ€(Pg. 5). Later on in the story, while Paul is in New York and is contemplating his fear of being reprimanded for his actions, he constantly reminds himself of the painful existence that awaits him on Cordelia Street: â€œIt was to be worse than jail, even; the tepid waters of Cordelia Street were to close over him finally and forever. The grey monotony stretched before him in hopeless, unrelieved yearsâ€(Pg. 13). Cather seems to use Cordiela street as a all-encompassing metaphor for conformist society; and Paulâ€™s individuality and hate for Cordiela Street serves as the contrasting element, in turn becoming the most powerful illustration of individuality versus conformity in the entire story.
Despite the seemingly unfavorable portrayal of Paulâ€™s character, Cather provides a great deal of information on his secret life, his passions. Paul has an obsession with the arts, which serve as either an outlet or cause for his individuality, while at the same time bringing a certain understanding about Paulâ€™s unique persona to the reader. Cather illustrates this obsession frequently; for example she writes: â€œIt was not that symphonies, as such, meant anything in particular to Paul, but the first sigh of the instruments seemed to free some hilarious and potent spirit within him; something that struggled there like the Genius in the bottle found by the Arab fishermanâ€(Pg. 3). However Paulâ€™s obsession with the arts is not necessarily healthy either, and serves almost as an addiction, as he has no desire to pursue a career in the arts. Although Paul seems to escape his daily struggle with conformity, and become lost in the dream world that these medias create for him, his desire to remain in a world of fantasy motivates him to lie and steal. This addiction is the reason Paul makes up stories in school about fantastic voyages he never takes, lying to his teachers, stealing money from â€œDenny & Carson'sâ€ (possibly a law firm?), and using the stolen money to pursue his fantasy: â€œwhat he wanted was to see, to be in the atmosphere [around the music and arts], float on the wave of it, to be carried out, blue league after blue league, away from everything.â€(Pg. 8) Even though Cather in some way justifies Paulâ€™s pursuit of his dreams through this addiction to the arts, it is commonsense that most have a dream to pursue, and most will not need to lie and steal to achieve it. On this premise, the justification of Paulâ€™s negative actions seems voided and Paulâ€™s only saving grace is the fact that he is young, and naive.
Therefore, it makes sense that these attempts to escape conformity through Paulâ€™s obsession with the arts and his lying and stealing, only lead to his isolation, depression, a sense of shame of his individuality. Paul is constantly isolated, and only on a few token occasions is he accompanied by others. One occasion is with the boy he spent his last night out with getting drunk in New York, which is the most prolonged human contact documented in the story. Paul is also depressed, his alcohol abuse during his escapade in New York, his strange perspective on the world, the absence of a mother figure, and his isolation to some degree, all seem to play a role in his depression. It can also be observed that the entire escapade in New York, was simply a cry for help, a call for attention. Paul also feels a sense of shame for his actions: â€œThere had always been the shadowed corner, the dark place into which he dared not look, but from which something seemed always to be watching him