Skip over navigation

Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament

Willa Cather

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

A Clinical View of a Suicidal Young Man

Themes

The Danger of Misunderstanding Money

Paul is obsessed with money, and his belief that money will solve all his problems leads to unrelenting disappointment in his life. He thinks almost constantly about the humiliation of those who have little money and the power wielded by those who possess lots of it. He keenly analyzes his own slightly impoverished existence and hates every detail: cramped houses, grubby bathrooms, simple clothes, women’s inelegant conversations, and men’s worshipful attitude toward their bosses. He believes that money is the one way out of the existence he loathes. But it becomes clear that Paul will never become one of the prosperous men he idealizes because he has no understanding of the relationship between work and money. The narrator points out that there are boys like Paul who started at the bottom of the ladder and worked their way up until they became kings. Paul’s father and the young clerk discuss just such men as Paul listens on the front porch. But while Paul is fascinated by the exotic haunts and exploits of these rich men, he has no interest at all in the “cash-boy stage” of their lives, those first days when they were as poor as he is. He longs for the spoils of hard work but cannot conceive of doing the hard work that leads to the spoils.

Paul views the small economies of his neighbors disdainfully, believing that only he understands the best way of building wealth. The fathers around him pinch pennies and pass on their thrifty ways to their children, taking pleasure in their skill with arithmetic and ability to accumulate coins in piggybanks. Paul sneers at this petty fixation on money, not understanding that the careful accumulation of funds is the best chance that he or anyone in his neighborhood has of moving up in the world. He believes that some people are born rich and others are born poor and dismisses the idea that in America, the boundaries between the two groups are fluid. Paul further believes that he was meant to be rich and that only by some terrible mistake was he born poor. Because Paul is so certain that he was destined for wealth, it comes as no surprise when he steals $1,000 in cash from his company. In some sense, he feels that he deserves money without working for it. In the end, Paul’s obsession with money and failure to understand it are key causes of his downfall.

The Addictive Nature of Art

In “Paul’s Case,” art acts as a dangerous drug, and Paul’s addiction to it causes him endless problems. Although Paul feels happiest and most alive when he is surrounded by art—at the theater, listening to music, or gazing at paintings—his happiness is an illusion because he does not truly understand what he sees. Instead, he consumes art voraciously and unthinkingly, as if it is an addictive drug. For example, the narrator writes that although the music at Carnegie Hall means nothing to Paul, he loves it because it lets loose “some hilarious and potent spirit within him.” This phrase describes an involuntary but highly pleasurable reaction, similar to the reaction inspired by addiction.

Much as addicts use their drug of choice to escape their everyday lives, Paul uses art to escape his own consciousness. When he gazes at the painting in the Carnegie Hall gallery and again when he listens to the symphony, he is described as losing himself. The aftermath, however, is ugly, and Paul is shaken and irritable after his bouts with the arts. His high does not linger, and coming down from it is difficult. Cather emphasizes Paul’s unintellectual response to art by pointing out that he does not read novels. He avoids books, the narrator says, because “he got what he wanted much more quickly from music.” Just like an addict in search of a fix, Paul needs to consume art as easily and fast as he can. Anything that requires sustained concentration or intellectual appreciation, such as novels, is too time-consuming. Theater, music, and paintings provide Paul with instant, though shallow, gratification.

The Alienation of Homosexuals

Cather suggests strongly that Paul has homosexual leanings that make his life difficult and contribute to how alienated he feels from others. Modern readers might find her portrait of his homosexuality shallow and uncomfortably stereotypical: Paul is petrified by rats, splashes cologne on himself, and is fastidious about odors and dirt. The only woman who interests Paul is the soprano he sees at Carnegie Hall, a middle-aged woman described as “the mother of many children” and a clear substitute for Paul’s own deceased mother. The prospect of heterosexual relations seems to repulse Paul. He is unsettled, for example, by the young clerk’s marriage to a nearsighted schoolmistress and by the couple’s four children. Paul is most interested in boys. He tussles with the other young ushers at the theater and latches on to Charley Edwards, who allows Paul to help him dress for performances. The narrator notes that Charley thinks Paul has a vocation. The kind of vocation is not specified, and we infer that Paul has an affinity both for the theater and for men, as does Charley.

Paul’s homosexuality makes him feel deeply alienated from society. Although he seems to achieve a certain acceptance from a few groups and individuals, the details are so vague that we can assume the acceptance was hardly overt or fulfilling. He has no close friends, and the narrator suggests that his advances are often rebuffed. When Paul meets the rich student from Yale, he makes a brief connection, and the two share a wild night out on the town. But although their friendship begins with “confiding warmth,” they part coldly. The narrator describes this change in the space of one sentence, which suggests how quickly the tone of the relationship goes from hot to cold. It is possible that the change occurs because Paul made a pass at the Yale student and was turned down. It is also possible that the two boys shared an encounter that left both of them embarrassed and upset. Whatever happened, Paul is again left alone, and the stage is set for his solitary descent into despair.

Motifs

Colors

Cather often uses colors to suggest personality and mood. Yellow is associated with the repulsion Paul feels for his home. After following the soprano to her hotel, he dreads returning to his room with its yellow wallpaper. Later, surrounded by luxury at the Waldorf, he thinks with horror of that yellow wallpaper. The young clerk is associated with red. His face and mouth are red, which reflects his formerly wild nature, now tamed by his conventional life. Riches are associated with the color purple. Paul scorns his teachers for failing to decorate their buttonholes with purple violets, as rich people might. He orders violets and jonquils for his rooms at the Waldorf. He is happy during dinner in the hotel, feeling that no one will question “the purple”—that is, that no on will question his masquerade as a rich boy.

Cather uses white and blue to portray Paul himself. His teeth, lips, and face are pale, which suggests his emotional strain. White is also a positive color for him: white snow often falls during his days in New York, where he is happiest. The drawing master notices the blue veins on Paul’s face. Paul loses himself in the “blue Venetian scene or two” and the “blue Rico” in the gallery, and listens to the Blue Danube at the Waldorf. He longs to let art carry him away into a blue sea. The two colors combine in his imagination. The theater is described as Paul’s “bit of blue-and-white Mediterranean shore,” and he thinks of the sea just before he dies.

Food

Mentions of food as well as the smell and preparation of it recur throughout “Paul’s Case.” Paul associates nauseating food with his house on Cordelia Street. After following the soprano to her hotel, he feels revulsion at the thought of ordinary food and scent of cooking spread throughout a house. The narrator describes Paul’s ordinary life as a “flavorless, colorless mass,” a phrase that would apply equally well to an unappetizing plate of food. Paul is also disgusted by the dishtowels and dishwater that must be used to clean plates dirtied by food. Before visiting Charley Edwards, he tries to rid his fingers of the smell of dishwater by putting cologne on them.

Although the food of his own people repulses Paul, the food of rich people tantalizes him. He pores over pictures of fancy dinner parties in magazines and imagines the delicious food and drink the soprano will enjoy in her hotel. Once he reaches the Waldorf, he is overwhelmed by the dining room’s beauty and amazing sight of champagne frothing in his glass. In fact, food is not mentioned in the description of Paul’s first dinner at the Waldorf. It is as if the most genteel food hardly has any smell at all. During that first dinner, Paul can hardly believe that he comes from a place where the men’s clothes smell like food.

Symbols

Red Carnations

The red carnations Paul often wears in his buttonhole represent Paul himself. At the beginning of the story, when Paul wears a red carnation to meet his teachers and principal, the adults correctly interpret its presence as evidence of Paul’s continued defiance. They want him to show remorse, but the jaunty flower proves that he feels none. At the end of the story, Paul buys red carnations. As he walks to the train tracks, he notices that they have wilted in the cold. He buries one of the flowers in the snow before leaping in front of a train. The carnation’s burial is a symbolic prelude to Paul’s actual suicide.

Follow Us