“Paul’s Case” centers on a high school student so taken by the life of wealth and culture that he runs away to New York City on stolen money to live lavishly, if only for a while. When his old middleclass life threatens to reclaim him, Paul commits suicide. The narrator’s attitude towards Paul’s actions is ironic. The narrator does not endorse Paul’s decision to steal in order to live grandly. Nor does the narrator affirm Paul’s decision to commit suicide after he realizes that”money was everything.” The authorial voice often seems to be talking to the reader, reflecting on what the characters do not realize. For instance, while Paul despises Cordelia Street, it is described as a “perfectly respectable” middle-class neighborhood. Similarly, Paul’s starry-eyed response to the world of the arts is directly contrasted to cruder realities: references to a”cracked orchestra” beating out an overture or jerking at a serenade hardly sound sublime, yet Paul’s senses are “deliciously, yet delicately fired” nonetheless. Willa Cather’s distanced, sparse authorial voice hints at her attitude towards the events she narrates.
Cather uses symbolism to great effect in this story. Flowers are a continual motif, expressing Paul’s character and his views of life. The red carnation Paul wears to meet with his teachers is to them a sign of his outlandish and insolent attitude. It is described as “flippantly red” and “scandalous.” Paul also wears violets in his buttonholes and dismisses those who do not do likewise as mundane. At the Waldorf, his grand suite is not complete without flowers, and he notes with awe the artificial beauty of cut flowers in the glass cases of New York flower stands, “against the sides of which the snowflakes stuck and melted.” When Paul ventures to the railroad tracks to kill himself, he takes a wilted red carnation from his lapel and buries the flower in the snow. Expensive, extravagant, colorful and ephemeral, flowers represent Paul’s desire for beauty in what he sees as a gray world. They also symbolize Paul, who, like flowers in winter, is out of place. The flower-killing snow Paul sees on the train to New York and by the railroad tracks at the story’s end provide a stark contrast to the bright flowers Paul surrounds himself with.
“Paul’s Case” is sprinkled with a variety of allusions, or references to cultural figures and works. Some of these deal with disguises and help point out the way Paul’s life is woven with deception. A description of Paul’s response to the theater, for instance, includes a reference to the opera Martha, by Friedrich von Flotow, in which a highborn lady disguises herself as a servant, causing unhappy consequences. At his last dinner in New York, Paul hears music from Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci, which concerns clowns, masks, and the idea of appearance versus reality. Another allusion, to a genie in a bottle, evokes the Arabian Nights and vividly describes how trapped Paul feels in the ordinary world and his ordinary life. Cather uses still other allusions to link Paul to the decadence of imperial Rome, as when he wraps himself in a “Roman blanket” after his hot bath, which itself reminds the reader of the decadent Roman baths.
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.