Paul’s Case

by

Willa Cather

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The protagonist of Cather’s story is described in careful physical and behavioral detail. Tall and thin, with bright, glassy eyes, Paul sticks out from his fellow students both in his appearance—he wears dandyish accessories like an opal pin and a red carnation—and in his flamboyant demeanor. Although he is often playful, performative, and defiant, he is privately quite depressed. Paul feels deeply alienated from everyone around him in Pittsburgh High School and on Cordelia Street, where he lives with his father and sisters. The narrator doesn’t identify the roots of this alienation and despair in explicit terms, but through the liberal use of innuendo makes it clear that Paul is a homosexual—an identity that, at the turn of the twentieth century in suburban Pittsburgh, was forbidden, and even dangerous to express. Caught between warring impulses to repress his sexuality and to express his difference defiantly and flamboyantly, Paul deals with his alienation in a number of ways, though most dramatically by inventing fairy-tale worlds of art and sensual pleasure, imagining that these might allow him to escape an environment that he finds both hostile and depressingly dull. The narrator describes Paul’s wild mood swings, his defiant attitude toward the disapproving authority figures in his life, and his rash behavior and decisions, showing them to be understandable in light of his difficult situation, gently suggesting that what seems at first to be simply rude, selfish, and inexplicable behavior stems from a much deeper issue—with Paul and with his society. The story shows how an outcome as tragic as suicide might result from such a situation, as the story’s overt symbolism shows: Paul’s bright, young life is crushed by the cruel, cold world like a red carnation in the snow.

Paul Quotes in Paul’s Case

The Paul’s Case quotes below are all either spoken by Paul or refer to Paul. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of Paul’s Case published in 1992.
Part 1 Quotes

Paul was always smiling, always glancing about him, seeming to feel that people might be watching him and trying to detect something.

Related Characters: Paul
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

He seemed to feel himself go after her up the steps, into the warm, lighted building, into an exotic, a tropical world of shiny, glistening surfaces and basking ease.

Related Characters: Paul, The German soloist
Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:

It was a highly respectable street, where all the houses were exactly alike, and where business men of moderate means begot and reared large families of children, all of whom went to Sabbath-school and learned the shorter catechism, and were interested in arithmetic; all of whom were as exactly alike as their homes, and of a piece with the monotony in which they lived.

Related Characters: Paul
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2 Quotes

When he was shown to his sitting-room on the eighth floor, he saw at a glance that everything was as it should be; there was but one detail in his mental picture that the place did not realize, so he rang for the bell boy and sent him down for flowers.

Related Characters: Paul
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

There had always been the shadowed corner, the dark place into which he dared not look, but from which something seemed always to be watching him—and Paul had done things that were not pretty to watch, he knew.

Related Characters: Paul
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

Here and there on the corners whole flower gardens blooming behind glass windows, against which the snow flakes stuck and melted; violets, roses, carnations, lilies of the valley—somehow vastly more lovely and alluring that they blossomed thus unnaturally in the snow.

Related Characters: Paul
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

Had he ever known a place called Cordelia Street, a place where fagged looking business men boarded the early car? Mere rivets in a machine they seemed to Paul—sickening men, with combings of children’s hair always hanging to their coats, and the smell of cooking in their clothes.

Related Characters: Paul
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

He felt now that his surroundings explained him. Nobody questioned the purple; he had only to wear it passively.

Related Characters: Paul
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

It was to be worse than jail, even; the tepid waters of Cordelia Street were to close over him finally and forever […] He had the old feeling that the orchestra had suddenly stopped, the sinking sensation that the play was over.

Related Characters: Paul
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:

He had not a hundred dollars left; and he knew now, more than ever, that money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted.

Related Characters: Paul
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

Paul took one of the blossoms carefully from his coat and scooped a little hole in the snow, where he covered it up.

Related Characters: Paul
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone. There flashed through his brain, clearer than ever before, the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands.

Related Characters: Paul
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Paul’s Case LitChart as a printable PDF.
Paul’s Case PDF

Paul Character Timeline in Paul’s Case

The timeline below shows where the character Paul appears in Paul’s Case. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1
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Paul, the protagonist of the story, has been suspended from his Pittsburgh high school for a... (full context)
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Paul is described as tall and thin, with slightly shabby clothes that, despite their shabbiness, identify... (full context)
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Paul tells the Principal that he would like to come back to school: he’s quite used... (full context)
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Paul generally seems intensely, even physically disgusted by his teachers: he never pays attention, whether he... (full context)
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At one point, Paul answers a question about one of his impertinent remarks by shrugging, twitching his eyebrows, and... (full context)
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After Paul leaves, the drawing master wonders if Paul’s smile is really more haunted than insolent: there’s... (full context)
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Meanwhile, Paul runs down the hill whistling, deciding he’ll go straight to Carnegie Hall, where he is... (full context)
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Paul is eager to perform as a model usher, and imagines himself as the host of... (full context)
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Paul feels better once he can lose himself in the symphony: the music itself is not... (full context)
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After the concert, as he often does, Paul feels irritable and unable to recover from the sensory overload. He waits outside for the... (full context)
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Paul knows that the excitement is coming to an end: he’s now faced with the prospect... (full context)
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Paul takes the streetcar home to respectable Cordelia Street, where the houses are identical, filled with... (full context)
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Paul almost can’t bear the thought of his father’s reproaches for his late arrival and the... (full context)
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The next Sunday is warm for November, and after Sabbath-school Paul’s neighbors all sit out on their stoops to chat while the children pack the streets.... (full context)
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Paul’s sisters talk to their neighbors about the shirt-waists they’ve embroidered recently. Paul’s father chats with... (full context)
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...the business from abroad while yachting on the Mediterranean. These are the kinds of stories Paul likes: his “fancy” is piqued by stories of Europe and yachts and gambling at Monte... (full context)
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After dinner Paul asks his father if he can have a dime for the streetcar to see his... (full context)
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Paul bounds upstairs, shakes a few drops of violet-water hidden in his drawer onto his hands,... (full context)
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The narrator notes that “it was at the theatre and Carnegie Hall that Paul really lived. This was Paul’s fairy tale,” where he feels like a prisoner who has... (full context)
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The theatre is Romance for Paul, though none of the actors working there quite understood that. Paul imagines it like the... (full context)
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Paul’s teachers think he’s being corrupted by fiction, but Paul isn’t tempted by novels—he prefers music... (full context)
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At one point, Paul goes too far, letting slip to his teachers that he has no time for theorems... (full context)
Part 2
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Paul is now in an east-bound train amidst a January snowstorm. He wakes up as the... (full context)
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Paul arrives at the 23rd street station in New York City and takes a cab to... (full context)
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In the early afternoon, Paul drives up to the Waldorf and registers as being from Washington, saying that he’s awaiting... (full context)
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On arriving to the room, everything seems perfect, except for the lack of flowers—Paul rings for the bell boy to bring them, arranges them, and then takes a hot... (full context)
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Paul is surprised at his own courage, the way he managed to overcome his overwhelming sense... (full context)
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Just yesterday, Paul had gone to the bank with Denny & Carson’s deposits as usual: he’d taken two... (full context)
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Paul wakes up in the afternoon, bounding up in horror that one of his days is... (full context)
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As Paul goes downstairs to dinner, orchestra music floats up from the lobby. Arriving in the dining... (full context)
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When he returns to his room that night, Paul goes to sleep with the lights on so that if he wakes in the middle... (full context)
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On Sunday Paul “[falls] in with” a wild San Francisco Yale freshman who offers to show him the... (full context)
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Paul passes his days without arousing suspicion from the hotel management. He is content simply to... (full context)
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Eight days after arriving, Paul reads about himself in the Pittsburgh papers. Denny & Carson announced that Paul’s father has... (full context)
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Paul sinks to his knees, knowing that the waters of Cordelia Street, his jail, will now... (full context)
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The next morning Paul wakes up with a headache. He hadn’t undressed before going to bed the night before.... (full context)
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Paul begins to feel nauseous as an exaggerated version of “the old depression” overtakes him. It... (full context)
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Paul takes a ferry to Newark, where he tells another cab to follow the Pennsylvania train... (full context)
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The carnations are drooping in the cold. Paul realizes that all the flowers he’d seen in the shop windows that first night must... (full context)
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Paul jumps at just the right moment, and as he falls he realizes how overly hasty... (full context)