The distinction between reality and fantasy is one of the most interesting and difficult subjects of study in human life. For many years, Western society has privileged the former over the latter, even marginalizing those that confuse them. However, as one can see in Willa Carther’s story “Paul’s Case”, often fantasy is preferable to reality and can have an organizing effect for some people. First, one can clearly see the eponymous protagonist living in a fantasy world, and his real life clashes with these dreams; there are some instances where one cannot distinguish whether what is happening is an illusion or real. However, at one moment this illusion implodes. This destruction brings nefarious consequences, leading up to the notorious final act. Contrary to what people generally think, one can see that in Paul’s case, fantasy acted as a means to support reality, as his living in a fantasy world was fine, until the fantasy was destroyed, which made reality unbearable.
One of the most notorious aspects of this story is the continuous fantasy with which Paul lives his life, avoiding reality. One could believe that his actual situation is very menacing for him. He is an outcast, does not do well in school and his father wants him to live his future in a way that he dislikes completely. While some could believe that he is a homosexual, these interpretations are complete inferences, and there is nothing too direct in the story to determine that this was, in fact, his sexual orientation. However, there are many occasions in the story where different people try to make him normal, including the adults in the school and his father. He reacts harshly to any of these attempts, preferring to keep living his life in fantasy, even if this does not correspond to reality. Carther writes that “Paul was quite accustomed to lying”, showing that he did not care for telling the truth at all. As his real world is menacing for him, he develops three main fantasies: acting, escaping from Cordelia Street and being rich. The first of these is probably the most significant in the story, with many details of his body and his disposition to have others see him. “Paul was always smiling, always glancing about him, seeming to feel that people might be watching him and trying to detect something” (Wharton). Even though this has a negative counterpart in the almost paranoiac way he interprets people are watching him, it allows him to pretend he is an actor in the theater, his main dream. However out of sync with reality these dreams may be, they allow him to live a pretty regular life in Pittsburgh. While he may not be completely normal or happy, he lives with his father, goes to school and generally has the life a typical teenager has. It is when he acts upon these fantasies that trouble arrives. In the turning point of the tale, he accomplishes all of these by stealing money and escaping to New York.
However, after making his fantasy real, he realizes that this is impossible for him, destroying his hopes. The events in New York develop well in the beginning, and Paul seems to lift a weight off his shoulders by taking this trip. “The mere release from the necessity of petty lying, lying every day and every day, restored his self-respect” (Wharton). Furthermore, he realizes that in New York he does not have to pretend to be someone other than himself; there, he does not have the need to live in his fantasy world, but the real one. “He was now entirely rid of his nervous misgivings, of his forced aggressiveness, of the imperative desire to show himself different from his surroundings. He felt now that his surroundings explained him” (Wharton). This quote is interesting because it reaffirms that he was acting most of the time, fantasizing about being an actor; however, now he is confronted with not acting, not living his fantasy, and not having people directly looking at him at all times. It is important to remember that New York City is very big, and that he feels like he fits in there, be it because of the anonymity that a crowded city provides, or because he was fitting into the bourgeoisie lifestyle. Another fantasy also crumbles when he learns that his father is going to come to New York City to find him after knowing that he stole the money. This causes a nauseous sensation within him. “It was the old depression exaggerated; all the world had become Cordelia Street” (Wharton). His father’s persecution of him leads him to see that there is no chance to escape from Cordelia Street, this dreaded childhood staple that has now enveloped him. Finally, he goes from having much money to being almost broke in a week. If he had managed his wealth well, he would have been able to stay for more time, yet his lack of skill to handle currency leads him to be broke almost immediately. Therefore, through different ways, this fantasy crumbles, sometimes even by properly living it.
Even though some might think this readjusting to reality would be better for Paul, in this story one can clearly see that it has hazardous consequences. To begin, there was the depression one can see he again suffers when he learns his father is coming after him. His world begins to crumble and the imagery becomes dark and somber. “The carnations in his coat were drooping with the cold, he noticed, their red glory all over” (Wharton). These flowers that had before become the symbol of his superiority and of which he was proud were now dying, and he resolves to bury them. The suicide scene is particularly clear in showing the power of fantasy, as it is the moment he regains this supportive crutch, yet it is too late, as he has already committed the deed. He plays this self-destructing act as if he were in the play once more, worrying that he was late, as he would for a performance, and thinking people are watching him once more. It is only then that he regains the will to keep living, remembering all that he had not yet done. “As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone” (Wharton). After losing his fantasy, his existence tumbles until he kills himself; yet, at the moment of regaining his fantasy of being an actor, he realizes all those things he could have done.
In conclusion, “Paul’s Case” is a great example of how fantasy can serve as a support because it narrates the story of a boy living in a fantasy world, who loses this dream and commits suicide as a result. In the beginning, one reads of a young man that has a skewed view of reality, living out his dream of being a theater actor to escape from his mundane and menacing life. Then, he escapes to New York, where his three main fantasies come true, yet, in one way or another, he also sees them to be impossible to sustain. This leads his world to crumble, resolving to commit suicide; yet, as he prepares his final performance, his fantasies return and he sees the value of life once again. As one can see, this is a very rich story that champions fantasy over reality. By attempting to focus on the unhealthy aspects of Paul’s personality, they have, once again, tried to make him fit in to the model of heteronormativity, the very cultural push that lead him to live in fantasy in the first place. Even though living a fantasy life might not be the best way to live for some, in Paul’s case, it seems to be the only way he knew how.
Cather, Willa Sibert. “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament” The Willa Cather Archive. Web. 10 Jul 2015.