Paul, the adolescent protagonist of “Paul’s Case,” suffers from worse than usual teenage angst. The story begins in Pittsburgh, where Paul seeks an escape from his drab, dismal home and school life through the world of theatre and performances at Carnegie Hall. In the second half of the story, the plot shifts to New York City, when Paul flees Pittsburgh to live a lavish lifestyle out of the Waldorf Hotel. In escaping to the big city, Paul seeks to seize for himself the alluring and beautiful life he sees captured onstage and in his favorite music and art. It is through art that Paul finds a way of escaping his everyday life—even as art also redefines the very way he sees his reality. Early on in the story, Paul decides that artificiality is “necessary” to beauty. Cather sympathetically portrays Paul’s embrace of artifice, showing it to be part of art’s power as well as a source of solace against a hostile world. At the same time, however, the story also warns of the dangers in collapsing the boundaries between art and life—and of imagining that life can ever reach the mystical splendor of the stage.
The story describes how Paul sees Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall as an imagined universe—“Paul’s fairy tale”—which Paul finds all the more alluring in contrast to the “Sabbath-school picnics” and “petty economies” of his Cordelia Street home. Though he feels depressed every time he leaves the symphony or the theater, Paul also tries his best to live according to the fanciful logic of this world of performance even after he leaves it—making everything into a flamboyantly performative spectacle and telling elaborate lies about the romantic, exotic places he travels. Although the story is told from Paul’s perspective, at times the narrator steps outside his mind to suggest that his way of seeing things might not be altogether accurate: the made-up stories he tells his classmates about his life at the theater company are, it’s implied, transparently false to everyone except himself.
Paul is self-consciously theatrical in his everyday life, seeing himself as an actor who needs to perform at all times. In turn, he treats New York as another kind of stage, costuming himself decadently and describing Central Park as “a wonderful stage winter-piece.” His eagerness to put flowers in his hotel bedroom, meanwhile, is further evidence of his belief that aesthetic beauty and symbols of wealth can make up for lack of control elsewhere in his life. And yet at the same time, it’s in New York that Paul realizes that he doesn’t need to be self-conscious about his quirks, his identity, or even his repressed homosexuality—feeling that suddenly his environment “explains” all this, so he doesn’t have to. The story thus also suggests that Paul doesn’t always want to perform—that he’s forced to put on an act because his home environment wouldn’t accept his true identity. He feels constantly scrutinized, as if he is being watched; the narrator notes that Paul worries that people are looking at him and “trying to detect something.” This—along with many other hints in the text—suggests that Paul is gay, and that his theatrical behavior is a device he uses to create further distance between the outside world and his true self. His insistence on living as if on stage is thus an understandable defense mechanism against a world he sees as being hostile to him, and against the overwhelming dullness of middle-class Pittsburgh life, where “business men of moderate means” are all “exactly as alike as their houses, and of a piece with the monotony in which they lived.”
While the story is in many ways sympathetic to Paul’s theatricality as a defense mechanism, it also suggests that his attempt to avoid the difficulties of his life by escaping into art is ultimately doomed. Readers are reminded, for instance, that the romantic actors whose lives Paul so admires are real people working by the hour, often to support unglamorous lives. There is something painfully naïve, the story suggests, about his notion that the realm of art is a separate reality peopled by exotic characters and sensuous pleasures. Meanwhile, once Paul learns that his father has come to New York to fetch him, his first response is to glance into his hotel room mirror, wink, and flash a winning smile—becoming performative once more in response to the threat of his discovery. Paul’s suicide at the end of the story can be read as his final theatrical act, especially since the narrator repeats his sense that he is “being watched.” However, the fact that he buries his red carnation in the snow just before he jumps in front of an approaching train suggests, chillingly, that in burying his flair for the theatrical, Paul has no more reason to live.
“Paul’s Case” thus paints a complex, subtle portrait of an alienated individual who escapes into art both because his reality is painfully dull and because the people around him fail to understand—or accept—his true identity. But the glamorous world of art of which Paul yearns to be a part, and with which he attempts to replace his Cordelia Street life, is ultimately, the story suggests, just a mirage—artificial, and bound to vanish in the end. Part of the tragedy of Paul’s death is that, failing to have escaped from the painful realities of life through art, he remains unable to face those painful realities or deal with them directly, and feels he has no option but to take his own life. While art and artificiality can be beautiful, if temporary, escapes from reality, the story also warns of the dangers of becoming so entranced in the beauty of art’s illusion that one forgets how to deal with the difficulties of real life.
Art and Artificiality vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Art and Artificiality vs. Reality Quotes in Paul’s Case
Paul was always smiling, always glancing about him, seeming to feel that people might be watching him and trying to detect something.
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.
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.
He felt now that his surroundings explained him. Nobody questioned the purple; he had only to wear it passively.
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.
Paul took one of the blossoms carefully from his coat and scooped a little hole in the snow, where he covered it up.
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.