Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"Paul's Case": A Narcissistic Personality Disorder, 301.81

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"Paul's Case": A Narcissistic Personality Disorder, 301.81

Article excerpt

Willa Cather's title "Paul's Case" (1905) invites us to ponder the question, "What exactly is Paul's Case?" Cather immediately informs us that Paul's case is mysterious. His own father is "perplexed" about his son's behavior, and the school faculty, who meet with Paul to discuss his recent suspension, speak of Paul with such "rancor" and "aggrievedness" that it is obvious that Paul's is "not a usual case" (221). At first, it appears that Paul is, perhaps, simply filled with the arrogance that adolescence sometimes brings, but, as Cather continues with Paul's case history, we learn that his problem is more deeply rooted. Paul's problem drives him to take his own life, and simple adolescent arrogance does not lead to such drastic measures. My diagnosis is that Paul suffers from what contemporary psychiatry calls a "narcissistic personality disorder."

The term, "narcissism" comes, of course, from the Greek myth of Narcissus. Freud, who drew upon mythology to assist in his conceptual formulations of psychopathology, formally introduced the term narcissism into the psychiatric literature in his 1914 paper On Narcissism.(1) The term received recognition within the early psychoanalytic intelligentsia and has been historically rooted in the psychoanalytic tradition. Since Freud first introduced the term, it has been used to help explain disorders ranging from the mildly neurotic to the psychotic. Presently, the American Psychiatric Association uses the term to define a personality and outlines the diagnostic criteria for the narcissistic personality disorder (in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV].(2) To receive the diagnosis of a narcissistic personality disorder, a person must meet five of nine criteria: Paul appears to be a prototypical case, meeting all nine.(3) Amazingly, it seems that Willa Cather intuitively set forth the diagnostic criteria for a narcissistic personality disorder about ninety years before scientists reached a firm, empirically validated consensus.

Though not as physically striking--nor as outwardly arrogant--as Narcissus, Paul attracts attention and begs for analysis. A number of critics have set forth interesting analyses of Paul's inner world. Michael N. Salda presents an argument that on the night that Paul arrives home late and retreats to the basement to avoid his father, he never actually leaves the basement; the scenes that follow, according to Salda, occur only in Paul's imagination (115). Paying somewhat less attention to Paul's grandiose fantasy life, Edward Pitcher presents Paul as the embodiment of a "Faustian. temperament" in conflict with the "capitalist machine" (550). More closely aligned with the forthcoming analysis of Paul is Philip Page's description of Paul in terms of a "metaphor of theatricality" (553). Page's idea of Paul as an actor living out an inflated drama in his imagination is quite consistent with the narcissistic personality. Although each of these critics offers us a glimpse into Paul's inner world, I think that through the lens of the DSM-IV, we can gather a more comprehensive picture of Paul's case and a better understanding of why both he and Narcissus experience such a tragic fate.

The DSM-IV states that the essential features of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder are a:

   pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for
   admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present
   in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

   (1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates
   achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without
   commensurate achievements)

   (2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance,
   beauty, or ideal love

   (3) believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be
   understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status
   people (or institutions)

   (4) requires excessive admiration

   (5) has a sense of entitlement, i. … 
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