Paul is now in an east-bound train amidst a January snowstorm. He wakes up as the train is leaving Newark, and stares out at the drifts with dead grass and weed stalks protruding above them. Paul feels uncomfortable and tired. He’s been traveling all night in a day coach, worrying that if he took a Pullman (the night carriage) he’d be spotted by someone who had seen him in Denny & Carson’s office.
The rapid shift from the first section to the next suggests a kind of theatrical set-up to the story itself: it’s now Act II, and the story unfolds against a different stage set. Contextual information about Denny & Carson’s office is not given, leaving the reader to infer that this is where Paul went to work after leaving school.
Paul arrives at the 23rd street station in New York City and takes a cab to a men’s clothing store, where he buys a new suit. Then he goes to the hatter, and a shoe store, and to Tiffany’s to select “his silver and a new scarf-pin.” Finally, he goes to a trunk shop to have all his new purchases packed into traveling bags.
It seems that Paul’s circumstances have changed overnight. Once a poor boy from Pittsburgh, he now has enough money to go on a spending spree at some of New York’s finest establishments. This, in combination with his purchase of traveling bags, suggests that he may be on the run.
In the early afternoon, Paul drives up to the Waldorf and registers as being from Washington, saying that he’s awaiting his parents who are arriving from abroad. He pays in advance for a suite of three rooms. He has arranged all this for months in advance, poring over every detail with Charley Edwards, cutting out pages of New York hotel descriptions from the Sunday papers.
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 bath and dons a luxurious red robe. The warmth and coziness inside contrasts with the intense snowstorm outside the window. He sinks into thought about the success of his venture.
Paul is surprised at his own courage, the way he managed to overcome his overwhelming sense of fear, dread, and sense that his lies were increasingly closing around him. He has always felt dread, as there has always been a “shadowed corner” of his being into which he hasn’t dared to look, plagued by the sense that something there was watching him—and he “had done things that were not pretty to watch, he knew.” Now he feels relieved, as though he has “at last thrown down the gauntlet to the thing in the corner.”
This is one passage in which Cather seems to deal more directly (though she is still quite oblique) with Paul’s homosexuality—the thing in the shadowed corner into which he feels afraid of looking. Here, Cather suggests that, until now, Paul has yet to fully admit to himself that he is gay—and that he is only now beginning to do so, having escaped from Pittsburgh. Despite the implication that Paul is repressed in his sexuality, Cather also implies that perhaps he has “done things” with other men.
Just yesterday, Paul had gone to the bank with Denny & Carson’s deposits as usual: he’d taken two thousand dollars in checks and a thousand in bank notes from the balance book, before returning to the office and asking to take the day off on Saturday, knowing the bank-book wouldn’t be returned until Monday or Tuesday. As he dozes off, he marvels at how easy it was.
Paul doesn’t seem to recognize the link between money and work, a connection his father and other businessmen embrace. In his mind, money is a kind of magical talisman that will give him the freedom to be who he truly is—but he is unwilling to work to get the money he so badly desires.
Paul wakes up in the afternoon, bounding up in horror that one of his days is nearly gone. After spending an hour dressing, Paul leaves and takes a carriage toward the Park, marveling at the sights and the bouquets blooming behind the windows, all set off against the blinding white snow. The Park is “a wonderful stage winter-piece.” As he returns, cabs are packing the entrance of the hotel, boys in livery running in and out of the awning. It seems that everyone is hunting after pleasure as much as Paul. Around him, the “omnipotence of wealth” is clear. Paul realizes that “the plot of all dramas, the text of all romances, the nerve-stuff of all sensations was whirling about him like the snow-flakes. He burnt like a faggot in a tempest.”
Once again, Cather uses windows as symbol of both connection and separation: looking at the flowers through the windows, Paul sees them as representative of New York’s beauty and splendor, but they’re also blooming in insistent and artificial contrast to the winter weather outside. By framing the scene as a stage set, Cather emphasizes that New York remains “unreal” for Paul; the fact that the money Paul has stolen will eventually run out makes his time there more of a performance and an escape than a sustainable reality. Once again, Cather uses a double-entendre to playfully clue readers into Paul’s sexuality with the use of the word “faggot”—slang which would have been quite new at the time of the story’s publication in 1905.
As Paul goes downstairs to dinner, orchestra music floats up from the lobby. Arriving in the dining room, he almost stumbles in response to the overwhelming colors, perfumes, and chatter. He moves through the smoking and reception rooms as if through an “enchanted palace” built for him alone. He sits down and marvels at the flowers, white linen, and the colored wine glasses. When his champagne is poured, he doubts once again that he ever lived in Cordelia Street with its businessmen—men who now seem “mere rivets in a machine” to him. Paul feels no loneliness or self-consciousness here, or later in his private box at the Metropolitan Opera. “He felt now that his surroundings explained him. Nobody questioned the purple; he had only to wear it passively.”
Earlier, Paul had looked longingly through a hotel window at the “fairy world” inside. Now he seems to have become part of the scene himself, and he relishes this. But these lines also warn of Paul’s self-absorption, and his own inability to see and treat others as fully human, even if this is a result of his own inability to express his true identity. In New York, however, he feels free. Cather uses purple as a euphemistic way of referring to Paul’s queerness, as purple has long been associated with homosexuality.
When he returns to his room that night, Paul goes to sleep with the lights on so that if he wakes in the middle of the night, he won’t think for a moment that he is back at home in his yellow-papered room.
Incidentally, the wallpaper that signifies dreary old Pittsburgh for Paul, and which Paul thinks is so drab, is yellow—opposite on the color wheel to purple, which Cather associates with Paul’s flamboyant queerness.
On Sunday Paul “[falls] in with” a wild San Francisco Yale freshman who offers to show him the town. They go to dinner, immediately drawn to each other, but when they say goodbye in the elevator at seven the next morning their tone is “singularly cool.” Paul wakes up at two the next day and asks for water, coffee, and the Pittsburgh newspapers.
In another gap in the story, Cather suggests that more may have happened between Paul and the Yale boy than is said. Perhaps their budding friendship spoiled because Paul made a pass at the young man—or simply because the young man came to understand more about Paul’s “case.”
Paul passes his days without arousing suspicion from the hotel management. He is content simply to take in the sights and sounds of the hotel, and to not have to lie anymore, as he had felt he had to lie every day back in Pittsburgh. Now he could be himself; he could, “as his actor friends used to say, ‘dress the part.’”
The narrator suggests that Paul’s love of money is merely a vehicle for accessing the sensory pleasures he craves. No longer wearing a shabby overcoat, Paul feels that money and new clothes allow him to express his true self. Whereas he once had to hide his difference, here he feels able to celebrate it.
Eight days after arriving, Paul reads about himself in the Pittsburgh papers. Denny & Carson announced that Paul’s father has paid back the full amount his son stole, and that the minister is still hopeful of reclaiming the motherless boy. His father has departed to New York, following a rumor that his son is at a hotel there.
Paul sinks to his knees, knowing that the waters of Cordelia Street, his jail, will now close over him forever. Years of Sabbath-school, the repulsion of the yellow-papered room, all rush back at him. He feels that the orchestra has stopped playing. Looking at himself in the mirror, Paul suddenly smiles and winks; he rushes down the corridor to the elevator, whistling. He resolves to “finish the thing splendidly.” He drinks his wine recklessly, ever more doubtful that Cordelia Street really exists. He thinks, “Was he not, after all, one of those fortunate beings born to the purple, was he not still himself and in his own place?” He thinks he could have caught a steamer abroad, but that distance had felt too overwhelming. He has no regrets. He looks around at the dining room, thinking to himself that “it had paid”—his time was worth it.
Here Cather suggests subtly and for the first time that Paul, in his despair at his impending discovery by his father, is considering “ending” his life “splendidly.” In a series of different metaphors, the story compares Cordelia Street to a prison and to a river where one might drown. The narrator returns to the symbolism of the drab yellow wallpaper before suggesting that Paul’s trip to New York is a theatrical act in its own right, which is now winding down. Paul, though, refuses to distinguish between life and artifice; in looking in the mirror, he now is acting no longer for his teachers and classmates but for himself. Again, Cather uses the term “purple” as a synonym for queerness.
The next morning Paul wakes up with a headache. He hadn’t undressed before going to bed the night before. He finds he has a rare feeling of clear-headedness. He realizes that his father is now in New York. He has barely a hundred dollars left, and he has learned that money is everything—the wall keeping him from the life he longs to live. He had procured “a way to snap the thread:” the revolver sat on his dressing table. He had taken it out the night before.
Paul begins to feel nauseous as an exaggerated version of “the old depression” overtakes him. It seems the whole world has become Cordelia Street. He feels calm; “he had looked into the dark corner at last and knew. It was bad enough, what he saw there, but somehow not so bad as his long fear of it had been.” He feels he has lived the life he was meant to live. Paul stares at the revolver, no longer afraid, but then decides “that isn’t the way” and takes a cab to the ferry.
The “prison” of Cordelia Street has widened to become the entire world, meaning that there’s no longer anywhere Paul can escape. Cather again almost deals directly with Paul’s homosexuality here as she describes his own process of realizing fully that he is gay. By saying that Paul “looked into the dark corner at last and knew,” she implies that what he “knows” now, and what he had been afraid of for so long, is the fact of his homosexuality. In this moment of realization, he finds that this truth is not as fearsome as he had thought it would be.
Paul takes a ferry to Newark, where he tells another cab to follow the Pennsylvania train tracks out of town. The snow has drifted deep, only at rare places with dead grass or weed stalks protruding from it. Paul leaves the car and walks along the tracks. He recalls every detail from the morning, including his cab drivers and the old woman from whom he’d bought his red carnation.
This passage returns to the setting of the beginning of this section, when Paul had gazed out the window at the same grass and weed stalks—their deadness proving ominous for Paul’s plans. Paul’s purchasing of a red carnation reminds readers that he has an eye for aesthetic details, even now in what he expects to be his final moments, but it also suggests that the carnation has greater symbolic significance.
The carnations are drooping in the cold. Paul realizes that all the flowers he’d seen in the shop windows that first night must now be suffering the same fate. They had but one chance against a hostile world. Paul carefully buries one of the flowers in the snow, before dozing off for a while. He awakens with the sound of an approaching train and scrambles to his feet. His teeth chatter and he maintains a scared smile, glancing back and forth as if he’s being watched.
These last paragraphs suggest that Paul is finally recognizing that certain pleasures and objects of beauty in which he placed all his hopes for the future might not be the answers he was hoping for. More explicitly, however, his burying of the carnation is a symbol of his own life ending because he is unable to be himself. Even having “escaped,” Paul now feels again like he’s being watched—a feeling he hasn’t been able to shake since the story’s beginning, suggesting he is oppressed by his awareness of other’s expectations.
Paul jumps at just the right moment, and as he falls he realizes how overly hasty he was, how much he left still undone. He thinks of the blue Adriatic water or yellow Algerian stands. Something strikes his body, which he feels is hurtling through the air, and then “because the picture-making mechanism was crushed,” his vision fades to black and he drops “back into the immense design of things.”
In Paul’s final moments, images of his hopes and dreams for the future flash before his eyes, and he is filled with regret that he has abandoned this future in taking his own life. The story’s tragic ending suggests that, like the red carnation, Paul’s life was a beautiful and flamboyant blossom, crushed in its prime by a cold and cruel world.