Even as Paul sheds his shabby overcoat for a much smarter usher’s uniform, and—once in New York—for a much more expensive dress coat, one aspect of his costume remains the same: the red carnation that he tucks into his button-hole. Because it is worn on his breast, the red carnation bears some symbolic resemblance to the scarlet letter A worn by Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which is symbol of her adultery. The red carnation that Paul wears, because it is such an obvious sign of his dandyism, also represents his sins of the flesh, actual or imminent, in the sense that it is yet another of the many clues Cather gives that Paul is gay. Small but conspicuous, the carnation is for Paul a burst of color amid a dull world—a world that he often imagines in terms of color, the rich hues of red and purple contrasting with the gray schoolroom or yellow wallpaper of his room at home. Paul’s teachers find the flower almost personally offensive, representative of Paul’s disregard for their authority and defiance of their values. He opts instead for the aesthetics of a dandy, cheerful and jaunty rather than serious and scholarly. Though Paul can only wear a single snipped-off bud in his buttonhole, each one represents and is linked to the bouquets that Paul admires in New York, flowers that represent a vibrant realm of artistic and sensory pleasures Paul dreams of joining. The story, however, represents these red carnations as just that—a dream of an alternative reality, and one with a limited time span. After all, the flowers only last so long before drooping, just as Paul’s escapade in New York bears the an expiration date that aligns with his father’s imminent arrival. Beautiful and alluring but also fragile and limited, flowers come to represent Paul’s life itself, in addition to what he imagines it could be.
The timeline below shows where the symbol Red Carnations appears in Paul’s Case. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.