The Conflict Between Conformity and Individuality in Willa Cather's Paul's Case

The Conflict Between Conformity and Individuality in Willa Cather's Paul's Case

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The Conflict Between Conformity and Individuality in Willa Cather's Paul's Case

Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case,” displays the conflict between conformity and individuality through the main character, Paul. On a number of occasions, Paul is forced to lie and steal to escape the conformists who wish to control him and stifle his unique imagination. However, his lying, stealing, and attempts to escape the conformists, only force Paul into isolation, depression, and feeling a sense of shame for his individuality. Throughout the story one might see Cather’s constant contrast of individuality versus conformity, as well as Paul’s lying and stealing. Cather seems to draw the conclusion that extreme individuals, much like Paul are simply misunderstood, and not offered the acceptance they desire from conformist society.
One way Cather contrasts individuality and conformity is through detailed descriptions of Paul’s character: Paul’s appearance, Paul’s unusual mannerisms, and Paul’s open criticisms of conformity. Collectively, these three characteristics assert Paul’s individuality. Paul’s appearance is described in detail at the beginning of the story and provides the foundation of his individuality: “Paul was tall for his age and very thin, with high, cramped shoulders and a narrow chest”(Pg. 1). One only needs to reach the second paragraph of the story and realize Paul does not fit in, which can be accredited to Cather’s careful word choice “for his age.” Most young individuals, specifically in Paul’s teenage age bracket, will struggle for acceptance from their peers; however it appears that Paul makes little effort in this regard. Paul’s unusual mannerisms are also worthy of analysis, and aid in creating a mental picture of this unusual young man. Cather uses Paul’s meeting with the faculty of his educational facility to convey the irritating and intimidating qualities of his mannerisms. She writes, “His teachers felt this afternoon that his whole attitude was symbolized by his shrug and his flippantly red carnation flower, and they fell upon him without mercy…. He stood through it smiling, his pale lips parted over his white teeth. (His lips were continually twitching, and he had a habit of raising his eyebrows that was contemptuous and irritating to the last degree)”(Pg.2). Combined with the description of Paul’s physical appearance, his mannerisms now...


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...nearly always wore the guise of ugliness, that a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty”(Pg. 7). With this in mind, Paul’s actions seem deliberate, as if he knew what he was doing all along, again supporting the theory that he was simply wallowing in misery, crying for help.
In conclusion, Willa Carther’s “Paul’s Case” is an interesting glimpse into the world of a young boy, who’s individuality is constantly in conflict with the conformist society that surrounds him. In attempts to escape this reality, Paul loses himself in a fantasy world of art, lies, and thievery. In this attempt to escape, Paul slips into isolation and depression. Carther in this regard is very careful on how she portrays Paul, to brink about some sympathy from the reader as he is simply a troubled young man. In the end, Paul’s individuality and societies refusal of him leads to Paul’s demise. The sympathy Cather creates for Paul leaves one questioning if society simply should have supported Paul’s individuality, instead of letting him slip away. Paul’s death seems to support this theory, as not a single reader would have wished such a cruel ending to the life of a dreamer.

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