September 30, 2005

Paul's Case and Easy Rider

Author's Note: The following is a post I made on a literature discussion board for my English 205 class. It discusses a corallory I perceive between a short story by Willa Cather titled "Paul's Case" and the classic film "Easy Rider." To read the full short story click here.

“It was a losing game in the end, it seemed, this revolt against the homilies by which the world is run.”

It appears as if the editors of our textbook, as well Professor Saupe, tend to associate literary fiction with stories that don't have an easily identifiable "moral," and I would tend to agree. I also think that in order to gain the most understanding from any piece of writing it is important to not jump to conclusions about the intended meaning.

This may be especially true for Paul's Case. Indeed, possibly the most objective statement in the whole story (the line quoted above) may be the most open to subjective interpretation. There are even dangerous would not be a huge stretch of the imagination to infer that Paul's Case advocates suicide as a way of escaping the inescapable. I would say that this probably was not the intention of the author, especially when considering Paul's moment of remorse for "what he had left undone" just before the impact of the train. So if it doesn't advocate suicide, what is it saying? Is that final conclusion of Paul's transmitting the message of: RESISTANCE IS FUTILE? Man, that would be a downer.

On a slightly different note, has anyone seen the 1969 classic Easy Rider? You may recognize the motif of the film from the recent Starsky & Hutch reference. At first glance this is just a throwaway hippie flick about two mangy bikers who smoke a lot of dope. The basic plot is as follows: Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper make a big score in an illegal drug deal and use the ill-gotten cash to fund a groovy cross country journey from Los Angeles to Mardi Gras. Oh, and they pick up Jack Nicholson along the way. However, there is an ongoing current of social commentary throughout the film, especially in the portion which features Jack.

Despite the content such social commentary, it would still be easy to identify the overall message of the film as an advocacy for the "Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll" worldview. All the resistance the pair meets along the way comes from people who are labeled "intolerant" of their free-wheeling lifestyle. However, there is a cryptic line in a scene near the end of the film in which Fonda and Hopper are sitting by the campfire. Hopper's character is optimistic because of all the money they had stashed in the tear-drop gas tank of Fonda's bike, but Fonda replies with a look of extreme remorse, "We blew it." I really think that this line is meant to show an epiphany on Fonda's part (not dissimilar to the one Paul has) that the path they had chosen was ultimately the wrong one. Shortly thereafter the two meet a similar end to many of the characters from the literary fiction we've read.

I believe that the meaning (if not the theme) of Paul's Case and Easy Rider are very similar in their respective conclusions. Both Paul and the guys from the film were living in a fantasy world fueled by funds that were stolen from society. In the end, neither could sustain their counter-cultural lifestyle and both met untimely demises as a result. I would hate to try and boil down the broad wave of meaning that this has to a reductionism such as "Resistance [to societal norms] is futile," especially because I think that there is a more uplifting way up presenting it. It is my contention that both the story and the film could lead to the conclusion that in order to be truly free and happy one must be productive and contribute to society as opposed to leeching off of it in order to fuel a hedonistic lifestyle. It almost pains me to say it, but this is ringing some major "Prelude" bells about the Calvinist ideas of vocation and stewardship. Perhaps there's a reason why Easy Rider is available on DVD in Hekman Library after all.

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