Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.©
of Work and Publication Year
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.
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.
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.
Head of Pittsburgh High School. At a faculty meeting with Paul, he questions
the youth about his behavior.
One of Paul's instructors. She criticizes Paul at the faculty meeting.
Drawing 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 fellow."
Paul's Father: He
eventually withdraws his son from school and places him in an office job.
Paul's fellow ushers at Carnegie Hall.
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.
Musician who conducts at Carnegie Hall and later sees the soprano to her
attendant at the Hotel Schenley, where the soprano is staying.
Clergyman who lives next door to Paul and his father and sisters.
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.
Actor with a Pittsburgh stock company. Paul likes to visit him and assist
him in his dressing room.
Other Members of the
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
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.
Michael J. Cummings.©
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.
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.
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.
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).
when Paul once fell asleep in his classroom, he noticed abnormal twitching
in his lips.
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.
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).
the orchestra members assemble, Paul's English teacher approaches to be
seated in a section reserved by a manufacturing company.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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)/
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 regrets.
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.
short while later, the sound of an approaching locomotive awakens him.
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).
disturbing thoughts ended, “and Paul dropped back into the immense design
of things” (paragraph 66).
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.”
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.
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 ego.
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.
acts childishly to attract attention to himself.
Paul believes himself superior to others, he is sorely lacking in self-knowledge.
Moreover, "he scarcely ever read at all," the narrator says.
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.
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.
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. . . .”
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.
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.
(paragraph 51): Waltz composed by Johann
Strauss the Younger (1825-1899) .
(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).
(paragraph 29): Comic opera by Friedrich
von Flotow (1812-1883).
(paragraph 52): Opera house that opened
in the late 1800s at Broadway and 39th Street in New York City.
(paragraph 25): Gambling casino in
Monaco, a small principality in southern France.
(paragraph 58): Tragic opera by Italian
composer Ruggero Leoncavallo 1857-1919). The main character, Canio, kills
his unfaithful wife and her lover.
(paragraph 11): Apparently a reference
to artist Jean François Raffaëlli (1850-1924), who painted
scenes of Paris.
(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.
(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.
Goodbye in German.
barrel organ: Organ
operated by turning a crank.
faggot: Fagot, a
bundle of twigs or sticks.
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 pulls.
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.
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.
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)
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;
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
At last the singer came
out, accompanied by the conductor,
who helped her into her carriage and
the door with a cordial auf wiedersehen
Paul was startled
to find that he was still outside in
the slush of the gravel driveway (paragraph
at the dark (paragraph 21)
and florid inventions (paragraph 36)
retrospection (paragraph 41)
and glitter about him (paragraph 58)
the low popping
of corks (paragraph 51)
He stood watching the approaching
locomotive, his teeth chattering (paragraph
Paul wondered whether
he were destined always to shiver in the black night outside. (paragraph
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 genie
[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.
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
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
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,
Questions and Essay Topics
that you are among the teachers who meet with Paul (paragraphs 3-9). What
action would you recommend to resolve the problems he causes?
you sympathize with Paul? Explain your answer.
of the following statements is probably true?
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.
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.
a short essay that evaluates Paul from the perspective of one of his fellow