Charley is a young actor, the “leading juvenile” of a Pittsburgh stock theater company, and a friend of Paul’s. He encourages Paul’s interest in the theater, inviting him to the company’s Sunday rehearsals and allowing him to hang around. When Paul’s school situation worsens and Paul’s father puts him to work, Charley “remorsefully” promises not to see Paul again. After Paul leaves home, Willa Cather explains that Charley had helped Paul plan his trip to New York.
Paul is the protagonist, or main character, of the story. A “motherless lad,” he was born in Colorado, where his mother died of illness in his infancy. He is a thin, pale, dreamy adolescent who feels a need to set himself apart from his conventional surroundings in Pittsburgh. Whereas those around him are concerned about making a living and coming “up in the world,” he is attracted to the glamorous world of music, the theater, and art. He desires the beautiful things money can buy, but he disdains the monotonous, cold reality of work and everyday life. After his consistent lying, failure to do schoolwork, and “insolent” attitude lead to his removal from school, Paul steals from his employer and leaves for New York City. There he realizes his dreams of buying expensive clothes, staying at the Waldorf, a grand hotel, attending the opera, and becoming “exactly the kind of boy he had always wanted to be.” When his crime is discovered, Paul cannot face returning to the “ugliness and commonness” of Cordelia Street and commits suicide by jumping in front of a moving train. Cather’s characterization of Paul is ambivalent, and readers are left to wonder whether Paul freely chose his tragic end or not. While Paul’s alienation from his environment is clear, the reader cannot tell whether Paul’s is a “case” of environmental determinism or of the folly of youth, of a dreamer who died with “all his lessons unlearned.”
Paul’s drawing master
The most sympathetic of Paul’s teachers, the drawing master observes that Paul seems somehow haunted and suggests that none of them really understands the boy. He comments on Paul’s mother’s early death and states that “there is something wrong about the fellow.” Through his eyes the reader sees how pale Paul is, with his face “blueveined” and “drawn and wrinkled like an old man’s about the eyes.”
Paul’s father, a widower, is the major authority figure in Paul’s life, representing the values of hard work and the “American Dream” Paul despises. He works for a railway company and has “a worthy ambition to come up in the world.” He hopes Paul might become like one of his neighbors on Cordelia Street, a young man who works as a clerk for one of the “iron kings” of a steel corporation. He is concerned and “perplexed” about his only son: he calls the principal’s office after Paul is suspended, pays Denny & Carson the thousand dollars Paul stole from them, and, after Paul runs away, goes to New York to find him. To Paul, though, his father represents oppressive authority and the dreary middle-class life of Cordelia Street. He dreads coming home late to his father, “the figure at the top of the stairs,” with his “inquiries and reproaches.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Willa Cather, Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.