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Paul Symbolic Reality Essay, Research Paper
Paul’s Case is actually the story of a boy who prefers a feminine lifestyle. Many people take the flower to be his way to spite the teachers when they try to punish him. More accurately, it it is example of Paul’s flamboyance. Paul’s alternative lifestyle is further demonstrated in his love of theater and his male friend from the theater. Paul’s trip to New York City is an escape. Here, Paul dresses as a woman, and finally feels comfortable with himself. He spends hours dressing himself and looking pretty. He was finally the boy he wanted to be. He “falls in with a wild San Francisco boy…” who shows him the nightlife of New York. Paul kills himself at the end because he cannot go back to his town to live as a boy. His lifestyle is not accepted there, and once he had a taste he couldn’t let go. As a woman, he felt comfortable and a sense of power. Also to be noted is Cather’s use of the word “gay.” “Gay” is not limited to the context of “happy,” but is used to describe many things.
Paul’s Case,” by Willa Cather, is a story that deals with a young boy who does not feel that he lives a life befitting of him. Upon a close reading, it is evident that “Paul’s Case” is ruled by irony and symbolism, which are apparent in the story through the words of the narrator. The irony woven throughout the text builds up to an epiphonic moment, a main paradox in the story, which reveals to the reader Paul’s true nature.
Paul believes that everyone around him is beneath him. He is convinced that he is superior to everyone else in his school and in his neighborhood. He is even condescending to his teachers, and shows an appalling amount of contempt for them, of which they are very aware. In one class he habitually sat with his hand shading his eyes; in another he always looked out of the window during the recitation; in another he made a running commentary on the lecture, with humorous intention. Paul wanted everyone to think he was better than they were. Not only did he try to dress as if he were rich and important, his very actions displayed a great amount of disdain for everyone around him.
Paul sees himself as superior. He carries himself with a haughty countenance and air about him, apparent in the description “Paul entered the faculty room suave and smiling.” His attempts to portray himself as elegant is obvious in the adornments with which he tries to accentuate his attire: “he wore an opal pin in his neatly knotted black fourin-hand, and a red carnation in his button-hole.” The irony in Paul’s self-delusion lies in the way he is, in reality, seen by the rest of the world. While he thinks that he is dapper and winning in his ornamented garb, the reader is
informed how Paul is seen by everyone else, “His clothes were a trifle out-grown and the tan velvet on the collar of his open overcoat was frayed and worn… Paul was tall for his age and very thin, with high, cramped shoulders and a narrow chest.” There are several instances of this contrast between Paul’s self perception and the perception of Paul by the people around him. The irony in these situations is that Paul wants to be seen in a particular way — he perceives himself to actually be that particular way — while it is obvious to the reader that he is seen quite differently by those around him.
Paul thought he was important and should be admired like the people on stage in the place he worked. The irony is that he worked for those kinds of people (the rich, privileged, haughty, admired)… he was a servant who seated them, he was not one of them. He thought that because he was allowed into the theater with them, since they were in the same place, that they were equal. However, in reality the guests and Paul were admitted to the theater under different circumstances: Paul’s being one of servitude while the guests were those served by Paul. “It was very much as though these were a great reception and Paul was the host.” The irony here is that in reality Paul is only the servant, while in his own mind he looks at himself as much more important, as the host.
Throughout the rest of the story, Paul’s attitude and character are exposed to the reader through his actions. We, as readers, can discern the irony present in the symbolism that is interlaced throughout in the text. This symbolism shows that not only does Paul have many misconceptions about himself and his place in society, but it also demonstrates Paul’s mendacity. Paul’s whole life is a show; an act put on for the benefit of others so that they will see him in a certain way. “Paul was always smiling, always glancing about him, seeming to feel that people might be watching him and trying to detect something.” In this instance, Paul felt that he was so important, so admired by those around him, that he thought everyone to be looking at him, as if everything he did was noteworthy, which represents Paul’s inaccurate self perception. Also, it is apparent that Paul consciously tries to alter his appearance so that he will be mistaken for a sophisticated, upper class person, which represents his deceit.
It is obvious why Paul lies: he thinks he is better than everyone else, and he wants them to think he is, too. “He had never lied for pleasure, even at school; but to be noticed and admired, to assert his difference from other Cordelia Street boys.” In another instance of Paul’s deviousness, “He spent more than an hour in dressing, watching every stage of his toilet carefully in the mirror. Everything was quite perfect; he was exactly the kind of boy he had always wanted to be.” Here, Paul’s vanity and the care he takes in preparing himself show that he is very conscious of covering up his old life. His whole escapade to New York, his entire being there, is all an act, and he is playing his part perfectly. He is aware that he is not truly who he wanted to be, that he had to go to great lengths to become what he was not born into. Another ironic aspect, which can be ascertained through symbolism, is Paul’s need for beauty, for the good life. This need manifests Paul’s deceit, leading him to attempt to portray himself as attractive and sophisticated. Paul thinks that the upper class are the beautiful people, one of which he wants to be. His strong desire to fill this need for beauty and to be one of the beautiful people leads Paul into being deceptive about who he is and
where he comes from. It is this need which drives him to attempt to fit in with the upper class in New York. “[I]n Paul’s world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness, that a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty.” Paul himself is proof of his need for artificiality in beauty, in that Paul’s whole masquerade of being rich, sophisticated, and well liked is just that — a facade. His charm is completely
false, a simple front intended to fool people. He feels that his natural state, where he is from and his life on Cordelia Street, is ugly; the life of the performers in Carnige Hall, the actors, their life is beautiful.
There are several aspects of the story which are symbolic of both Paul’s deceit and his need to be a part of the sophisticated upper class. One such example is the instance in which he “shook over his fingers a few drops of violet water from the bottle he kept hidden in his drawer” Paul was so obsessed with his appearance, so consumed by desire to be admired and respectable, that he had to carefully wash off all traces of his mediocre life. After removing all reminders of the house on Cordelia Street, Paul continues on to use the violet water, which he thinks that only sophisticated people use, like those he seats at Carnige Hall. He keeps the water hidden away because it is so important to him, to the successful portrayal of his facade, that he can’t risk any one else finding it. The washing is symbolic of the undesired life that Paul sheds, and the perfumed violet water is symbolic of the way Paul dons the facade of a dandy in attempt to change the perception of his social status. The irony in this instance is that Paul
thinks he can wash off his old life and sprinkle on a sophisticated life as easily as he can wash his hands and sprinkle on perfumed water, when in reality it is not that easy to transcend social class definition.
Another symbol of Paul’s attempt to fit into the upper class of New York is the color he chooses to wear. “Nobody questioned the purple; he had only to wear it passively. He had only to glance down at his attire to reassure himself that here it would be impossible for any one to humiliate him.” Purple, the color of royalty — symbolic of the rich and sophisticated whom Paul admired — fit in, in this place. In contrast, at home, purple (orroyalty, rich, extravagant, sophisticated people and things) was so out of the ordinary that they were obvious in their difference and easily recognized, easily humiliated. Paul felt that he did not fit in with the bland monotony of home, and that he belonged and blended into this place of false pretenses. Thus, purple is symbolic of the higher social status that Paul desires, and the fact that no one points out that he is wearing this mark of high social standing means that the upper class — as far as Paul is concerned — has accepted him.
Each of these ironic incidents, and each of these symbolic aspects of the text, build up to support the main paradox of the story. It is an epiphonic moment when Paul, sitting in the restaurant of the hotel in New York, looks around “when the roseate tinge of his champagne was added –that cold, precious bubbling stuff that creamed and foamed in his glass– Paul wondered that there were honest men in the world at all.” This statement seems to justify all of Paul’s dishonesty. Paul had to be dishonest to get to where he was, and he wonders why, if everyone else had to do the same, there is anyone left who is actually honest. To Paul, the ultimate place in life is to be a part of the upper class. Paul had to try very hard, and be very dishonest, to convey a certain image so that he would be accepted as a part of that class. At this moment, since the best place to be is the upper class, and if one must be dishonest to achieve high social status, Paul wonders how there can be anyone in the world who is honest because
everyone should be striving to be a part of the upper class. As far as Paul is concerned, his deceitful measures were an acceptable means for achieving his goal.
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