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From Cather Studies Volume 4

A Case of Influence

"Paul's Case" and Balzac

At first glance, it would appear to require a leap of the imagination to associate that masterpiece of compression and understatement, Willa Cather's renowned story "Paul's Case," with the influence of that master of digression and "rich temperamental vulgarity" (James 147), Honoré de Balzac. Yet a leap of the imagination is precisely what is called for: influence, after all, sometimes manifests itself only subtly, borne of a susceptibility to a vital presence from one artist to another. Anyone who has come under Balzac's spell, as did Cather, who read his works as a young woman and who in 1902 made a pilgrimage to his tomb in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery, would rejoice in evidence of a spiritual, and in this case professional, kinship honoring that "picture making mechanism" proper to the novelist's art (Cather 488).

Cather's story is distinctly her own, but on some level it seems to be a response to Balzac, her quite singular and very American response. It is not one prompted by anxiety. The authority of her writing suggests instead the delivery of a confident and decisive reply. Only someone who had fully taken the measure of the French writer's works could have so accurately and so succinctly aimed an answer. Within the story itself, Cather's implied conversation with Balzac opens a space not otherwise evident in the work's strict economy, the presence of a purposeful and loving debate with her predecessor's example. This argument, in turn, underlies much of the sense of inevitability that characterizes the story's unfolding and helps to direct our interpretation of it. Paul could not have come out of the pages of Balzac, which in part explains the cruel and unforgiving fate in store for him. Had he gone meekly home to Pittsburgh, his spiritual immobility might perhaps have symbolized a similar paralysis of Cather's own—one whose specter she might have feared but that, happily, did not occur.

"Paul's Case" calls to mind that of another schoolboy hero—Balzac's Louis Lambert, a brilliant youth oppressed by mediocrity in all its guises, who attends a school in Vendome, near Tours, run by the Oratorian fathers. Lambert, in the novel bearing his name, is an unqualified genius whose Treatise on the Will is confiscated by the priests and probably sold to the local grocer to wrap produce. Although indicting schools for their part in the relentless, often unthinking, pressure to conform brought to bear upon young spirits, neither Cather, whose teachers are "humiliated to have felt so vindictive toward a mere boy" (470), nor even Balzac demonizes the teaching profession: "It would be wrong to judge too harshly a poor schoolmaster, ill paid and consequently not very shrewd, for sometimes being unjust or giving way to anger. Endlessly spied upon by a multitude of mocking gazes and surrounded by snares, he occasionally takes vengeance for his own mistakes on children too quick to notice them" (Balzac 11: 611).[1] Paul himself has sympathy for his English teacher, the one "leading the pack" of tormentors at his hearing, even despite her thoughtless display of haughtiness toward him that evening at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Hall: "He looked her over and decided that she was not appropriately dressed and must be a fool to sit downstairs in such togs. The tickets had probably been sent her out of kindness, he reflected, as he put down a seat for her, and she had about as much right to sit there as he had" (469, 471). There is something about both characters that seem to provoke the rage and rejection heaped upon them. In Paul's case, it "lay in a sort of hysterically defiant manner of the boy's; in the contempt which they all knew he felt for them, and which he seemingly made not the least effort to conceal" (468). The narrator singles out Paul's eyes for description, and again the "hysterical" quality is noted: "His eyes were remarkable for a certain hysterical brilliancy, and he continually used them in a conscious, theatrical sort of way, peculiarly offensive in a boy. The pupils were abnormally large, as though he were addicted to belladonna, but there was a glassy glitter about them which that drug does not produce" (468). The suggestion of androgyny by association with a kind of overwrought feminine disposition likewise adheres to Louis Lambert, "of so nervous a constitution, often as subject to vapors as a woman" (II: 612). Like Paul, he offends with his too expressive gaze: "Whenever he was brutally wrenched from his thoughts by the 'You're not working!' of the schoolmaster, he would often, unconsciously in the beginning, give him a look of inexpressibly fierce contempt.... This look no doubt greatly upset the teacher, who, wounded by this wordless epigram, wanted to make his student unlearn that cutting gaze" (II: 612).

If the pupils are sensitive to the lack of prestige and refinement of their teachers, they are as capable of administering slights as of receiving them. The imprisonment of the young in the unimaginative world constructed by their elders is, however, the overwhelming impression left of school experience, and the penetrating gaze of these misfits threatens to expose the whole corrupt arrangement. In her portrayal of this confinement as experienced by Paul, Cather, following the example of Balzac, does not overlook the social and economic forces at work in education as an institution.

Like so many of Balzac's heroes, Lambert eventually leaves his provincial roots behind to settle in Paris. Paul similarly gravitates toward the cultural center of New York. The public spectacle of theater or musical performance plays a crucial role in their lives, one connected with the inaccessibility of an object of desire. At the Théâtre-François Lambert experiences sexual jealousy for the first time (II: 645). Paul watches the soprano soloist leave Carnegie Hallin the company of the conductor and wonders if "she were not an old sweetheart of his" (472). He is unable to approach her as she enters the hotel. His planned escapade in New York includes, as an integral component of the fantasy, an evening at the opera. But if Lambert desires another human being, Paul is willing an assimilation evident only to him: "He felt now that his surroundings explained him" (484).

A more unfortunate suggestion of influence appears in Cather's allusion to anti-Semitic stereotypes, Balzac's example in his work at large perhaps being harmful in its supply of stock images. In Louis Lambert he draws on these in a benign way, inventing a Jewish ancestor for the young woman with whom his hero will fall in love: "Louis noticed a young person whose position forced her to remain within that group looked down upon by high society, although her fortune was large enough to warrant the supposition that one day she might marry into the aristocracy of the region... . Her features showed Jewish beauty in the purest form: those oval lines, so expansive and virginal, have something of the ideal about them and seem to express the delights of the Orient, the unchanging blue of its skies, the splendors of its lands, and the fabulous riches of its way of life" (II: 658-59). If Balzac, in this instance, identifies prejudice for what it is—and he doesn't always do so— Cather evokes the same themes of great wealth, exoticism, and misguided pretensions in comments intended to be withering and ultimately gratuitous, addressed to the enchantment theater holds for Paul: "It was very like the old stories that used to float about London of fabulously rich Jews, who had subterranean halls, with palms, and fountains, and soft lamps and richly appareled women who never saw the disenchanting light of London day. So, in the midst of that smoke-palled city, enamoured of figures and grimy toil, Paul had his secret temple, his wishing-carpet, his bit of blue-and-white Mediterranean shore bathed in perpetual sunshine" (478). Here the narrator's contempt for the character's illusions puts her on the side of the gang of teachers, acting in accordance with the instincts and ignorance of the crowd.

Yet another level of comparison between "Paul's Case" and Louis Lambert involves the narrator's detachment from the central character, achieved gradually in the work by Balzac and established at the outset by Cather. To the extent that Paul and Louis Lambert represent immature and incomplete versions of the authors' youthful selves or merely potential and refracted versions of them (and this is not said to minimize the sophistication of the art involved in creating them), the perspective adopted by the narrator in each work comes to accentuate distance and perhaps to symbolize rejection. By way of comparison one might evoke Flaubert's treatment of Félicité in "A Simple Heart" ("Un Cœur simple"). The limitations of this provincial servant, like Paul not an artist, do not seem to inspire a judgmental stance although irony is inevitably present. Félicité is not damned. Cather's impersonality is more Balzacian—that is to say, not at all impartial and Darwinian on the social level. Failed geniuses and spineless drifters do not deserve to survive. Louis Lambert lapses into madness and dies young. Cather writes of Paul: "It had been wonderfully simple; when they had shut him out of the theater and concert hall, when they had taken away his bone, the whole thing was virtually determined" (481).

Why suicide? Cather might have found a precedent in Balzac's The Wild Ass's Skin (La Peau de chagrin), which opens with what Raphaël de Valentin had intended as his last fling, a visit to a gambling parlor, before drowning himself in the Seine. Those observing his arrival do not fail to notice "the elegant shabbiness of his clothes. The young man indeed had a frock coat showing good taste, but his tie was kept close to his vest in too artful a manner to imagine that he owned linen to wear underneath"; at the door he is obliged to leave his hat, "the brim of which . . . was peeling slightly" (10: 62, 10: 58). We are reminded of Paul's first appearance before the faculty: "His clothes were a trifle out-grown, and the tan velvet on the collar of his open overcoat was frayed and worn; but for all that there was something of the dandy about him" (468). Raphaël gambles and loses his last centime, when he finally understands what has happened and with all eyes upon him: "The unknown youth slowly closed his eyes and his lips turned pale; but he soon raised his eyelids, his mouth regained its color of coral red, and he affected the attitude of the Englishman for whom life has no further mysteries to reveal and disappeared without seeking consolation in one of those heartrending gazes despairing gamblers often cast upon the spectators" (10: 63). He leaves the building whistling "Ditanti palpiti" from Rossini's Tancredi (10: 64). Paul, throughout his ordeal, similarly maintains his composure: "He stood through it smiling, his pale lips parted over his white teeth. . . . his set smile did not once desert him, and his only sign of discomfort was the nervous trembling of the fingers that toyed with the buttons of his overcoat. . . . When he was told that he could go, he bowed gracefully and went out" (469). Hoping to be observed by his teachers, Paul "ran down the hill whistling the Soldiers' Chorus from Faust" (470). An attitude of defiance, self-containment, and an operatically expressed jauntiness characterize the opening encounter with implacable fate, variously personified, in both works of fiction.

Other resemblances deepen the Balzacian "feel" of Cather's story. Raphaël lost his mother when he was a child of 9 or 10 (10: 125); Paul can no longer remember his (473). In both cases it is a father preoccupied with financial matters who raises the child and whose stringency sows the seed for adolescent rebellion. Paul's father, "on principle, did not like to hear requests for money, whether much or little," although he is prosperous(476). Raphaël has not forgotten that his father "did not ever give me, before the age of twenty, all of ten francs, ten measly francs, to spend—an immense treasure the vainly hoped-for possession of which made me dream of ineffable delights" (10: 121). Paul takes carfare from his father, lying about his intentions (476); the young Raphaël takes a small amount of his father's money to go gambling and likewise dissembles (10: 123-24). Both have expensive tastes: Raphaël's way of life must change dramatically after his father's death despite his being "[a]ccustomed from my youth to attaching great value to the luxuries I was surrounded by" (10: 127); when Paul's money runs out and his father comes to New York in search of him,"stopping at some joint or other" (486), Paul knows his adventure must abruptly end. In their stories Cather and Balzac are acutely aware of the unromantic connection between luxuries and the money necessary to produce and enjoy them in a capitalist system. If Raphaël's most extravagant wishes are granted upon his possession of the wild ass's skin, the narrator accounts explicitly for payment of these by bestowing upon his hero an unanticipated inheritance (10: 208). Cather's Paul studies the Sunday newspaper to plan the ideal "entry into New York" (480) and steals from the firm where his father had sent him to work. What is luxury for Paul, art itself, is associated, ironically enough, with necessity for the artist. Paul is able to attend concerts at Carnegie Hall because he is an usher and he is welcome at the theater in part because his friend Charley Edwards "could not afford to employ a dresser, [and] often found him useful" (477). The actresses are "hard-working women, most of them supporting indolent husbands or brothers" (479).

Art for Paul is a form of "peculiar intoxication" (472). From music, he "needed only the spark, the indescribable thrill that made his imagination master of his senses, and he could make plots and pictures enough of his own" (478). Cather's narrator remarks upon his susceptibility to "that indefinable air of achievement, that world-shine ... which always blinded Paul to any possible defects," a sort of reaction to the "ugliness and commonness" of his surroundings (472, 473). (The "horrible yellow wall-paper" of his room is reminiscent of many a Balzacian mansard [473].)The pressure to conform is palpable, from the opening hearing before the faculty to the example of the young clerk held up before him by his father to the final moments when it seemed "the tepid waters of Cordelia Street were to close over him finally and forever" (475-76, 485). The sordidness of industrial Pittsburgh is not so far removed from Raphaël's experience,which takes place "in Paris, on the quai Voltaire, in the nineteenth century, at a time and a location where magic surely ought to be impossible"(10: 79) or, as Raphaël himself exclaims, "in an era where everything can be explained, where the police would haul a new Messiah into court and refer his miracles to the Academy of Sciences, in a time when we believe only in the signatures of lawyers" (10: 237). Thwarting his early aspirations is the "leaden dome" (10: 121) of paternal influence. The talisman that measures Raphaël's days and his desires teaches him about the nature of life, but Paul's evenings out provide no antidote to illusion.

It is conspicuously the "picture making mechanism" (488) that Cather attacks and destroys in Paul's suicide, and because of that specificity, along with the matter-of-factness of the narration and the efficiency of his dispatch, his death strikes one as almost vicious. What symbolic justice is there in making a 17-year-old character (Paul is some 5 to 10 years younger than most of Balzac's young heroes) bear the weight of a tale of social and economic repression, in which his case is convincingly argued indeed, only to ruthlessly eliminate him? In doing so, Cather would seem to reject the dictum pronounced in The Wild Ass's Skin: "Every suicide is a poem sublimein melancholy" (10: 64). Perhaps a third work by Balzac, the well-known story "Sarrasine," can shed some light on the nature of Cather's preoccupations. Although "Paul's Case" is commonly read as being an expression of Cather's horror of mere Bohemianism, the forcefulness of the ending implies that more is at stake than simply a condemnation of Paul's lack of artistic vocation. Paul's escape from a claustrophobic environment might not be, as a symbolic event, entirely negative.

In Balzac's tale a young man tries to impress a young marquise by recounting the long-ago scandal of the sculptor Sarrasine's love for an Italian singer known as "La Zambinella," who, to Sarrasine's horror, turned out to be a castrato protected by a vengeful cardinal. It is the story behind a portrait the young woman had admired the night before at a ball. The narrator also reveals that she had actually caught a glimpse there of the selfsame Zambinella, now an old man. This is surely a more complicated case than Paul's, but affinities between the two stories suggest that Cather's meditation on art takes Balzac into account—not necessarily with reference to this particular story, although it is representative—and perhaps comes to terms with what his example might have meant for her as she came into her own as a writer.

Much of the symbolic territory is familiar. After being expelled from a provincial school where he exasperated the Jesuit fathers, Sarrasine "sought in Paris a refuge from the threats of paternal malediction" (6:1058). His few nights out as an apprentice sculptor were spent at the Théâtrede la Comédie-Française, and the all-important scene where he first glimpses La Zambinella occurs at the Théâtre d'Argentina (6:1059). As in The Wild Ass's Skin, in which the narrator alludes to "orgies begun in wine and ending up in the Seine" (10: 59), Balzac's tale features scenes of feasts and orgies: Sarrasine "recognized the male and female singers from the theater, mingling with charming women, everyone ready for an artists' orgy, waiting only for him to begin" (6: 1065). Paul's "orgies of living" may, in Pittsburgh, have been confined to evenings at the theater but, in New York, the pleasures of fine dining at the hotel "all flooded Paul's dream with bewildering radiance. When the roseate tinge of his champagne was added—that cold, precious, bubbling stuff that creamed and foamed in his glass—Paul wondered that there were honest men in the world at all" (473, 483). The marquise listening to the narrator's tale in "Sarrasine" comes to exactly the same conclusion, though not admiringly: "Paris, she said, is a most hospitable place, welcoming everything, fortunes steeped in shame and fortunes steeped in blood. Crime and infamy find asylum and companionship there; virtue alone has no one to worship it" (6: 1075-76). Exactly what ensues after the beginning of Paul's brief "champagne friendship" (484) with the freshman from Yale is never stated, but such reticence would not ill serve the purposes of a writer acquainted with the predictably long, minutely described, and often sensational interludes of erotic interest one is apt to find in Balzac, assuming that the suggestion of such an association is implicit in Cather's ellipsis. In any event, the first part of Sarrasine's adventure in Rome follows an outline in some ways similar to Paul's in New York, each one having a different focus: "In a week, he lived a whole lifetime, in the mornings occupied in shaping the clay with which he succeeded in making a figure of La Zambinella, in spite of the veils, skirts, corsets, and bows that hid her from him. In the evenings, seated early in his loge, alone, reclining on a sofa, he created for himself, in the manner of a Turk drugged by opium, a sort of happiness as fertile and as fantastic as he wished" (6:1062-63). As for Paul: "Nor was he lonely later in the evening, in his loge at the Opera. . . . His dearest pleasures [at the hotel] were the grey winter twilights in his sitting-room; his quiet enjoyment of his flowers, his clothes, his wide divan, his cigarette and his sense of power.... His golden days went by without a shadow, and he made each as perfect as he could" (484-85). It is on the eighth day that he reads the news of his absence in the Pittsburgh papers, but he comes to feel "that he had lived the sort of life he was meant to live" (485, 487). In the riches of the imagination, with their exotic tinge—one finds allusions to "the sultan's daughter in the tale of The Magic Lamp" (6: 1045) in Balzac, to "the Genius in the bottle found by the Arab fisherman" (471) in Cather—lie ideal pictures of happiness and beauty that will ultimately betray the soul and require its disillusionment. La Zambinella, despite appearances, is not a woman. Pittsburgh, despite Paul's intimations to the contrary ("He doubted the reality of his past" [483]), is not an illusion. Artist and esthete are bound to reality.

The artist Sarrasine studies "the blue veins that . . . gave undertones to the satin skin" of the face of La Zambinella, whom we meet at the beginning of the story as a "walking cadaver": "the years had so tightly stretched the fine, yellow skin on the bones of this face that everywhere it showed a multitude of wrinkles, resembling the ripples formed in water disturbed by a stone a child has thrown into it" (6:1061, 1055, 1052). It is the drawing teacher who studies Paul with equal attentiveness: "One warm afternoon the boy had gone to sleep at his drawing-board, and his master had noted with amazement what a white, blue-veined face it was; drawn and wrinkled like an old man's about the eyes, the lips twitching even in his sleep" (470). Both characters embody an uneasy mixture of youth and age, and both possess the capacity to hold an artist's interest. Of these two perpetual performers, the one refuses to sleep and the other cannot remain awake. Balzac's narrator, revealing the old man's secrets, conspires and betrays; Cather's narrator, neither conspiratorial nor particularly awed by an adolescent's moment of insufficiently thought through rebellion, betrays and abandons. A certain narrative logic is at work.

The author of "Paul's Case" knows the coming-of-age stories so common in Balzac, knows them so well that her story is like the visit to a familiar mansion, is able to locate the old, indispensable rooms and, thanks to the power of evocation, does not need to linger. Her younger, immature hero is looking for a way out; her laconic narrator, a model of efficiency, knows no self-doubt or inclination to tarry. The story's compression and hothouse atmosphere, in contradistinction to its model's expansiveness and sense of discovery, argue for its creator's assimilation of a tradition and need to move on. It is exactly the pioneering spirit that is absent from Cather's story, but the thirst for it—or, more precisely, for the form that will enable her to express this spirit and embody it in literary terms—is palpable in this masterly acknowledgment of her debt to the Europeans. Balzac alone is the great pioneer of the Balzacian novel, and his sense of exaltation is vivid and contagious. After him, the Balzacian novel is no longer a creative possibility. Cather understands his greatness and pays tribute to him, but her story's economy is more exclusive in nature than inclusive. "Paul's Case," as an early masterpiece, may well be a cornerstone but it is not yet the house that Cather built.

Paul's failure to survive is not simply the expression of the failure of the character as an artist or a nonartist. The impact of the ending on one level has little to do with the case of Paul per se, however finely observed his behavior. Indeed, a moralistic reading of the story would be at odds with the tension and resolve implicit in the narrative voice—ultimately, a sort of reduction. The narrator lets us see the tragedy of misunderstanding and weakness on all sides and makes us feel the relentless oppression of forces that would have us all fall asleep at the drawing-board, including herself (hence the tension and resolve). Balzac's inspiration is a source, a breathing-in, but even if Paul cannot draw incessantly like the young Sarrasine, the expression of human vitality and worth requires the ability to move responsively from within, to breathe out (6: 1057). If "Paul's Case" is in some way a call paid to Balzac's European hôtel, it is à propos to note that Cather could never work while traveling in Europe and always had to be at home to write: "I write only of the Mid-Western American life that I know thoroughly, and I must be here"(qtd. in Wasserman 104). The story's ending à la Anna Karenina is perhaps not so much a comment on the waywardness of Paul as on the insufficiency or inaptness of European grounding for American tales.

That is why Paul and his "picture making mechanism" are crushed and thrown aside and the force of the rushing train, sole and contemporary equal to the depths and distances of the American landscape, cannot be denied. Paul falls back wordlessly "into the immense design of things," and in his dismissal there is an air of resolve. For Cather, there is more to be said than what the figure of Paul can allow to be said, more than "the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands" (488). The limits of the European imagination do not belong here, however necessary and beloved that imagination. Paul's case is ended. One can hear the train bound to this continent flying by and, prepared for the still difficult and triumphant journey, Willa Cather is already on board.


 1. All translations from Balzac are my own. (Go back.)


Balzac, Honoré de. La Comédie Humaine. Ed. Pierre-Georges Castex. 12 vols. Paris: Gallimard, 1976-81.
Cather, Willa. Stories, Poems, and Other Writings. New York: Library of America, 1992.
James, Henry. Literary Criticism: French Writers, Other European Writers, The Prefaces to the New York Edition. New York: Library of America, 1984.
Wasserman, Loretta. Willa Cather: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.