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Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.© 2010
Type of Work and Publication Year
......."Paul's Case," by Willa Cather, is a short story centering on the psychological state of a teenager. The New York firm of McClure, Phillips, & Co. published the story in 1905 as part of The Troll Garden, a collection of Cather's stories. McClure's Magazine republished the story later in
the same year.
.......Cather based "Paul's Case" partly on her own experiences with students while teaching at Central High School in Pittsburgh. According to Joseph R. Urgo and Merrill Maguire Skags, Cather also tapped into newspaper accounts of a 1902 theft in which two teenagers stole money from an office managing the
property of descendants of Ebenezer Denny, mayor of Pittsburgh from 1816 to 1817. Urgo and Skags are the editors of Violence, the Arts, and Willa Cather, published in 2008 by Associated University Presses in Cranbury, N.J.
.......The time is the late fall of one year and the winter of the next year in the early 1900s. The action takes place in Pittsburgh, Pa.; Newark and Jersey City, N.J.; New York City; and the countryside outside Newark.
Paul: A student at Pittsburgh High School who has a flippant attitude and repeatedly disrupts classes. He cultivates an interest in the arts—painting, music, the opera, etc.—and in fine dining and elegant living. He works as an usher at Carnegie Hall, a job he likes because it provides him an opportunity to be among musicians, singers, and
theatergoers whose lifestyle he envies. His own life depresses him because he lives in an ordinary home in what he considers a drab neighborhood. He frequently fantasizes about living the life of a wealthy sophisticate.
School Principal: Head of Pittsburgh High School. At a faculty
meeting with Paul, he questions the youth about his behavior.
English Teacher: One of Paul's instructors. She criticizes Paul at the faculty meeting.
Master: Another of Paul's instructors. He tells his fellow teachers, "I don't really believe that smile of his comes altogether from insolence; there's something sort of haunted about it. The boy is not strong, for one thing. I happen to know that he was born in Colorado, only a few months before his mother died out there of a long illness. There is something wrong about the
Paul's Father: He eventually withdraws his son from school and places him in an office job.
Ushers: Paul's fellow ushers at
Old Guard: Guard in the art gallery at Carnegie Hall.
German Soprano: Soloist during a performance at Carnegie Hall. Paul follows her to her hotel and
fantasizes about the elegance of her surroundings.
Orchestra Conductor: Musician who conducts at Carnegie Hall and later sees the soprano to her carriage.
attendant at the Hotel Schenley, where the soprano is staying.
Cumberland Minister: Clergyman who lives next door to Paul and his father and sisters.
Paul's Sabbath-School Teacher
Clerk in Steel Industry: Twenty-six-year-old neighbor of Paul. He works as a clerk to a steel magnate. Paul's father holds him up
as a model whom Paul should imitate.
Clerk's Wife: Schoolteacher who bears her husband four children.
George: Paul tells his father that he plans to visit this person to get
help with his geometry. But once out of the house, Paul goes to a theater instead.
Charley Edwards: Actor with a Pittsburgh stock company. Paul likes to visit him and assist him in his dressing room.
Other Members of the Stock Company
Train Passengers: Men, women, and children on the train Paul takes to New York City.
Yale University Student: Freshman who shows Paul the night spots in New York City.
Cordelia Street Neighbors and Their Children
Boys Shoveling Snow in New York
Point of View
.......The author presents the story in omniscient third-person point of view, enabling the narrator to reveal the thoughts of the characters. Early in the story, the narrator presents the teachers' perspective, then shifts to Paul's perspective in Paragraph 11. Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings.© 2010
.......Paul arrives at the principal's office at Pittsburgh High School in worn but fancy clothes and a carnation in his lapel. His eyes gleam with a “certain hysterical brilliancy,” the narrator says. He had been suspended the week before and is appearing before the faculty to explain his disorderly conduct and
disrespectful attitude. ....
.......One by one, the teachers recite their complaints. He is defiant and contemptuous, they say. In one class, he continually comments on what the teacher is saying, hoping to provoke laughter. In another, he looks out the window
during the entire lecture.
.......Paul smiles as he listens and occasionally raises his eyebrows contemptuously. When the principal dismisses him, he bows—a gesture of impertinence—and leaves. Paul's drawing master speculates that his demeanor is
symptomatic of a problem.
.......“I don't really believe that smile of his comes altogether from insolence, “he says. “There's something sort of haunted about it. The boy is not strong, for one thing. I happen to know that he was born in Colorado, only a
few months before his mother died out there of a long illness. There is something wrong about the fellow” (paragraph 4).
.......Once, when Paul once fell asleep in his classroom, he noticed abnormal twitching in his lips.
.......It is late afternoon. Paul, deciding to skip supper at home, goes straight to Carnegie Hall, where he is to be on duty in the evening as an usher. Because the doors to the concert hall are still locked, he browses in the art gallery upstairs, then sits down to
study one picture intently. Time passes swiftly. At seven o'clock he goes to the ushers' dressing room, puts on his uniform, and horses around with the other ushers before going out to the theater to seat early arrivals.
.......The narrator says he is
an exemplary usher, “gracious and smiling . . . [A]ll the people in his section thought him a charming boy, feeling that he remembered and admired them” (paragraph 13).
.......As the orchestra members assemble, Paul's English teacher approaches to be seated
in a section reserved by a manufacturing company.
.......“He looked her over,” the narrator says, “and decided that she was not appropriately dressed and must be a fool to sit downstairs in such togs. The tickets had probably been sent her out of
kindness, he reflected as he put down a seat for her. . . ” (paragraph 13).
.......Paul sits at the back of the concert hall when the performance begins. The narrator says, “He felt a sudden zest of life; the lights danced before his eyes and the concert
hall blazed into unimaginable splendor” (paragraph 14). When a German soprano sings a solo, he thinks she is the “queen of romance” even though she is a middle-aged mother (paragraph 14).
.......After the concert, Paul waits outside for the soprano. Soon,
she emerges and is escorted by the orchestra conductor to a carriage. Paul follows her to the Hotel Schenley. He arrives just as she enters the glass doors opened for her by a uniformed doorman. Paul imagines himself inside the elegant hotel for a moment, but the harsh weather—driving rain and wind—brings him back to reality.
.......“Paul wondered whether he were destined always to shiver in the black night” (paragraph 17) while what he wanted—the glitter and glamor of hotel life—was inside, the narrator says.
.......Paul takes a streetcar to the stop near his home on Cordelia street. Walking toward his house, he feels depressed, as he always does when he approaches home. Once again, he would have to make excuses to his father for arriving home late and then go to his room to confront “its horrible yellow wallpaper, the creaking
bureau with the greasy plush collarbox, and over his painted wooden bed the pictures of George Washington and John Calvin, and the framed motto, 'Feed my Lambs,' which had been worked in red worsted by his mother” (paragraph 18). He loathed the drabness, the commonness, of his existence. He loathed his neighborhood, where all the houses looked alike. In his own house, he loathed the sight of “the
cold bathroom with the grimy zinc tub, the cracked mirror, the dripping spigots; his father, at the top of the stairs, his hairy legs sticking out from his nightshirt, his feet thrust into carpet slippers” (paragraph 20).
.......He has no stomach for facing
his father. So he crawls through a cellar window and sits on a soapbox until morning. He would inform his father that he had no money for a ride home and decided to stay at a friend's house.
.......The following Sunday, Paul attends church and Sunday
school as usual. Although it is the last Sunday in November, the weather is pleasant enough for the children of the neighborhood to play in the streets while their fathers sit on the steps talking with neighbors and their mothers sit on their small porches on rockers. Paul himself sits on the bottom step of his house while his sisters chat with the minister's daughter next door. His father,
seated on the top steps, talks with a young man who works as a clerk to a magnate in the steel industry. Residents of Cordelia street think the young man has a bright future, and Paul's father constantly holds him up to his son as a model to imitate.
.......After supper, Paul asks for carfare to his friend George's house so he can get help with a geometry assignment. His father tells him he should not let his work go until Sunday, but he gives him a dime for the ride. Paul then escapes to one of his favorite places: a downtown theater where he visits a young actor, Charley Edwards, for whom he occasionally acts as a
dresser. The actor recognizes talent in Paul.
.......“It was at the theater and at Carnegie Hall that Paul really lived,” the narrator says. [T]he rest was but a sleep and a forgetting. This was Paul's fairy tale, and it had for him all the allurement
of a secret love. The moment he inhaled the gassy, painty, dusty odor behind the scenes, he breathed like a prisoner set free, and felt within him the possibility of doing or saying splendid, brilliant, poetic things” (paragraph 29)/
.......At school the
next day, he tells the other students about the exciting life he leads outside the mundane confines of the classroom. He dines with the soloists who appear at Carnegie Hall, he says, and has made friends with all the members of the stock company at the other theater. Shortly, he says, he will be traveling to Naples and Venice and to Egypt. When it becomes clear days later that no such foreign
trip has taken place, he tells the students that he had to remain home because one of his sister was ill.
.......Meanwhile, his behavior at school continues as before. After the principal complains to Paul's father, he withdraws the boy from school and
orders him to go to work for Denny & Carson's office. His father then tells Carnegie Hall to hire another usher and persuades Charley Edwards, the performer at the other theater, to sever ties with Paul.
.......While at work, Paul dreams of going
to New York City, buying fine clothes and jewelry, and checking into a first-class hotel. One Friday, he decides to make his dream come true. First, he pockets part of the money he is to deposit at a bank for Denny & Carson's, then makes out a new deposit slip and leaves the account book at the bank for balancing. It will not be returned until Monday or Tuesday. After work, he takes a night
train to New York. Snow is falling. Upon his arrival in the city, he buys new clothes, shoes, and a hat, as well a scarf pin and other accessories. He then checks into the opulent Waldorf Astoria and sleeps until three in the afternoon. After donning his new clothes, he takes a carriage up Fifth Avenue to Central Park and spends time there enjoying the winter scenery.
The snow is falling fast when he returns, but there are still many people hustling about on the street.
.......After spending a little time in his room, he goes down
to the dining room. There, the ambience—the flowers, the linens, the orchestra music—dazzles him. He feels almost as if the drabness of Cordelia street and the common people there do not exist.
.......On Sunday afternoon while drinking champagne, he
strikes up an acquaintance with a young man—a freshman from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut—and after dinner the collegian shows Paul the night spots. They do not return until seven on Monday morning, when the Yale fellow takes a train back to New Haven.
.......Paul wakes up at 2 p.m. with a hangover and has room service bring him coffee, ice water, and Pittsburgh newspapers. He feels happy that he does not have to lie to anyone about being somebody—because he is somebody, at least for a while.
.......After eight days pass, he reads in the Pittsburgh newspapers about his theft. However, the paper says, his father paid back all the money, and Denny & Carson decided not to press charges. The news reports also say that his father went to New York after hearing a rumor that Paul was seen at a New York hotel.
.......Paul slumps into a chair as he pictures the drabness and monotony of Cordelia Street, but in a moment he bucks up and goes down to the dining room. The music and the atmosphere work their magic on him, and he drinks wine with abandon. He has no
.......When Paul awakens the next morning, he has a throbbing headache. He is sprawled on the bed, still wearing his shoes and clothes. He is down to less than a hundred dollars. Outside, he realizes, his father is combing the city for him.
Then, for more than a half-hour, he stares at the pistol he brought with him. After deciding against the gun, he leaves the hotel, takes a ferry across the Hudson, rides a train to Newark, and travels by carriage out into the country, following the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad. After getting out, he walks on in the snow, pondering all that happened to him that day. After a time, he sits
down on a hillside. From his coat lapel, he removes a red carnation, drooping from the cold, and buries it. Then he falls asleep for a while.
.......A short while later, the sound of an approaching locomotive awakens him.
.......“When the right moment came,” the narrator says, “he jumped. As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone. . . . He felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly
through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed” (paragraph 65).
.......His disturbing thoughts ended, “and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things” (paragraph 66).
Main Theme: Alienation
.......Fancying himself an aesthete and an individualist, Paul alienates himself from others by exhibiting contempt for them. He believes his teachers, his fellow students, his neighbors, and his father are all provincial and unsophisticated—insufferably ordinary, insufferably mediocre. He loathes his life on Cordelia
Street, “where all the houses were exactly alike," the narrator says, "and where businessmen of moderate means begot and reared large families of children, all of whom went to Sabbath school and learned the shorter catechism, and were interested in arithmetic; all of whom were as exactly alike as their homes, and of a piece with the monotony in which they lived.”
.......To demonstrate his contempt for life around him, Paul ignores his schoolwork, taunts his teachers, and pretends to the other students that he hobnobs with theater performers and travels the world. Then he withdraws from his humdrum life, physically and mentally, by
running away to New York City with stolen money to live out his fantasies.
.......His self-alienation is symptomatic of an inferiority complex. Persons who suffer from this psychological disorder often attempt to compensate for their feelings of inadequacy
by engaging in rude and aggressive behavior and by fantasizing about their achievements and self-worth. They may also suffer depression and isolate themselves to avoid situations that could humiliate them. Paul exhibits all four symptoms of this mental debility. It is possible that the early death of his mother left him without a source of the love he needed to sustain his
Artificiality: Paul prefers the artificial to the natural. "[T]he natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness," the narrator says in reporting Paul's thoughts, but "a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty." Consequently, music, glowing lights, perfumes, silk underwear, and the sumptuous furnishings in the
Waldorf buoy him as nature cannot. During his carriage ride in the snow, the narrator says, he sees street-corner vendors "with whole flower gardens blooming under glass cases, against the sides of which the snowflakes stuck and melted; violets, roses, carnations, lilies of the valley—somehow vastly more lovely and alluring that they blossomed thus unnaturally in the snow." In snow-covered
Central Park, he concedes that the scene is beautiful. In doing so, however, he compares it to an artificial scene: "The Park itself was a wonderful stage winterpiece." Paul's fascination with artificiality suggests that he has difficulty facing the real, or natural, world.
Deceit: Paul frequently lies to others in order to exalt himself. He also unwittingly lies to himself to avoid confronting his shortcomings.
Immaturity: Paul acts childishly to attract attention to himself.
Ignorance: Although Paul believes himself superior to others, he is sorely lacking in self-knowledge. Moreover, "he scarcely ever read at all," the narrator says.
Exaggerated Importance of
Money: Paul envies people with money—the elegant theatergoers, the performers who stay at the Hotel Schenley, the magnates with "palaces in Venice [and] yachts on the Mediterranean." He concludes that lack of wealth is the source of all his problems. On his last day in New York, says the narrator, "he knew now, more than ever, that money was everything, the wall that stood between all he
loathed and all he wanted."
Distortion of Reality: Paul distorts reality, seeing himself as an extraordinary young man and everyone else at his school and in his neighborhood as nincompoops.
Selfishness: Paul thinks only of himself and his needs.
Sameness and Monotony: Paul repeatedly bemoans the boring sameness and monotony of life on Cordelia Street. In revealing his thoughts, the narrator says,
It was a highly respectable street, where all the houses were exactly alike, and where businessmen of moderate means begot and reared large families of children, all of whom went to Sabbath school and learned the shorter catechism, and were interested in arithmetic; all of whom were as exactly alike as their homes, and of a piece with the
monotony in which they lived. In another passage, the narrator reports this observation of Paul about the wife of the steel magnate's clerk: "She happened to be an angular schoolmistress, much older than he, who also wore thick glasses, and who had now borne him four children, all nearsighted, like herself.
.......The climax occurs when Paul decides kill himself, saying, “He saw everything clearly now. He had a feeling that he had made the best of it, that he had lived the sort of life he was meant to live. . . .”
.......The denouement, or conclusion, of a story presents events set in motion by the climax. In "Paul's Case," the denouement follows Paul from the hotel to the countryside near the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, where he hurls himself in front of the locomotive.
Allusions and Direct References
Augustus, peering out from the cast room (paragraph 11): Bronze or plaster reproduction of a statue of Augustus Caesar (63 BC-AD 14), first emperor of Rome.
Danube(paragraph 51): Waltz composed by Johann Strauss the Younger (1825-1899) .
Faust(paragraph 11): Opera by Charles Gounod (1819-1893). It centers on the legends that flourished about Johann Georg
Faust, (1480-1540), a magician, astrologer, and perhaps a teacher. The legends often depicted him as evil. According to the Faustbuch, published in 1587, he traded his immortal soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and twenty-four years of pleasure. English playwright Christopher Marlowe based a play, The Tragicall [Tragical] History of Dr. Faustus, on the Faust legend.
Another French composer, Hector Berlioz ((1803-1869), also wrote an opera about Faust. It was entitled La Damnation de Faust (The Damnation of Faust).
Martha(paragraph 29): Comic opera by Friedrich von Flotow
Metropolitan(paragraph 52): Opera house that opened in the late 1800s at Broadway and 39th Street in New York City.
Carlo(paragraph 25): Gambling casino in Monaco, a small principality in southern France.
Pagliacci(paragraph 58): Tragic opera by Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo 1857-1919). The main character,
Canio, kills his unfaithful wife and her lover.
Raffelli(paragraph 11): Apparently a reference to artist Jean François Raffaëlli (1850-1924), who painted scenes of Paris.
Rigoletto(paragraph 29): Tragic opera by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). In it, the daughter of Rigoletto, a jester, is killed when she is mistaken for someone else.
a sleeping and a
forgetting (paragraph 29): Allusion to "Intimations of Immortality," a poem by William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Here is the first line of the poem: Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.
Tiffany's(paragraph 39): Famous New York City store that sells jewelry and silverware. It is situated at 57th Street and Park Avenue.
Venus of Milo(paragraph 11): Venus de Milo, a statue of the goddess of love, known as Venus
to the ancient Romans and as Aphrodite to the ancient Greeks. The original marble statue, housed in the Louvre in Paris, was sculpted in circa 150 BC by Alexandros of Antioch and was found in 1820 on the Greek island of Melos.
auf wiedersehen: Goodbye in German.
barrel organ: Organ operated by turning a crank.
cab: Horse-drawn carriage.
faggot: Fagot, a bundle of twigs or sticks.
tabouret: Upholstered footstool or small table.
toilet: Act of dressing or grooming one's hair; dressing table.
traces (44): Chains or straps connecting the harness of an animal to a wagon or another vehicle that it
The Single Surname
.......Only one character in the story receives a surname, Charley Edwards. The narrator does not disclose the last names of the principal, the teachers, the students, Paul's neighbors, and other characters—and even Paul himself. It may be that the narrator is trying to say that Paul does not know himself; he fails to
see himself as he really is and, therefore, lacks identity. In addition, he does not see others as individuals; instead, he sees them as all part of the "flavorless, colorless mass of everyday existence" (paragraph 19). Consequently, to him, they also have no identity.
.......However, Paul recognizes Charley Edwards as an individual because he "identifies" with him—that is, like Paul, he is always acting, performing. Paul pretends to be what he is not; so does Charley. And there is something else: Charley sees promise in Paul; he recognizes "in Paul something akin to what churchmen term 'vocation,' " the narrator says. Paul values recognition.
Recognition is the reason that he misbehaves in school. He wants attention; he wants to fill up the void that opened by the death of his mother.
Figures of speech
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in "Paul's Case."
His teachers left the building dissatisfied and unhappy; humiliated to have felt so vindictive toward a mere boy, to have uttered this feeling in cutting terms, and to have set each other on, as it were, in the gruesome game of
intemperate reproach. (paragraph 10)
Suppose his father had heard him getting in at the window and had come down and shot him for a burglar? Then, again, suppose his father had come down, pistol in hand, and he had cried out in time to save himself, and his father had been horrified to think how nearly he had
killed him? Then, again, suppose a day should come when his father would remember that night, and wish there had been no warning cry to stay his hand? (paragraph 21)
It had been wonderfully simple; when they had shut him out of the theater and concert hall, when they had taken away his bone, the whole thing was virtually determined. (paragraph 42)
the first sigh of the instruments seemed to free some hilarious and potent spirit within him (paragraph 14)
At last the singer came out, accompanied by the conductor, who helped her into her carriage and closed the door with a cordial auf wiedersehen (paragraph 14)
Paul was startled to find that he was still outside in the slush of the gravel driveway (paragraph 17)
looking distrustfully at the dark (paragraph 21)
fervid and florid inventions (paragraph 36)
deep, drowsy retrospection (paragraph 41)
The glare and glitter about him (paragraph 58)
the low popping of corks (paragraph 51) Metaphor
He stood watching the
approaching locomotive, his teeth chattering (paragraph 65)
Paul wondered whether he were destined always to shiver in the black night outside. (paragraph 17) Simile
Paul compares his fate in life to shivering in a black night.
He had no desire to become an actor, any more than he had to become a musician. He felt no necessity to do any of these things; what he wanted was to see, to be in the atmosphere, float on the wave of it, to be carried out, blue league after blue league, away from everything. (paragraph 32)
Comparison of the atmosphere of theaters to ocean waves
[T]he first sigh of the instruments seemed to free some hilarious and potent spirit within him; something that struggled there like the genie in the bottle found by the Arab fisherman. (paragraph 14)
Comparison of Paul's spirit to a
[T]he Schenley, in its vacant stretch, loomed big and square through the fine rain, the windows of its twelve stories glowing like those of a lighted cardboard house under a Christmas tree. (paragraph 16)
Comparison of the light in the Hotel
Schenley to that in a cardboard house under a Christmas Tree
[T]he plot of all dramas, the text of all romances, the nerve-stuff of all sensations was whirling about him like the snowflakes. (paragraph 49)
Comparison of Paul's experiences in New York to the whirling of snowflakes
The memory of successive summers on the front stoop fell upon him like a weight of black water. (paragraph 61)
Comparison of the rush of Paul's memories to the weight of rushing water
Augustus: The statue of Augustus Caesar (63 BC-AD 14), first emperor of Rome, symbolizes authority. When Paul encounters it at Carnegie Hall (paragraph 11), he makes a face at it.
carnations, red: The red
carnations that Paul wears on his coat symbolize his defiance. Among the passages that support this interpretation are the following:
This latter adornment [red carnation] the faculty somehow felt was not properly significant of the contrite spirit befitting a boy under the ban of suspension. (paragraph 1)
purple: This color appears to represent Paul's belief that he is superior to others in the way he thinks and the way he dresses. Since ancient times, purple has symbolized the superiority of kings and emperors, who frequently wear purple robes and other purple attire. The narrator presents Paul's thoughts on this subject in
paragraph 58: Was he not, after all, one of those fortunate beings born to the purple?
His teachers felt this afternoon that his whole attitude was symbolized by his shrug and his flippantly red carnation flower (paragraph 4)
His bow was but a repetition of the scandalous red carnation. (paragraph 7)
red: This color not only signifies defiance (see carnations, red) but also the luxurious lifestyle of kings and emperors. Like purple, red is a colored favored
by kings and emperors. Paul wears a red carnation on his coat. At the Waldorf Astoria, where Paul is staying, "a red velvet carpet [is] laid from the door to the street" (paragraph 48). In his hotel, Paul wears a red robe. In the dining room of the Waldorf, he drinks champagne with a "roseate tinge" (paragraph 51).
violets, violet water: Violets symbolize superiority because they are purple. (See purple, above.)
.Study Questions and Essay Topics
1...Imagine that you are among the teachers who meet with Paul (paragraphs 3-9). What action would you recommend to resolve the problems he causes?
2...Do you sympathize with Paul?
Explain your answer.
3...Which of the following statements is probably true?
4...If Paul had developed an interest in sports, would he have been an observer or a participant? Explain your answer.
- Paul's father is too strict with his son.
- Paul's father is too lenient with his son.
- Paul's father is a typical parent who tries to do his best.
- Concerning the relationship between Paul and his father, the narration presents only Paul's side of the story, not his father's. Therefore, it is not possible to evaluate the father's treatment of his son.
5...Do today's public schools deal effectively with problem students
like Paul? If your answer is yes, write an essay about the policies that seem to work. If your answer is no, write an essay that pinpoints and explains the policies you would adopt. Use Internet and library research to support your views.
6...Write a short essay
that evaluates Paul from the perspective of one of his fellow students.