Paul moves through his world awkwardly, never truly fitting in anywhere or ever feeling comfortable in his own skin. He is obsessed with art, theater, and music, and his job as an usher at Carnegie Hall in Pittsburgh allows him to indulge these obsessions. Paul has an unrealistic idea that the art world is an ideal fantasyland, and he uses art as a sort of drug to escape his dreary existence. He has no desire to join the art world he admires; rather, he wants to sit back and observe other people. Paul feels contempt for his teachers, classmates, neighbors, and family members, all of whom he sees as hopelessly narrow-minded. Besides art, Paul is also obsessed with money. He longs to be rich and believes that great wealth is his destiny. Because of his selfishness and desperation to escape his own unspectacular life, Paul lies constantly, sometimes to get out of a sticky situation and sometimes to impress his classmates and teachers. Cather makes it clear that Paul might be gay, although it is not clear whether he acknowledges or acts upon them. He feels alienated from society because of his sexuality and general disdain for other people.

Paul’s self-destructive impulses intensify throughout the story. At first, he wishes to escape life by submerging himself in art. When Paul stands outside the soprano’s house and listens to the symphony, Cather’s language suggests his longing for oblivion. He wants to let art take him away, “blue league after blue league, away from everything.” Paul spends an entire night imagining what would happen if his father took him for a burglar and shot him. More disturbingly, he also imagines what would happen if his father one day regretted not killing him. The implication is that Paul assumes that he will fail and disgust his father so drastically that his father will wish him dead. Toward the end of the story, we learn that Paul bought a gun when he arrived in New York because even at the outset of his adventure, he foresaw that he might need “a way to snap the thread.” Several times, the narrator mentions a darkness in Paul, a fear that he has felt since he was a child. Paul ultimately commits suicide not because of one event or character trait. Rather, all his reasons for unhappiness, loneliness, and alienation converge and lead him to his decision to leap in front of a train.