Materialism in Paul’s Case short story and film

In 1905, Cather published a collection of seven short stories that explore the struggles of artists with sensitive temperaments in a commercialized world. This collection includes the short story ‘Paul’s Case’ which was later adapted in film in the year 1980 by Lamont Johnson. Based on an actual personal experience that happened when Cather was teaching English in Pittsburg (Ahearn 2), ‘Paul’s Case’ is a story about a boy named Paul who is attracted by the glamorous would of music, art, and theater. Paul hates his mundane middle-class life and prefers to dwell in a world of illusion. He desires to alienate himself from the realities of his life leading to him estranging himself from his family, peers, and teachers (Paul’s Case). He is eventually forced to leave the music and theater hall- his place of solitude- and so he steals money and goes to New York. While in New York for a week, he lives the luxurious life that he has always desired. However, he is running out of money, and this may mean him returning home to the life he loathes. Paul cannot take this and so he decides to end his life. Through this story, Willa Cather tries to show that the reality of life is way far from being solved with wealth and material things alone. Money might offer solutions to some issues but not everything

Critics may interpret ‘Paul’s Case’ in two different ways: as a story of a boy who is a victim of circumstance, or as of a boy who becomes destroyed by his illusions. Paul is not an artist, and he is not averse to mundane things. However, he has a great fondness for certain forms of art and those who are financially successful. Although art motivates him to have zest, he does not feel the need to create or perform art. He does not want to be a painter, or a musician, or an actor; he only wants to be a part of art. However, as can be seen in his contempt towards the statues of Augustus and Venus de Milo, Paul’s fondness of art cannot be said to be appreciation of art because he only connects with art because of the lavish lifestyle that he wants to have and the ability of art to help him relieve his stress and anxiety. “It was not that symphonies, as such, meant anything in particular to Paul, but the first sign of instruments seemed to free some hilarious and potent spirit within him” (Cather 4). He only uses art to escape from his reality.

Although Paul scorns the hard reality of the people who live ‘dull lives,’ he is very materialistic. Not only does he respect people based on the economic and social class, but he also desires to have things that indicate wealth and materials. He loves listening to stories about ‘iron kings’ who have made a fortune for themselves and desires to have the same. He, however, has “no mind for the cash-boy stage,” thus he does not want to work to achieve these things; he just wants to get wealthy in an instant, and this is where the problem lies.

During Paul’s time, America experienced significant expansion in business. Wealth was made in the iron and steel industry, and many industrialists made vast amounts of money. The film adaptation of Paul’s Case shows scenes of Pittsburgh as the center of steel manufacturing and was the primary site for many factories and jobs (Paul’s Case). With the growth of industry, economic advancement was the ultimate measure of success, and the means of earning it earned one success. However, Paul had no desire to work and loathed middle-class values.

Instead of coping with his everyday realities, Paul opts to immerse himself in a more luxurious environment. However, this world of music and art are not all bread and butter as he imagines. Both the film and the short story show and describe the scenes as being not so luxurious. For example, the scene of the theater is “the gassy, painty, dusty odor” (Cather 8). To Paul, all these seem, but in reality, they are not so. Instead of choosing the conventional way to success, Paul opts to use dubious means- to use the hard work of others- to live his dream.

Watching the film or reading the story, one may admire Paul for daring to chase his dream of living the lavish life that he always wanted. However, his inability to face reality and to work hard to achieve the wealth and success he desired eventually destroys him. In a materialistic world that needed its inhabitants to be real and pragmatic, a dreamer like Paul would not survive. And even though in the end he is able to “drop back into the immense design of things,” he does it with the regret of things that he left unfinished and the unfulfilled potential.

In the film adaptation of Paul’s Case, John Lamont with slight adjustments does an excellent job of closely following the short story. The movie is even better because the images are formulated to clearly show the settings and the characters. The sound makes it more appealing to the audience thus making the story more memorable. Both the short story and the film effectively manage to show how materialism can lead to destruction in the long run.

Works Cited

Ahearn, Amy. “Willa Cather: A Brief Biographical Sketch.” The Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. Oct. 2017. U of Nebraska-Lincoln. 9 Feb 2019. Web.

Cather, Willa. “Paul’s Case.” The Oxford Book of Women’s Writing in the United States. Eds. Linda Wagner-Martin and Cathy N. Davidson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print. 1-17.

Paul’s Case.” Notes on Short Stories. Answers Corporation, 2016. 9 Feb 2019. Web.

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