Paul's Case | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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Paul's Case | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Part 1

Paul, a student at Pittsburgh High School, stands in front of the school faculty. His teachers are gathered to review Paul's case because he has been suspended from school for a week. Paul's father and his teachers are at a loss as to how to deal with him. The faculty, who all strongly dislike Paul, view him as having a "hysterically defiant manner." Paul does not seem particularly remorseful, although the purpose of his interview is to ask to be allowed back to school. Only the drawing master points out that there seems to be something more serious under Paul's flippant and derisive attitude.

After the interview Paul heads to his job as an usher at Carnegie Hall. He is good at his job and charms the patrons. The atmosphere brings out emotional intensity in Paul, and he loves being caught up in the glamour and the music. After the concert is over, Paul dreads returning to his shabby house and mundane life. Unable to face going home, Paul follows the soprano from the concert to her hotel. After standing in the rain and watching her enter the hotel, Paul takes a streetcar back to his neighborhood. He finds this life and a confrontation with his father so unbearable that he creeps into the house through the basement and sits awake all night.

The following Sunday, Paul sits out on the stoop with his family. Everyone in the neighborhood is out after church, still wearing their best Sunday clothes. Paul's father talks to a young clerk in the neighborhood, who is considered a model citizen. Though Paul's father wants Paul to follow in the clerk's footsteps, Paul is uninterested in the life of a clerk. After supper that night, Paul asks his father for bus fare to study with a friend across town. Instead, Paul goes to the theater to watch an actor acquaintance named Charley Edwards rehearse.

The more Paul engages in the theater world in the evenings, the worse he behaves in school. Eventually, the principal consults with Paul's father, and Paul is pulled out of school permanently as a result. His father forces Paul to quit his job as an usher and puts him to work full time at a firm called Denny & Carson.

Part 2

Paul is on an overnight train to New York. He has spent the night trying to avoid being seen by any businessmen from Pittsburgh, who might have recognized him from his job at the firm of Denny & Carson. Uneasy at the possibility of being recognized, Paul disembarks and sets about purchasing expensive new clothing, jewelry, and luggage. He dresses himself in these new clothes, leaving his old clothing in a cab. After these purchases, Paul heads to the luxurious Waldorf Hotel and checks in, plausibly explaining to hotel staff that he was awaiting his family to arrive from overseas. He pays for his room in advance. The only thing missing from how he imagined his hotel rooms is the presence of flowers, so he sends the bellboy for some. Paul then takes a hot bath, dresses himself in new silk underwear and a red robe, lies down on the couch, and contemplates how he arrived at this moment.

After Paul was forbidden from the theaters and concert halls, he began plotting his escape from his life. When he was instructed to take some checks and cash to the bank for deposit in Denny & Carson's account, he deposited the checks and pocketed the thousand dollars in cash. This money he used to get to New York and buy his new life. This fact clarifies Paul's nervousness on the train and when disembarking.

Paul falls asleep amid his reflections and wakes up to find it is already three in the afternoon. He takes his time getting dressed, making sure that everything is perfect. After a carriage ride in Central Park, Paul returns to the hotel and goes to dinner in the dining room. Everything around him seems like a beautiful dream. The following day, Paul meets a college boy from San Francisco, and the two stay out all evening. On the eighth day of Paul's stay in New York, he finds the story of his theft in the Pittsburgh newspaper. The newspaper states that Paul's father is in New York looking for him. Paul gets drunk on wine at dinner that night and awakens the next morning with a hangover and a deep sense of depression. He reveals that he bought a revolver at the beginning of his trip, but after reflection he decides not to use it. Paul leaves New York and takes a cab along the train tracks.

After leaving the cab, Paul flounders in the snow along the tracks, feeling increasingly clearheaded and simultaneously feverish. He sits down to rest alongside the tracks and is woken up later by the sound of an approaching train. Full of resolve, Paul throws himself in front of the train but regrets his decision in the split second before he is killed.


Paul's Personality

Cather depicts Paul's complex personality with a certain level of ambiguity. It is unclear what exactly causes Paul to behave the way he does or feel so intensely dissatisfied with his life. There are multiple possible explanations for Paul's character struggles. Willa Cather wrote "Paul's Case" around the time Oscar Wilde was tried and convicted for homosexuality. Cather herself is often assumed to have been a lesbian, though there is little conclusive evidence on the subject. It is possible that Paul, too, is gay and that many of the difficulties and alienation he feels are the result of his inability to express this aspect of himself. Paul lives in a society and time that would utterly reject his sexual orientation, even to the point of punishing or imprisoning him for it.

Paul's attraction to beauty, flowers, theater, and music could all be symbolic of a traditionally feminine or romantic side of his character. Regardless of whether or not Paul is actually gay, these qualities may have been considered unacceptable in a typical male of the day. Paul rejects all of the roles set before him and chooses the only path he sees to fulfill his longings. He cuts his ties with his community and former life and makes a fleeting and artificial life of beauty and romance. This is how Paul pushes back against a feeling of oppression that haunts him from childhood. However, this path doesn't ultimately lead Paul to freedom or acceptance.

Paul could be experiencing an extreme sense of repression because a deeply buried part of himself is socially unacceptable in his community. However, his sense of repression and dissatisfaction could also be fueled by delusion and fantasy. The latter would suggest that Paul actually has a personality disorder. Paul's feeling of dissatisfaction with his lot in life goes beyond reason, taking him into a land of delusion and fantasy. He experiences the oppressive mundanity of his life as something that drowns him, feeling as he turns toward his father's house that "the waters close above his head." This is an extreme reaction to a life that while perhaps painfully ordinary, is not full of basic suffering or hardship.

Paul's relationships with others, or lack thereof, also raise a question mark. Paul has a poor relationship with his father, who wants Paul to be someone that he is not. The narration gives little description of Paul's father because Paul himself is uninterested in his father. He sees his father only as part of the life Paul resents and wants to escape. Paul's teachers hint at trauma from Paul's mother's death when he was a young child. Additionally, Paul mentions feeling as though he is followed by a shadow from even his earliest memories. He recounts that "there had always been the shadowed corner, the dark place into which he dared not look." This sense of being followed by darkness could either be a result of lifelong delusion or could represent some part of himself that Paul hasn't come to terms with. It could also be a reference to some trauma regarding his mother's death or his father that Paul has repressed.

Paul keeps his distance from his community as well. He detests middle-class life, causing him to resent and look down upon the community that embodies that. Paul is also resentful and derisive of both his schoolmasters and his fellow pupils. School is part of the mundanity of the world that Paul finds distasteful, so he sees only that drabness when he looks at his schoolmates or teachers. Paul superimposes his own assumption of ugliness and dreariness onto everything around him that is part of his everyday life. In the case of community and school, Paul sets himself apart from everyone, whether they try to care for Paul or not. He has no friends and feels no positive emotions toward anyone in either setting. This type of antisocial behavior is suggestive of a personality disorder. Paul does enjoy the company of musicians and actors, but only in a superficial way. He is not actually close to any of these people; he only likes the glamorous idea they represent.

Paul's theft of money from the company he works for and his lack of guilt and remorse about this action indicate serious delusion. When Paul steals the money and runs away to New York, he doesn't seem to conceive of a future after the money runs out. His only plan—as revealed near the end of the story—is to end his life with a revolver that he purchased. The relief that Paul feels while engaged in his masquerade as a wealthy young man is an example of situational irony. Paul feels finally able to embody his true self in the opulent environment of wealthy New York. However, his superficial display of wealth and polish reflects a deeper and more complex concealment of his true character. Paul's delusions suggest a personality disorder that keeps him from finding any value in things unless they are romantic or glamorous. In running away to New York and clothing himself in beautiful things bought with stolen money, Paul is living a lie. Tragically, Paul neither thinks of his actions as based on lies nor perceives the falsehood and superficiality of his masquerade. Instead, he feels a "release from the necessity of petty lying, lying every day and every day" and that this release "restore[s] his self-respect."

Cather's Language

Willa Cather intentionally uses descriptive language focused on dark, gritty imagery to tell Paul's story. This is both a reflection of the grim industrialized city in which most of the story takes place, and it is also a reflection of Paul's own lens for seeing the world. The description of Paul's character, for all his love of beauty, does not portray an attractive young man. He is "very thin, with high cramped shoulders," and when he sleeps his face is "drawn and wrinkled." Even Paul cannot escape the reality of his physical self, attempting to disguise his nature with false smiles, a flashy carnation, and an opal pin. When the author describes anything pleasing to Paul, the descriptive language does not give itself over to beauty. Instead, Cather focuses on the flaws and practical aspects of whatever Paul finds engrossing. For instance, when Paul is riveted by the soprano at Carnegie Hall, the author describes her as "by no means in her first youth and the mother of many children." Yet, "she wore an elaborate gown and a tiara," which is what Paul chooses to see and be glamoured by.

Cather's language often reflects Paul's inability to see beauty in everyday life. Paul expresses "a shuddering repulsion for the flavorless, colorless mass" of his everyday world. He is also repulsed by anything that does not conform to his notion of glamour or beauty. This revulsion extends to Paul's neighbors and classmates as well as places and objects that do not have an obvious beauty. Paul describes the other men on Cordelia Street as exhausted-looking, "mere rivets in a machine," "sickening men." The street name is possibly a reference to the obedient, honest daughter of King Lear in English writer William Shakespeare's (1564–1616) titular play. Paul's distaste for "normal" people is evident in his description of his fellow train passengers. He thinks of them in terms such as "slatternly" and "clay-bespattered"; the babies he describes as "crumby" and "crying." These adjectives depict the glum and pallid world Paul believes he lives in, giving his distaste for the world around him a passionate intensity.

Foreshadowing and Inevitable Doom

The fact that the story is framed as a case or study indicates that it will likely have a clear ending point. This narrative frame, in addition to the grim descriptive language of the story, creates a feeling of inevitable doom surrounding Paul's character. Paul himself seems vaguely aware that his life is heading toward a darkness that has always followed him. Whether this doom is a self-fulfilled prophecy or something Paul never has a hope of escaping is left unclear. Paul's character flaws create a situation that seems to have no out except that of death. His views on his life on Cordelia Street are so extreme, and his happiness is based on something so superficial, that there is little chance for Paul's survival of his own perspective. The very nature of Paul's character is to ignore the reality of anything he finds beautiful and to revel in the surface glamour of that thing. His downfall is foreshadowed in the major character flaw that Paul is unable to live in a world that is not superficially beautiful. This dooms Paul because that superficial world he longs to live in does not really exist.

Paul's character flaws are not the only aspect of Paul's life that create a sense of pervasive foreboding in the narrative. There is a general shadow of doom following Paul through his life, and Paul seems to feel it. Whether Paul invents this shadow and fulfills his own doom as a result, or whether the shadow is the result of something that happened to Paul as a child, it comes for him in the end. While trying to make his desperate decision, Paul reflects that "he could not remember the time when he had not been dreading something." He alludes to having done unmentionable things. Paul seems to be on a doomed trajectory in his own mind, and nothing in his character is strong or clear-sighted enough to save him. The escapade in New York is the final culmination of these character flaws, Paul's delusion, and whatever shadow has been following him. Paul's adventure is doomed from the beginning, because he seems to have no plan for when the stolen money runs out.

Although Paul's ending is tragic, "Paul's Case" does not neatly conform to the genre of tragedy. In a tragedy, a fatal flaw leads to the protagonist's doom, and "Paul's Case" certainly features a doomed protagonist who exhibits many fatal flaws. Typically, however, the protagonist of a tragedy tries to do the right thing and is doomed in the attempt because of some fatal character flaw. Paul fails to display any likable or compelling qualities, and his downfall is brought about by poor decision-making and lies. His death seems less tragic than inevitable. The element that truly brings this story close to tragedy is Paul's regret in the last moments of his life. As he falls toward death, Paul shows a glimmer of understanding of the limitations of his life and values, but it is too little much too late.

Paul's Case Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Paul is questioned about his misdeeds at school.

Rising Action

2 As an usher, Paul attends a concert at Carnegie Hall.

3 After lying to his father, Paul goes to the theater.

4 Paul is taken out of school and put to work.

5 Paul steals money from his job and goes to New York City.

6 In New York City, Paul enjoys the life of his dreams.


7 Paul sees the story of his theft in the newspaper.

Falling Action

8 Paul goes to a set of train tracks outside New York City.


9 Paul throws himself in front of a train and dies.

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