Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament

by: Willa Cather

Motifs

Main ideas 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.