Paul, the protagonist of the story, has been suspended from his Pittsburgh high school for a week, and as the story opens he’s called in to the faculty room to account for his actions. As he enters he seems calm and sanguine.
The beginning of the story characterizes Paul as someone at odds with his environment, and defiantly so—refusing to appear either anxious or contrite about his suspension.
Paul is described as tall and thin, with slightly shabby clothes that, despite their shabbiness, identify him as a kind of dandy: he’s wearing an opal pin and a red carnation in his button-hole, which the faculty finds overly jaunty for the occasion.
Paul’s changing clothing will be an important marker of his yearning and process of self-discovery throughout the story, while the red carnation remains a consistent, deeply symbolic, element of his dress. The carnation is the flamboyant symbol of his difference, his effeminacy, and his illicit homosexuality—which, though never addressed in explicit terms, is made clear throughout the story beginning with this description of his dandyish outfit.
Paul tells the Principal that he would like to come back to school: he’s quite used to lying this way. One by one, all the teachers state their grievances against him, most of which have to do with “disorder” and “impertinence.” The intensity and anger with which they make their accusations suggests that this is “not a usual case.”
The narrator describes Paul’s lying as something he feels he must do, while also employing the clinical language (i.e., Paul’s “case”) through which other people try to understand Paul’s strange behavior.
Paul generally seems intensely, even physically disgusted by his teachers: he never pays attention, whether he ignores them or jokily disrupts the class. His English teacher in particular feels personally aggrieved by his attitude, and in the meeting she leads the attack against Paul and his behavior. Paul, however, never loses his smile, though his fingers do nervously tremble a bit. He’s constantly looking around him as if being watched, as if people are trying to figure him out.
Paul’s sense of alienation from his environment is described in visceral terms as something that affects his body as well as his mind. These descriptions also reveal the contrast between the jaunty, defiant stance that Paul takes in response to his teacher’s complaints, and his insecurity and sense of being scrutinized, as signaled by his shaking fingers.
At one point, Paul answers a question about one of his impertinent remarks by shrugging, twitching his eyebrows, and saying he didn’t mean to be either polite or impolite. The Principal rebukes him for his attitude, but then tells him he can go. Paul grins and bows, which the teachers find as scandalous as the red carnation.
Paul’s bow, like his red carnation, is seen as insolent in large part because it’s so theatrical. He treats the whole event as a show that fails to affect him.
After Paul leaves, the drawing master wonders if Paul’s smile is really more haunted than insolent: there’s something wrong with him, he says. The teachers are all unsatisfied: with the way the meeting went, with their own desire for vengeance, for the attacks they waged against a mere teenager.
Paul is incomprehensible to his teachers, who vaguely grasp that something more is going on than the normal rudeness of a student. The story emphasizes such an inability to understand Paul as part of the tragedy of his alienation.
Meanwhile, Paul runs down the hill whistling, deciding he’ll go straight to Carnegie Hall, where he is working as an usher that evening, rather than going home for dinner. When he arrives he is happy to find no one else in the picture gallery, where he’s enchanted by the classic artworks of Parisian streets and Venetian scenes. He almost loses track of time, then races downstairs to the ushers’ room, where he is so over-excited in getting dressed—teasing and bothering the other usher boys—that finally they tackle him to the ground and sit on him. “Somewhat calmed by his suppression,” Paul races out to seat the arriving patrons.
Paul is often described as responding to moments of anxiety or stress with wild gestures or movements, running or jumping or whistling, as if to shake off his feelings of oppression by playing with and stretching his own body to its limits. His overflow of energy gets channeled in part into a performativity and a concern for aesthetic beauty. In the description of his dynamic with the other ushers, there is the implication that he enjoys provoking other boys in part because it gives him the excuse to engage with them physically. That Paul’s nerves are calmed by having the other boys “suppress” him by sitting atop him is another clear instance of Cather’s use of innuendo to alert the reader to Paul’s queerness.
Paul is eager to perform as a model usher, and imagines himself as the host of a great party. At one point his mood is dampened by the arrival of his English teacher, whom he decides must have had tickets sent to her as a favor, since she doesn’t belong there, he thinks.
To Paul, Carnegie Hall represents an alternative universe, one distant from and entirely unlike his drab, oppressive school, so he has to find a way to explain his teacher’s presence there.
Paul feels better once he can lose himself in the symphony: the music itself is not as important to him as the feelings and spirit that are released by the instruments. Though the German soloist is by no means young, Paul marvels at her tiara and gown.
Paul uses the music at Carnegie Hall to escape the more unpleasant realities of his daily life. He marvels at the soloist’s tiara and gown, demonstrating further his rapt interest in feminine things that most boys don’t even notice.
After the concert, as he often does, Paul feels irritable and unable to recover from the sensory overload. He waits outside for the soloist to emerge, gazing across the street at the Schenley (a hotel) where the actors and singers stay, and where Paul often goes to stare at those coming and going. When the soloist leaves the Hall, Paul follows her carriage to the hotel, where a black man in a tall hat opens the door for her. Peeking in the window, Paul feels that he too should belong to this exotic, tropical, gleaming world. Suddenly it begins to rain, and Paul is surprised to find that he’s still outside, susceptible to the cold and wet—unlike the “fairy world” within the hotel.
Paul’s voyeurism is shown to stem from a longing to escape his own everyday life as a Pittsburgh schoolboy, even as that longing is revealed to be based on an unrealistic view of the life of a traveling musician. There is a real contrast between the warm hotel and the frigid street outside, and the window both joins and divides the two. The glowing warmth of Paul’s vision of the hotel is a testament to the ways in which he has glamorized and romanticized that world. The word “fairy” was common slang for a gay man—making its use here another clear instance of Cather’s use of innuendo to alert the reader to Paul’s queerness.
Paul knows that the excitement is coming to an end: he’s now faced with the prospect of his father in pajamas awaiting him, with lies and attempted explanations, with his room with its dismal yellow wallpaper and pictures of famous men above his bed, and the motto “Feed my lambs” which his mother had embroidered. Paul cannot remember his mother.
“Feed my lambs” is a line from scripture spoken by Jesus before his death. Other characters in the story will try to explain Paul’s behavior by the fact that his mother has died, but this brief mention seems to suggest that he barely thinks of her. The pictures of men above his bed are another hint of his homosexuality. The yellow wallpaper becomes a symbol of the drabness that Paul longs to escape.
Paul takes the streetcar home to respectable Cordelia Street, where the houses are identical, filled with moderately successful businessmen with large families that all attend Sabbath-school and are all just as alike as their houses. He feels defeat and loathing as he walks—loathing for all that the street represents: respectability, common food, and the mundanity of everyday life that is the opposite of the “soft lights and fresh flowers” that he craves.
Paul almost can’t bear the thought of his father’s reproaches for his late arrival and the improvised excuses he’ll have to make. He decides to tell his father he’d gone home with one of the other boys, and he goes to the back of the house to open a basement window and jump down to the floor. He doesn’t sleep because of his fear of rats. He entertains himself with thoughts of what his father would do if he thought the noise came from a burglar, if he came down with a pistol and nearly killed his son.
While readers have seen Paul successfully put on an act in front of his teachers, here it becomes clear that he can find such performances exhausting—and he’ll go to extreme lengths just to avoid having to interact with his father, with whom he feels unable to communicate. The tension of his relationship with his father is evident in this fantasy about his father nearly killing him.
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. The men talk about prices or tell anecdotes about their bosses at work. Their stomachs protruding, they smile out at their children, self-satisfied about their grades in arithmetic and their savings in their toy banks.
Again, a set of well-chosen details serve to paint a pretty damning portrait of the Cordelia Street milieu as seen through Paul’s eyes—one characterized by petty material interests and stunted, uninspiring dreams and desires.
Paul’s sisters talk to their neighbors about the shirt-waists they’ve embroidered recently. Paul’s father chats with a young man holding a baby, a clerk for a steel company magnate who seems to have a bright future ahead of him. He used to be a bit wild, but he shaped up and married an older school-mistress at 21. Their children are all near-sighted, like her.
The clerk represents the life awaiting Paul if he follows his father’s desires and embraces the norms and values of Pittsburgh and Cordelia Street. He speaks of the clerk and his wife with disdain.
The clerk now tells of his boss who’s currently trying to arrange all 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 Carlo.
Although Paul cannot stand the vision of bourgeois family life that the clerk represents, he does manage to wrest some idealized images of life beyond Pittsburgh from the otherwise banal conversation.
After dinner Paul asks his father if he can have a dime for the streetcar to see his friend George and ask for homework help. His father isn’t excited about it—he’s not poor but has upward ambitions—but he does give Paul the dime. He only lets Paul usher because a young man should earn something, he thinks.
Paul’s father represents a certain view of the American Dream as something which is attainable through hard work, reasonable ambition, and an emphasis on the bottom line—a pragmatism that Paul finds appallingly dreary.
Paul bounds upstairs, shakes a few drops of violet-water hidden in his drawer onto his hands, and boards a downtown car. Immediately the Cordelia Street stupor leaves him, as he looks forward to the Sunday-night rehearsals of the stock company playing at one of the downtown theaters. Charley Edwards, an acquaintance of Paul’s, has invited him. Edwards is the “leading juvenile” of the stock company—an actor—who has taken a liking to Paul and allows him to hang about his dressing room, in part because Edwards had “recognized in Paul something akin to what Churchmen term 'vocation.'” For a year or so, Paul has spent as much time as possible “loitering” in Edwards’ dressing room.
The hidden violet water is yet another detail of Paul’s dandyism that clues readers into his homosexuality. Though these details may seem to a modern reader to play into simplistic stereotypes of gay men, it’s worth keeping in mind that the story was written in 1905, when such stereotypes were not quite so familiar in the public imagination. Another such clue emerges with the character of Charley Edwards, who recognizes in Paul a “vocation”—a subtle innuendo implying that both young men are gay. The story is littered with such subtle clues.
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 just set free from the stupidity and ugliness of everyday life. Perhaps, the narrator notes, such ugliness—the banality of Sabbath-school picnics and smells of cooking—is why Paul believes that beauty depends on “a certain element of artificiality.”
The calls attention to the irony that Paul understands his “real life” to transpire in theatres—a place where fictions are staged. Yet the narrator is also deeply sympathetic to Paul’s embrace of the artificial as a necessary refuge for him, since he feels unable to be himself in a world that rejects homosexuality.
The theatre is Romance for Paul, though none of the actors working there quite understood that. Paul imagines it like the old London of rich Jews with underground palaces filled with fountains and soft lamps, with women who never emerged to the day. Paul’s secret temple is here in the midst of the smoky Pittsburgh city.
Again, the story points to the idealism of Paul’s view of the world of the theatre. There is a vast discrepancy between how Paul views the theater and the banal reality of the workers on stage.
Paul’s teachers think he’s being corrupted by fiction, but Paul isn’t tempted by novels—he prefers music and the stage. He doesn’t want to become a professional actor himself—he just wants to be in the middle of it. After a night at the rehearsals, school repels Paul even more, with its naked walls, with the shrill, serious voices of the schoolmistresses. He must have his fellow students know that he himself is only there as a joke, that he won’t take anything seriously. He regales his classmates with stories of Carnegie Hall and the theatre, and when they grow bored, he makes up stories about his upcoming travels to Naples or Egypt, before making up excuses the next week about why he’s still there.
Paul weaves elaborate fictions for his classmates as a way of trying to play his difference from them—which is painfully obvious to all—to his advantage. His lies are not particularly convincing, so more than demonstrating Paul’s superiority they seem to demonstrate his insecurity and his compulsive need to perform. Paul’s exaggerated and constant performativity perhaps extends from a feeling that, because he cannot be himself, he must always relate to the outside world as though he is “in character”—because others see him already as a character.
At one point, Paul goes too far, letting slip to his teachers that he has no time for theorems because of the work he’s doing at the stock company. The Principal goes to Paul’s father. Paul is taken out of school, “put to work,” and barred from being an usher or visiting Charley Edwards.
This abrupt transition underlines the limits of Paul’s ability to fashion a different life for himself just by imagining it. “Real life” intrudes in the form of authority figures forcing Paul to get a job.
When the stock company actors catch wind of Paul’s stories, they laugh bitterly. The women are mostly supporting their lazy husbands, and the idea that they’ve inspired such wild and romantic inventions is preposterous to them. They, the teachers, and Paul’s father all think Paul’s is a “bad case.”
This section concludes with the implication that Paul’s dreams are unrealistic in part because even art relies on money—and that there’s no escaping from the difficult realities of everyday life.