3. It occurred to him that all the flowers he had seen in the glass cases that first night must have gone the same way, long before this. It was only one splendid breath they had, in spite of their brave mockery at the winter outside the glass; and it was a losing game in the end, it seemed, this revolt against the homilies by which the world is run.
Before he leaps in front of a train to his death, Paul thinks about the flowers that he saw in New York. In this passage, Cather explicitly makes a connection between the glass-protected flowers, which make one brief stand against the winter, and Paul, who makes one brief stand against society. Like the flowers struggling to survive in the midst of winter, Paul is attempting to live in a world that he feels is hostile to him. The flowers’ “one splendid breath” parallels Paul’s eight-day stint impersonating a rich boy. Neither the flowers nor Paul have a chance at survival. They are fragile, out of place, and doomed.
Paul is egocentric, naïve, snobbish, and weak, but in passages like these, Cather shows sympathy for him. She asks us not to condemn him too harshly, despite his unjustifiable actions. She suggests that Paul cannot help his nature any more than the flowers can help their color or constitution. Although it is clear that his ways of thinking and acting are undesirable, it is also clear that, in his way, he is noble. He does try to “revolt against the homilies by which the world is run,” even if his revolt ends up being a misguided failure.