Paul's Case | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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Paul's Case | Symbols


The Red Carnation

Paul's red carnation symbolizes one thing to Paul and something else to the adults in his life. Paul feels that the carnation is a thing of beauty and excitement. The carnation is not white or pink—colors that are quieter and calmer—but a bright red. Paul probably chooses a red carnation for its audacity and vibrancy, two qualities Paul himself values. The carnation is a symbol of the type of beauty Paul is most drawn to. It is bright and exciting but fades quickly and must be replaced with another. This is how Paul himself moves from beauty to beauty. He uses theater, music, and sensory pleasure to satiate his longing for excitement. Like the changing of the carnation, he moves from one source of excitement to another as soon as the first is over.

To Paul's teachers, the carnation is a symbol of Paul's flippancy and his lack of proper values. When Paul is brought in before the school faculty to answer for his mischief, the teachers note the carnation and "[feel it is] not properly significant of the contrite spirit." They see the carnation as a symbol of Paul's defiance and his lack of remorse for his wrongdoings. The teachers' opinion of Paul's carnation reflects Cather's attitude toward Oscar Wilde, who was also known for wearing a carnation in his buttonhole. When Wilde was tried and convicted over his sexual relationship with another man, Cather used adjectives such as "false" and "insincere" in reference to him and his work. This attitude mirrors that of the teachers toward Paul, whom they also view as false and insincere.

The red carnation can be understood to represent Paul's own life as well as his attitude toward beauty. Paul himself is the red carnation that has a brief moment of glory and excitement before it quickly fades and dies. Paul recognizes and romanticizes this in the final scene of the narrative when he removes the wilted carnation from his coat and buries it in the snow. This act represents his acknowledgment of his own life ending. Paul cannot conceive of beauty that lasts nor of a way to live that doesn't involve an addiction to each passing beauty. Despite a lifetime of potential beauty ahead of him, Paul sees his life embodied in the short burst of excitement and subsequent death of the red carnation.

Paul's Smile

Paul's smile is, like many of Paul's values and attributes, superficial. Cather never indicates Paul smiling in genuine delight, but always as part of the mask he shows the world around him. Described in terms such as set, uncertain, conscious, and frightened, Paul's smile never seems to represent any genuine happiness or pleasure. His smile is a symbol of Paul's fragility and the things that he hides from both himself and the world.

Paul's teachers interpret his smile as a sign of insolence and deviousness. Only Paul's drawing master suspects that the nature of Paul's smile is different. He notes that "there's something sort of haunted about it." When the drawing master catches a glimpse of Paul's sleeping face, the drawing master is shocked to see a completely different expression. Asleep, his teacher notes, Paul's face is "drawn and wrinkled like an old man's about the eyes." Paul's smile is covering up vulnerability and perhaps even trauma from his past. Paul himself never acknowledges what he is hiding with his smile, perhaps because he has buried part of himself that he doesn't wish to look at closely. The drawing master mentions Paul's mother's death and wonders at other traumas in Paul's childhood. These hints suggest that Paul may be suffering from events in his past that are connected to his current difficulties.

For Paul, his smile functions as a way to present a certain side of himself to the world. He smiles constantly so as to give the impression of being set apart from the grim, serious faces around him. He also smiles so that he gives the impression of attractiveness and glamour that he so cherishes. Paul's fixation with beauty and excitement leads him to try to conceal any parts of himself that could be considered ugly or uninteresting. His smile acts as a mask and a barrier against a world that he considers drab and unattractive.

Autumn and Winter

The seasonal setting of "Paul's Case" is significant to the progression of the story and, also, to Paul as a character. "Paul's Case" is entirely set over the course of late autumn and winter. When the story begins, Paul notes the "sodden November chill" and how it is broken by the "last flash of autumnal summer." By the time Paul goes to New York City, it is now a snowy January. This progression from autumn to winter matches the movement of Paul's life toward his downfall. Cather tells only the end of Paul's story, and the reader has very little insight into Paul's earlier years. His story starts in the season of autumn as well as the metaphorical autumn of his brief life. After Paul finishes his escapade in New York, his perspective on the rest of his life is as bleak as the January weather. He sees death as the only way out of the dreariness and a fittingly romantic end to the last flash of glamour he experienced in New York.

For Paul, the "November chill" and gray January weather also symbolize his feelings about the world he lives in. Cordelia Street, his school, and his house are all unbearably drab and uninspiring. The very trajectory of Paul's life, from school to an inevitable job as a clerk in some office, feels like a barren and unending winter to Paul. He sees the grim darkness of winter in industrial Pittsburgh as a reflection of his own life. Paul longs for the warmth and vitality of flowers, fine clothing, and art. The attention he places on flowers indicates that he is drawn to the beauty of warmer seasons. Cordelia Street is, to Paul's mind, an ugly winter place that has no room for beautiful clothes and flowers. However, Paul also recognizes the beauty of flowers amid the January snow, and that contrast indicates how he sees himself—as a bright flower trapped in a gray and dreary world of winter.


Trains and their tracks have symbolic significance in Cather's narrative. Locomotives played an important role in the prosperity of Pittsburgh at the end of the 19th century. This prosperity led to the rise of the middle class, to which Paul belongs. For Paul, the train initially represents freedom. He takes the train from Pittsburgh to New York in order to escape his mundane life. At the end of the story, however, the train is the instrument of Paul's downfall. There is a sense of situational irony in the fact that Paul chooses to die by jumping in front of a locomotive. The locomotive is connected to the development of the lower-middle-class life Paul loathes, which he is trying to escape through his death. Yet, Paul chooses the train as the instrument of his death, perhaps because he sees it as a more romantic ending than death by revolver. In a broader sense, this train in this scene could be interpreted as a symbol of industrialization. Industrialization is a foundational element of all that Paul views as ugly and abhorrent. The industrial middle-class society in which Paul lives is also poison to him, and his inability to reconcile himself with that reality leads to his death.

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