Both Nadine Gordimer’s “The Defeated” and Willa Cather’s “Paul Case” are about characters who dread the life they see around them. Fearing this outcome, they strive desperately to put as much space as possible between their present circumstances and their future dreams.
Miriam and Paul use similar defense mechanisms to deal with the realities in which they live. This mechanism is denial. On her birthday, instead of having a party in her lowly home, Miriam takes her friends to a movie. The movie is symbolic of the escape from reality that Miriam so fervently craves. There is a passage in “The Defeated” which illustrates how the young Miriam leads her life in the lower class among Concession stores. Miriam is “like someone sitting in a swarm of ants; and letting them swarm, letting them crawl all over and about her.
Not lifting a hand to flick them off. Not crying out against them in disgust; nor explaining, saying well I like ants. Just sitting there and letting them swarm, and looking out of herself as if to say: What ants? What ants are you talking about?” That is as perfectly realized a metaphor for denial as I’ve ever read. How many people are metaphorically sitting right now among a swarm of attacking ants and all the while telling the world that it is crazy? Our President, for one, of course.
Paul, too, leads a life of denial in his story. This is most obviously realized in the opening school interrogation sequence. Pauls’s sporting a red carnation, acting suave and carefree, lying to his teachers so they will hear what he thinks they want to hear is all ingrained into his psychological need to outwardly deny to ther rest of the world his true station in life. Paul is a lover of artifice and so leads his life by fictionalizing as a part, and thereby denying the reality of the situation.
During certain portions of their stories, both Miriam and Paul get glimpses into the kind of life they do want to live. Miriam visits the narrator’s home and while there she shows little active interest in the niceties and prettiness of it-though it is clear she notices them. However, by the next the narrator overhears Miriam going on and on about the presents that her friend had received. Later, when she grows up and goes off to college, Miriam begins hanging around with the Jewish medical students whom, Miriam is meant to assume if not necessarily the reader, lead a more affluent life than that to which Miriam is accustomed.
For Paul, this realization that there exists a life out there that is separate from his own is especially apparent during the scene when he follows the singer to her hotel. “There it was, what he wanted-tangibly before him, like the fairy world of a Christmas pantomime, but mocking spirits stood guard at the door, and, as the rain beat in his face, Paul wondered whether he were destined always to shiver in the black night outside, looking up at it.” Paul probably knows what he wants a little more than Miriam. Miriam clearly wants to escape a future of living behind the Concession store and she’s willing to work hard to get to school-and use her parents love-in order to do so. What Paul wants, though apparently without actually having to make any effort toward working for them, is music and art and affluence.
Miriam’s escape from dread seems to be realized. Unlike Paul, she actively makes an effort. She works hard and gets the opportunity to leave her childhood fears behind forever. She goes to school, gets work that she considers respectable and marries well. True, she has to go back and visit her roots occasionally, but the visits are on her own terms, and rare. Miriam has escaped what she feared the most, though certainly this escape comes at a cost that perhaps she’s not mature enough to understand. She has broken her parents spirits and seems either not to realize it or not to care.
Paul’s escape is more concrete, though certainly problematic in a different way from Miraim’s. It’s true that he will never have to go back to Cordelia Street-even for a brief visit-but it is also true that he will never visit Cairo like he had planned. He does escape from the dreaded fear, but the escape is at too great a cost to be termed successful. Paul’s escape is into the great undiscoverd country of death.
Both Paul and Miriam believe, if only for a moment, that they have beaten back the thing in the corner. That thing for both could possibly be living the life they most feared. For Miriam, it seems as though nothing could be worse for her than living out the remainder of her life among the slums of the mining town. Obviously, this fear is far worse than any guilt she feels at the betrayal of her parents. For Paul, there seems to be only one way out since he doesn’t appear to be willing to work hard, rise slowly and eventually escape like Miriam. But even that escape into death cannot be called a success, as he does, after all, have just enough time for regrets before all fear and dread are smashed out of him with horrific finality.