Paul’s Case by Willa Cather, 1905
The magic trick:
Showing Paul in at least four different settings, guises
Cather’s heartbreaking depiction of Paul is based on the notion that he can’t be himself – he can’t truly live – in his life as constructed in Pittsburgh. She makes this point beautifully clear by showing him in different settings, each illustrating the ways his personality is forced to conform to the expectations of those surrounding him. We see him at school. We see him at work as an usher. We see him at home. And finally, we see him, free at last, in New York.
The shifts in his character and behavior are subtle enough to keep the reader believing it is always the same boy; but likewise they are notable enough to carry the story’s key themes. And that’s quite a trick on Cather’s part.
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. Perhaps it was because his experience of life elsewhere was so full of Sabbath-school picnics, petty economics, wholesome advice as to how to succeed in life, and the unescapable odours of cooking, that he found this existence so alluring, these smartly-clad men and women so attractive, that he was so moved by these starry apple orchards that bloomed perennially under the lime-light.