Willa Cather's Paul?S Case: A Study In Temperament

1770 words - 7 pages

Willa Cather‟s “Paul‟s Case: A Study in Temperament” (1905) invites the reader to wonder, “What really is Paul‟s case?” Cather provides us with ample clues and descriptions of Paul‟s temperament with remarkable detail and insight into the human psyche considering that she had no formal background in psychology and that she was writing when Sigmund Freud was just beginning to publish his theories and was therefore writing by intuitive observation rather than by using a scientific approach. Because “Paul‟s Case” is written much like a descriptive analysis or case study in a patient‟s temperament, the reader is left with several details about Paul that are mysterious and psychiatrically and medically unexplained. The lack of a diagnosis for Paul has led many critics to develop their own diagnosis – some say Paul is a stereotypical homosexual, has Asperger‟s Syndrome or Autism, or that he has a combination of depression and anxiety. In my opinion, however, the most likely diagnosis for Paul is that he suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

According to the DSM-IV, people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are “preoccupied with fantasies
of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love” (Criterion 2) and believe that they
are “„special‟ and unique and can only be understood by, or should be associated with, other special or
high-status people” (Criterion 3). Paul‟s clothing gives us our first clue to his narcissistic attitudes
about himself; in Cather‟s description of Paul‟s dress, it is apparent that Paul is attempting to rise
above his lower-class status by mimicking the upper class‟ appearance. The collar of Paul‟s overcoat is
velvet, and “there was something of the dandy about him, and he wore an opal pin in his neatly knotted
four-in-hand, and a red carnation in his buttonhole” (685). According to the DSM-IV, narcissistic
people typically “ruminate about „long overdue‟ admiration and privilege and compare themselves favorably
with famous or privileged people” (714). They also have a strong sense of entitlement, and
“begrudge others of their success or possessions, feeling that they better deserve those achievements,
admirations, or privileges” (715). Paul evidently has the desire to be a part of the privileged upperclass,
or at least play the role, perhaps because it makes him feel more comfortable to be luxurious, or
perhaps because he enjoys being “special, or unique” (714) in comparison to those around him.
Also related is Criterion 1, which states that people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder have “a
grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized
as superior without commensurate achievements)” (717). Paul certainly feels superior to his living
situation with his father on Cordelia Street. Paul never goes home “without a shudder of loathing,”
because he had an overwhelming sensation, every time he approached the street, of “sinking

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