"Conformity versus individuality" Willa Cather's "Paul's Case," 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 Cather's constant contrast of individuality versus conformity, as well as Paul'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 Paul's character: Paul's appearance, Paul's unusual mannerisms, and Paul's open criticisms of conformity. Collectively, these three characteristics assert Paul's individuality. Paul's appearance is described in detail at the beginning of the story and provides the foundation of his individuality: "Paul was tall for his age and very thin, with high, cramped shoulders and a narrow chest" (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 Cather's careful word choice "for his age." Most young individuals, specifically in Paul's teenage age bracket, will struggle for acceptance from their peers; however it appears that Paul makes little effort in this regard.
Paul's unusual mannerisms are also worthy of analysis, and aid in creating a mental picture of this unusual young man. Cather uses Paul's meeting with the faculty of his educational facility to convey the irritating and intimidating qualities of his mannerisms. She writes, "His 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 mercy... 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) " (Pg.
2). Combined with the description of Paul'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.
Paul's criticisms can be seen in his detailed observations of people and their routines. However, none of these criticisms compare to Paul'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 Paul's hatred for his mediocrity plagued home is expressed: "Paul never went up Cordelia Street without a shudder of loathing... 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 home" (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: "It 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 years" (Pg. 13). Cather seems to use Cordiela street as a all-encompassing metaphor for conformist society; and Paul'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 Paul'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 Paul's unique persona to the reader. Cather illustrates this obsession frequently; for example she writes: "It 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 fisherman" (Pg. 3). However Paul'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 "Denny & Carson's" (possibly a law firm? ), and using the stolen money to pursue his fantasy: "what 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." (Pg. 8) Even though Cather in some way justifies Paul'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 Paul's negative actions seems voided and Paul's only saving grace is the fact that he is young, and naive. Therefore, it makes sense that these attempts to escape conformity through Paul'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: "There 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-and Paul had done things that were not pretty to watch, he knew." (Pg. 10) This admittance of fault also supports the depression theory, and also shows that Paul is not simply morally corrupt.
He recognizes what he is doing, realizes that his actions are inherently negative, and yet continues. Part of Cather's explanation for Paul's behavior is that, "Perhaps it was because, in Paul's world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness, that a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty" (Pg. 7). With this in mind, Paul's actions seem deliberate, as if he knew what he was doing all along, again supporting the theory that he was simply wallowing in misery, crying for help. In conclusion, Willa Carther's "Paul's Case" is an interesting glimpse into the world of a young boy, who's individuality is constantly in conflict with the conformist society that surrounds him. In attempts to escape this reality, Paul loses himself in a fantasy world of art, lies, and thievery.
In this attempt to escape, Paul slips into isolation and depression. Carther in this regard is very careful on how she portrays Paul, to brink about some sympathy from the reader as he is simply a troubled young man. In the end, Paul's individuality and societies refusal of him leads to Paul's demise. The sympathy Cather creates for Paul leaves one questioning if society simply should have supported Paul's individuality, instead of letting him slip away. Paul's death seems to support this theory, as not a single reader would have wished such a cruel ending to the life of a dreamer.