“Paul’s Case” begins with adolescent Paul going before a panel of teachers and his Principal at Pittsburgh High School, where he’s been suspended for insolent behavior—the exact nature of which is never fully revealed. His teachers feel personally offended at Paul’s evident disdain for them, particularly his English teacher, who leads the set of accusations against him (though afterwards, once they decide they’ll allow him to return, they all feel somewhat abashed at how dramatic they have been).
Paul, tall and thin with a red carnation in his button-hole, listens to it all with a typically defiantly smile, though his hands are slightly shaking. After he’s permitted to go, he races down the hill from school whistling, and heads immediately to Carnegie Hall, where he works as an usher. Full of nervous energy, Paul races up and down the aisles, only temporarily stymied by the arrival of his English teacher to the show. As soon as it starts, he’s enraptured by the German soloist, whom he finds romantic and alluring despite being advanced in her years. After the show he begins to feel depressed and irritable, and rather than returning home he follows the soloist to the Schenley (a hotel), and gazes longingly through the windows into the luxurious interior. Finally, he takes the streetcar home to the respectable, middle-class Cordelia Street. Loathing his drab, dull house, Paul can’t bear to face his father and try to explain where he’s been, so he sneaks in through a basement window and stays awake for hours, fearing the rats but also entertaining himself by making up fanciful stories.
That Sunday, after Sabbath-school, Paul’s father and sisters sit on the stoop with the other neighbors and talk about business and other everyday matters. Paul feels boredom verging on despair, except for brief moments like when a clerk tells of his boss’s trip to the Mediterranean: Paul’s imagination is once again fired up by picturing such exotic colors and sights. After dinner he anxiously asks his father if he can go to a friend’s house for homework help, and his father reluctantly gives Paul a dime for the streetcar. Paul heads not to his friend’s but to the Sunday-night rehearsals of a company at a downtown theatre, where one of the actors, Charley Edwards, allows Paul to hang around and help him dress. The theatre is described as Paul’s fairy-tale realm that allows him to escape the prison of his home and school. It is strongly implied, here and repeatedly throughout the story, that Paul is gay. It is also strongly implied that Edwards is gay, and has taken Paul under his wing (though the nature of their relationship remains ambiguous).
Paul feels even worse, however, when he returns to the schoolroom from such escapes. He deals with this by telling his classmates tales about his actor friends and by making up stories about his imminent travels to California or abroad. He can only manage the alienation he feels at school by either making a joke out of everything or by scoffing at his teachers and coursework. Eventually, he makes the mistake of suggesting in front of his teachers that his work at the theatre is interfering with schoolwork, and the Principal talks to Paul’s father, who takes Paul out of school and puts him to work at a firm called Denny & Carlson’s. The company actors laugh bitterly when they hear how Paul has glamorized their lives in his imagination; they, like Paul’s father and teachers, think that his is a “bad case.”
The second part of the story opens on a train from Pittsburgh to New York. Paul is escaping his life in Pittsburgh with the help of several thousand dollars he’s stolen from Denny & Carlson’s. When he arrives in New York, he immediately goes on a spending spree, buying a new suit, linens, dress clothes, hat, silver scarf pin, shoes, and travel bags. He then heads to his hotel, the Waldorf. Everything there seems perfect after Paul has the bell-boy bring up some flowers. He bathes and puts on a luxurious red robe before napping—then springing up once he realizes he’s wasting hours of his precious freedom. It’s snowing outside, and Paul takes a carriage to Central Park and back. On the way he sees bright bouquets of flowers framed in windows that pop out against the white snow, and he reflects that they are being kept safe from the cruel world. When he returns to the hotel, he feels overwhelmed by the sensory pleasures and visual spectacle of the hotel dining room, as well as by the Opera that he attends later that night. He isn’t lonely at all: it seems that Cordelia Street is no longer real, that all of New York has been created just for him, and that he can be however he wants without having to explain it.
The next day, Sunday, Paul happens to meet a wild Yale freshman from San Francisco, with whom he spends a spectacular night on the town, though the freshman parts ways with Paul coolly in the morning—and the narrator does not say why. After eight nearly perfect days, Paul reads about himself in the Pittsburgh papers—his father has paid back the theft and is on his way to New York, where it is rumored Paul has fled. Paul suddenly feels that the show is over, and decides that he will “finish the thing splendidly.” After drinking too much wine, he wakes up the next morning and stares at the revolver in his hotel room. He decides, however, that this is not the way to kill himself. Though he feels depressed once again, as if all the world is Cordelia Street and it is swallowing him up, he’s no longer as afraid as he used to be. He seems to admit to himself that he is gay, and realizes that it is not as bad as his fear of it had been. He takes the train to Newark, then takes a cab out of town following the Pennsylvania train tracks. He leaves the cab and notices that the red carnation he has bought is drooping. He buries it in the snow, then dozes for a time. He awakens to hear an approaching train and leaps in front of it. His last thoughts are of colorful, exotic locales like Algeria and the Adriatic Sea, before all goes black.