College English / Literature: Lecture One

I write these lectures on the assumption that you're reading the textbook. Therefore, I try not to repeat myself; however, since I co-authored the textbook it's likely that I'll say some of the same stuff. That can only mean one thing thing--it's important!

Point of View is Simple
You shouldn't have a problem identifying the point of view. Just answer the question: who told the story? And there are only a handful of possibilities. You can narrow it down to two: it was a character in the story or it was someone else. If it was a character in the story, then it's an "I / me" narration. The next question you have to ask is "Which character?" And usually, there are only three possibilities. It was the main character, a minor character, or an extremely minor character.

Which Character?
The main character is the one the story is about. A minor character usually tells the story as an eye witness. And a very minor character may have had no involvement in the story, but simply plays the role of a bystander. This last possibility is rare, but it does happen.

If it Was Someone else...
by which I mean someone NOT in the story, then you've got a storyteller who is playing god. He or she (we don't know the gender, because we don't know them) is able to see everything, be everywhere, know everything. And the only distinction you need to make is where the storyteller is completely omnipotent (knows everything) or limited to knowing everything about one character.

So here's the choices:

Trust me; it's gonna be one of those. But whatever it is, it is NOT the author of the story. That's a mistake a lot of students make, which goes back to the business of verisimillitude. If a story seems real, then you may be sucked into believing it's the author's true story. But it's not. Writers of short stories may use experiences from their lives, but they modify them to reflect the central idea they want to present. Artists do the same thing. They do not try to paint an exact recreation of something. (Cameras can do that very well.) They create a painting that's based on their central idea.

The Author Must Decide Who Will tell the story
Many authors will write a story from two or three points of view before settling on one in particular. The reason is that each point of view has advantages and disadvantages. All of the character-based viewpoints limit the writer to whatever that character could logically see or hear. The characters are like real people (verisimillitude again) so they can only see or hear what a real perosn would be able to see or hear. If a character says "Two years before I was born, my father was dating a woman much younger than he was," you're going to wonder how the character knows this. The writer will most likely have to say something like "Before she died, my mother told me that two years before I was born, my father was dating a woman much younger than he was." THAT would make sense. So...if the story demands information that can't be revealed without some explanation, the writer might discard that point of view.

What I'm trying to get across here is that the writer has to choose a point of view that doesn't appear awkward or intrude on the flow of the story, but which allows him or her to convey whatever is necessary to make the central idea work. Maybe some examples will help.

The Point of View in Paul's Case
Easy. Limited Omnipotent, which is usually referred to as the third person because it uses the common pronoun "he." Why omnipotent? Well, the fact that he kills himself at the end of the story makes it pretty hard for him to tell it. And the fact that he is so alienated from everyone makes it difficult for anyone else to tell it, since they definitely would not see it his way. Look at this "clip" from the story:

No one could know how Paul felt; no one could have expressed this, not even Paul. To illustrate my point, let's see what happens if we change it to the first person.

The detatched delivery of the omnipotent storyteller, when assigned to the first person, changes Paul's character. He's no longer unaware of himself; he's very aware. This changes a lot of the story in ways that make the central idea weaker.

This story ends with a particularly startling statement.

That last statement (Paul dropped back into the immense design of things), which sums up the story, could not be said by Paul. It would mislead the reader and yet, without it, the story would fall flat. The statement sums up Paul's character, the fact that he is out of touch with reality and that only his suicide can bring him "back into the immense design of things."

Relating the Point of View to the Central Idea
It's not enough for you to state the central idea and what point of view is used. You have to connect them. You have to explain to us how the point of view supports the central idea. In the matter of Paul's Case we need to use information from other elements of the story.

What does the title mean?
The title is often a clue to the central idea of the story. And that's very true in Paul's Case. It's nt Paul's Story or "What Happened to Paul." It's Paul's CASE. This suggests something more clinical or medical. We're "studying" Paul. But why? well, my answer is that the author wants us to recognize that something is wrong with him. Of course, if you subscribe to the idea that anyone committing suicide is "sick" then you will agree with me. I think that what Willa Cather is showing us is the plight of a teenager in more extreme circumstances. Did you know that suicide is one of the major causes of death among teenagers?

Even "average" teens feel out of place and have a hard time getting through adolesence. That's natural. But Paul's case is more severe. Cather makes that clear from the very beginning. Look at how he's described (the italics are mine).

Wow! Do you see how much more out of the ordinary Paul is? And look at Cather's choice of words...his eyes had hysterical brilliancy and abnormally large pupils, and he was hysterically defiant. These are characteristics that clearly set him apart. So you have to ask yourself, why has Cather created this guy? Here's some possibilities:

The most likely answer is all three of these. And you could choose any one of them for your central idea. Here's my theory, which deals with the third option. I believe that something else IS going on which even Paul doesn't understand. My interpretation is based on the fact that the story was written many years ago, when certain lifestyles were not accepted or even spoken about. I think Paul is gay, or at the very least, has homosexual tendencies, which he doesn't understand. He's attracted to the classic kinds of things associated with the gay life. (Please note, that the story is old, so Cather is using references to stereotypical things which, today, might be considered quite biased.) Look at these passages, taken from the story:

All of these serve as hints to me of Paul's underlying problem. The word "dandy" suggests he's at least effeminate. And why did he pull his hands back when the teacher tried to touch him? Why was he "always excited while he dressed?" Doesn't his behavior at the hotel seem feminine? What's the "shadowed corner, the dark place into which he dared not look?" And why was his parting from the San Francisco boy singularly cool?" My answer, especially to the last illustration, that the evening with the Yale boy brings his gay leanings to his consciousness, and it's THAT which instigates the suicide.

But you may disagree. And that's OK. Since the author never comes straight out and says it, there's room for other interpretations. As long as they can be supported (as I've tried to support mine) with evidence from the story. And, as long as they are not contradicted by any evidence in the story. If you want to discuss this further with me, send me an e-mail.

I hope that was helpful.

'Till next time...Questions? For answers, send an e-mail to Dr. Write.

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