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      Willa Cather's "Paul's Case": the Adolescent as Tragic Hero

      In Cather's famous story that irritating teenager Paul ends up dead, destroyed by a combination of the outside forces he cannot control and the consequences of courses of action he has deliberately chosen. Specifically, the inflexible middle- class morality of the society in which he lives and the actions that Paul takes to escape from that society into his fairy tale life in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel work together to ensure his destruction. In plain English, "Paul's Case" falls somewhere within the general limits of the classic definition of tragedy; it should, therefore, be enlightening to see how Cather has adapted various aspects of classical tragedy -- hubris, hamartia, and catharsis -- to lift this story about a teenager that only a mother could love to the level of tragedy.

      Hubris is the term that has been used since the days of Aristotle to indicate that excessive pride or arrogance which mars the judgment of a tragic hero, that over-whelming self-confidence and superiority which blinds him to the disastrous consequences of the choices he is making until it is too late to remedy the situation. This is just the sort of arrogance that Paul exhibits. When he encounters his English teacher at the concert hall, for example, he displays just that attitude: Paul

      had the feeling of wanting to put her out; what business had she here among all these fine people and gay colors? He looked her over and decided she was not appropriately dressed and must be a fool to sit downstairs in such togs.
      That same arrogance also surfaces regularly at his school:
      Paul found the schoolroom more than ever repulsive; the bare floors and naked walls; the prosy men who never wore frock coats, or violets in their buttonholes; the women with their dull gowns, shrill voices, and pitiful seriousness about prepositions which govern the dative. He could not bear to have the other pupils think, for a moment, that he took these people seriously; he must convey to them that he considered it all trivial.
      Who the heck does Paul think he is? Much like the hero of a Greek tragedy, Paul allows his prideful sense of superiority to blind him to the dangers which lie ahead. It is inevitable that such an attitude will bring him nothing but trouble, but so far he is oblivious to the disaster looming ahead.

      Hamartia is another term used ever since Aristotle to describe tragic heros. The term refers to the tendency of such figures to ignore or violate the laws of men and/or the gods in the pursuit of some "higher good." When Paul steals the thousand bucks from his employers, it is not in his mind the act of a common criminal; it is the act of superior being who feels himself to be "above the law." Paul describes the theft as an act of "courage," as "throwing down the gauntlet" to challenge the dreary "real world" he feels compelled to escape from. Just as hubris points the way to disaster, so too does hamartia. Paul may not consider himself a criminal, and he clearly feels entitled to have the money he needs to live his dream, but the rest of us in the "real world" know that Paul's father, the police, and the company whose money was stolen are going to see it as a serious crime. We ordinary little people know Paul will be punished.

      However, if we leave the story of Paul feeling it is the tale of an irritating, smart-ass teenager who got what was coming to him, the whole concept of Paul as a tragic hero falls apart. The reader must come away with something like a sense of what Aristotle called catharsis, that is, a feeling that despite "the pity and the fear" we feel at Paul's downfall we have something positive affirmed, something that convinces us that Paul was in some measure better than the forces which destroyed him. Of course, as irritating as Paul is, we still leave the story feeling that Paul's father was a materialistic boor who was cruelly insensitive when he prevented Paul from returning to his life at Carnegie Hall. And we may even be willing to upgrade our opinion of Paul because he is "a poor, motherless boy." What really leads most careful readers to catharsis, however, is the feeling that Paul has sadly, belatedly, and tragically realized that he could have accomplished more:

      When the right moment came, he jumped. As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone. There flashed through his brain, clearer than ever before, the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands.
      Paul is, of course, destroyed, but the values of his life, his love of romance and artistic things, have been affirmed. The Adriatic waters and Algerian sands are symbolic reminders of Paul's goals and values, and Paul dies realizing the importance of these values. He killed himself too soon. He should have waited to see what life would bring him.

      Of course this story is not on the sublime level of great tragic writers like Shakespeare. And the truly great tragic heros are mature figures who fall from great heights of power and prestige rather than acne-faced teenagers, and what a Macbeth or a Hamlet loses is more tangible than the unfulfilled potential of a confused adolescent. But wait a minute! One of Shakespeare's most enduring tragedies was about a teenager who too quickly committed suicide when he thought his beloved was dead. Cather may not be Shakespeare, and Paul may not be Romeo; one thing, however, is clear: for almost a century now, young college and university students not far removed from adolescence have been reading Cather's story. Many of these students have been moved to a tear and a sigh and have closed the book saying "how sad! how sad!"

      To read other essays on "Paul's Case," click on the following links:

      The Significance of the "Flower Scenes" in "Paul's Case"
      The Artist in a Hostile Society: a Reading of "Paul's Case"