Short Story Sunday: Paul’s Case by Willa Cather

To kick off Short Story Sundays, I decided to revisit an author I already know, Willa Cather. Last year I read O Pioneers! for the first time, and it was one of my favorite reads of the entire year. Cather is known for her depiction of the vast, sparse and idyllic Great Plains, so I was surprised to see that this story takes places in a much more familiar milieu, that of New York City.

Paul is a troubled teenage boy who feels suffocated by the dullness of school and his everyday life. His passion is rather for the glamour of Carnegie Hall and Fifth Avenue, of theatre, the opera, fine dining, and luxurious living. Something about that atmosphere makes him feel alive.

This topic seems the polar opposite of the work Cather is best known for, but her description of the city is just as absorbing as that of the country:

He seemed to feel himself go after her up the steps, into the warm, lighted building, into an exotic, tropical world of shiny, glistening surfaces and basking ease. He reflected upon the mysterious dishes that were brought into the dining room, the green bottles in buckets of ice, as he had seen them in the supper party pictures of the Sunday World supplement. A quick gust of wind brought the rain down with sudden vehemence, and Paul was startled to find that he was still outside in the slush of the gravel driveway…

Throughout the story, Cather paints gorgeous pictures of the city of New York, contrasting the Romance of high society with the grayscale of the mundane. Having grown up within a day trip’s distance of New York, I feel a connection to the story —  I love attending events or eating at restaurants there, but the public transport is nasty, everything is too crowded, there’s hardly anywhere to sit down unless you’re paying for it, and the air quality is poor. I’m not a true New Yorker, so I’m sure locals have their own reasons to love the city, but to me, it’s a place of both astounding highs and dismal lows. I think that Cather captures that dichotomy in this piece.

The progression of the plot is skillful, and as I turned each page, I experienced new revelations as to the nuances of “Paul’s Case,” the many facets of his life and the various roots of his troubles. And again, although the content of the story is very different from Cather’s plains trilogy, the twists and turns echo what I’ve seen in her other writing.

This venture has encouraged me to expand my knowledge of authors with whom I am already familiar rather than sticking to their most popular works, and I think that short stories are a great way to sample the different flavors. I had a similar experience when reading a collection of short stories by Shirley Jackson. I have a list ready of possible reads, and I’m excited to see what’s in store for me next.

Are there any short stories you love and think I should read? Tell me in the comments!

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