Paul’s Case

By Willa Cather


Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” is a captivating short story that plunges readers into the turbulent life of a young man struggling with his identity and place in the world 🌎. Published in 1905, this narrative falls into the genre of American Realism, providing a vivid, detailed account of everyday life with an emphasis on character over plot. Willa Cather, an illustrious author known for her depictions of the American frontier and its settlers, masterfully crafts the story with a blend of subtle social commentary and deep psychological insight.

“Paul’s Case” explores themes of disillusionment, escapism, and the search for beauty in a mundane world, making it a compelling read for anyone intrigued by the complexities of human emotion and societal pressures. Through Paul’s eyes, readers are invited to question the rigid structures of early 20th-century American society and the price of individuality versus conformity. 🎭

Let’s dive deep into the vibrant yet tragic world of Paul, understanding the layers that make “Paul’s Case” a timeless piece of literature.

Plot Summary

“Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather unfolds the life of Paul, a high school student from Pittsburgh, who feels deeply out of place in his middle-class environment. The narrative takes us through a journey of rebellion, dreams, and despair, segmented into distinct phases of the story.

Exposition β€” The story opens with Paul standing before his school’s faculty, facing suspension for his contemptuous attitude towards his teachers. His disdain for school and the small-town life of Pittsburgh is palpable. Paul’s appearance, with his red carnation and flamboyant attire, marks him as different from his peers, highlighting his desire to escape the drabness of his surroundings.

Rising Action β€” After being suspended, Paul spends his days working as an usher at Carnegie Hall, where he revels in the art and culture that he loves. This job becomes his refuge from the bleakness of his existence at home with his father. Paul’s detachment from his family and school grows as he becomes more engrossed in his dreams of luxury and beauty.

Climax β€” Paul steals a significant amount of money from his employer and flees to New York City, seeking the opulence and freedom he has always craved. In New York, he indulges in the high life, staying at a luxurious hotel, wearing fine clothes, and surrounding himself with the beauty and culture he has longed for.

Falling Action β€” As the money begins to run out, Paul realizes that he cannot sustain this lifestyle. The reality of his imminent capture and return to his old life looms over him, and his sense of despair deepens.

Resolution β€” Faced with the prospect of returning to his life in Pittsburgh and the consequences of his theft, Paul makes the tragic decision to end his life. He jumps in front of a train, choosing death over a return to the oppressive existence from which he tried to escape.

Through the journey from his stifling life in Pittsburgh to his brief taste of freedom and ultimate despair in New York, “Paul’s Case” vividly portrays the tragic cost of dreams when they clash with reality.

Character Analysis

In “Paul’s Case,” Willa Cather presents a small cast of characters, each contributing to the narrative’s exploration of dreams, identity, and societal expectations. Here, we delve into the personalities, motivations, and developments of the main characters.

  • Paul β€” Paul is a young man from Pittsburgh, deeply dissatisfied with his mundane, middle-class existence. He is characterized by his vivid imagination, sensitivity to beauty, and disdain for the ordinariness of his surroundings. Paul’s desire to escape and live a life filled with art, culture, and luxury drives his actions throughout the story. However, his inability to reconcile his dreams with reality leads to his tragic downfall.
  • Paul’s Father β€” A figure representing the conventional values of hard work and material success. Paul’s father is pragmatic and concerned about his son’s future, pushing Paul towards a path he believes is sensible. However, this only serves to alienate Paul further, as his father embodies everything Paul seeks to escape.
  • The Teachers β€” The teachers at Paul’s school are depicted as narrow-minded and conformist, unable to understand or appreciate Paul’s unique qualities. Their attitude towards Paul reflects the broader societal inability to nurture or value individuality when it deviates from the norm.
  • Charley Edwards β€” A young actor who befriends Paul, Charley represents what Paul yearns for: a life filled with art and beauty. Charley’s kindness towards Paul offers a glimpse of the acceptance and understanding Paul craves, though it is ultimately fleeting.
CharacterPersonality TraitsMotivationsDevelopment
PaulDreamy, sensitive to beauty, disdainfulEscape, pursuit of beauty and luxuryEscalation of dreams to despair
Paul’s FatherPragmatic, conventionalPaul’s conventional successContrast to Paul, static
The TeachersNarrow-minded, conformistMaintain conformityStatic, serve to highlight societal pressures
Charley EdwardsKind, artisticFriendship, artBrief support, contrasts with Paul’s isolation

Through these characters, “Paul’s Case” paints a vivid picture of the clash between individual dreams and societal expectations, highlighting the deep isolation and tragedy that can result when a person’s true self is stifed by the world around them.

Themes and Symbols

“Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather is rich in themes and symbols that contribute to its enduring significance and depth. Here, we explore the major themes and symbols present in the story, each shedding light on Paul’s internal and external conflicts.

  • The Theme of Escape and Reality β€” At its core, “Paul’s Case” is a narrative about the desire to escape from the mundane and oppressive aspects of everyday life. Paul’s dreams of luxury and beauty stand in stark contrast to his dull existence in Pittsburgh. However, the theme also explores the harsh reality that escape is temporary, and the confrontation with one’s true circumstances can be devastating.
  • The Theme of Art and Beauty vs. Materialism β€” Cather contrasts the world of art, music, and beauty that Paul adores with the materialistic values of his father and society. This theme highlights the conflict between pursuing one’s passions and conforming to societal expectations of success and material wealth.
  • The Theme of Isolation and Misunderstanding β€” Paul feels deeply misunderstood by those around him, including his family and teachers. This isolation fuels his desire to escape but also underscores the tragedy of his situation. His inability to connect with others in a meaningful way leads to his ultimate despair.
  • Symbol: Flowers β€” Throughout the story, flowers symbolize beauty and the transient nature of life and happiness. Paul’s fondness for wearing a red carnation even in inappropriate settings underscores his rebellion and his longing for beauty in a gray world.
  • Symbol: The Red Carnation β€” Specifically, the red carnation that Paul wears is a potent symbol of his defiance against the drabness and conformity of his environment. It also foreshadows his tragic end, as he discards it before taking his own life, symbolizing the end of his dreams.
  • Symbol: The Winter Landscape β€” The bleak winter landscape of Pittsburgh symbolizes the cold, harsh reality of Paul’s life. It contrasts sharply with the warmth and vibrancy of the environments he dreams of, such as the theaters and the lush luxury of New York.

Through these themes and symbols, “Paul’s Case” explores the complexities of human desire, the conflict between individuality and societal expectations, and the often-painful gap between dreams and reality. Cather’s use of vivid imagery and symbolic elements adds layers of meaning to the story, making it a rich subject for analysis and reflection.

Writing Style and Tone

Willa Cather’s writing style in “Paul’s Case” is distinguished by its clarity, precision, and deep empathy towards its protagonist. Here, we explore how Cather’s writing contributes to the mood and atmosphere of the story, as well as the effectiveness of her storytelling.

  • Descriptive and Vivid Imagery β€” Cather uses detailed descriptions to bring the settings and characters of “Paul’s Case” to life. Her vivid imagery of the dull Pittsburgh landscape, contrasted with the luxurious interiors of New York hotels and theaters, effectively mirrors Paul’s inner turmoil and desires.
  • Symbolic Use of Color β€” Throughout the story, Cather employs color to symbolize emotions, desires, and the dichotomy between Paul’s dreary reality and his vibrant dreams. The recurring motif of the red carnation, for example, stands out against the grey backdrop of Pittsburgh, highlighting Paul’s longing for a different life.
  • Psychological Insight β€” Cather’s narrative delves deeply into Paul’s psyche, exploring his motivations, fears, and desires with sensitivity and depth. This psychological insight allows readers to empathize with Paul, even as we foresee the tragic outcome of his choices.
  • Economical Use of Language β€” Cather’s prose is concise and impactful, with every word chosen carefully to convey maximum meaning. This economy of language ensures that the story remains focused and potent, drawing readers into Paul’s world with every sentence.
  • Subtle Social Commentary β€” Without being overtly critical, Cather embeds a critique of early 20th-century American society within the story. Through Paul’s experiences, she comments on the limitations placed on individuality and the destructive nature of societal expectations.
  • Tone β€” The tone of “Paul’s Case” varies from contemplative and empathetic to somber and tragic. Cather maintains a gentle, understanding tone towards Paul’s plight, even as the story builds towards its inevitable, heartbreaking conclusion. This tone enhances the emotional impact of the story, making Paul’s case not just a personal tragedy but a reflective commentary on the human condition.

Through her distinctive writing style and tone, Willa Cather creates a story that is both a personal narrative and a universal exploration of themes like escapism, identity, and the search for beauty in a monotonous world. The mood and atmosphere of “Paul’s Case” are shaped significantly by Cather’s artful storytelling, making it a compelling and thought-provoking read.

Literary Devices used in Paul’s Case

Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” is a masterful example of literary craftsmanship, employing various literary devices to enhance the story’s depth and impact. Here are the top 10 devices used in the story:

  1. Symbolism β€” Cather uses symbols, such as the red carnation and the winter landscape, to convey deeper meanings about Paul’s desires and his environment. These symbols enrich the narrative by adding layers of interpretation.
  2. Imagery β€” The story is filled with vivid imagery that appeals to the senses, painting a detailed picture of the contrasting worlds Paul navigates. This device helps readers to visualize and emotionally connect with the settings and the protagonist’s experiences.
  3. Irony β€” There is a poignant use of irony in Paul’s situation. Despite his efforts to escape his mundane life, he ultimately faces the grim reality that his dreams are unattainable, highlighting the tragic irony of his aspirations versus his fate.
  4. Foreshadowing β€” Cather subtly hints at Paul’s eventual fate through various instances in the narrative, such as his obsession with the theater and art as means of escape, and the symbolic discarding of the red carnation before his suicide.
  5. Personification β€” The personification of settings, such as the grim, almost sentient portrayal of Pittsburgh, serves to emphasize the oppressive nature of Paul’s environment and his perception of it as almost actively hostile.
  6. Allusion β€” The story contains allusions to art, music, and literature, reflecting Paul’s interests and the cultural landscape he longs to be a part of. These references enrich the narrative by situating Paul’s desires within a broader cultural context.
  7. Metaphor β€” Cather employs metaphors to draw comparisons that deepen our understanding of Paul’s internal state and his view of the world around him. For example, his life in Pittsburgh is often compared to a prison, highlighting his feelings of entrapment and desperation.
  8. Contrast β€” The stark contrast between the drabness of Pittsburgh and the allure of New York City underscores Paul’s internal conflict and the disparity between his dreams and reality.
  9. Repetition β€” The repeated mention of certain elements, such as the red carnation and the cold, enhances the thematic significance of these symbols and reinforces their importance within the narrative.
  10. Pathetic Fallacy β€” Cather uses the weather and the environment to mirror Paul’s emotions, such as the cold, dreary winter landscape of Pittsburgh reflecting his despair and sense of isolation.

Each of these literary devices is meticulously woven into the fabric of “Paul’s Case,” contributing to the story’s richness, emotional depth, and lasting impact on readers.

Literary Devices Examples

In “Paul’s Case,” Willa Cather skillfully employs a variety of literary devices to enhance the narrative’s depth and emotional resonance. Below, we provide examples and explanations for each of the top 10 literary devices used in the story.


SymbolismThe red carnation Paul wearsRepresents Paul’s defiance and desire for beauty in his gray world. Its eventual discard foreshadows his surrender to despair.


ImageryDescriptions of the luxurious hotel in New YorkCreates a vivid contrast to Paul’s dull life in Pittsburgh, emphasizing his yearning for beauty and escape.


IronyPaul’s ultimate realization that his dreams are unattainableHighlights the tragic irony of his quest for beauty leading to despair, rather than fulfillment.


ForeshadowingPaul’s fascination with the theater as a means of escapeSuggests his eventual decision to end his life when his dream world collapses, hinting at the story’s tragic end.


PersonificationThe portrayal of Pittsburgh as grim and almost sentientEmphasizes the oppressive nature of Paul’s environment and his perception of it as actively hostile.


AllusionReferences to various works of art and musicSituates Paul’s desires within a broader cultural context, highlighting his disconnection from his immediate surroundings.


MetaphorComparing Paul’s life in Pittsburgh to a prisonIllustrates his feelings of entrapment and desperation for freedom.


ContrastThe drabness of Pittsburgh vs. the allure of New York CityUnderlines the disparity between Paul’s dreams and his reality, driving the narrative’s central conflict.


RepetitionThe repeated mention of the red carnationReinforces its symbolic significance and Paul’s longing for a life beyond his reach.

Pathetic Fallacy

Pathetic FallacyThe cold, dreary winter landscape mirroring Paul’s despairUses the environment to reflect Paul’s emotional state, enhancing the story’s mood and thematic depth.

These examples showcase how Cather’s use of literary devices contributes to the storytelling in “Paul’s Case,” enriching the narrative and providing deeper insights into the characters, themes, and settings.

Paul’s Case – FAQs

Q: What is the main conflict in “Paul’s Case”?
A: The main conflict in “Paul’s Case” revolves around Paul’s struggle between his desire for a life of beauty and luxury and the reality of his mundane existence. This internal conflict is exacerbated by societal pressures and his inability to fit into the expectations of his family and community.

Q: How does Willa Cather use symbolism in “Paul’s Case”?
A: Willa Cather uses symbolism extensively in “Paul’s Case” to deepen the narrative. Symbols such as the red carnation and the winter landscape represent Paul’s defiance and isolation, respectively. These symbols help convey the themes of escape, individuality, and the transient nature of beauty and happiness.

Q: What does the red carnation symbolize in the story?
A: The red carnation symbolizes Paul’s longing for beauty and his defiance against the drabness and conformity of his environment. It is a mark of his individuality and dreams, which ultimately become his undoing when he discards it before his suicide, symbolizing the end of his aspirations.

Q: Can “Paul’s Case” be considered a critique of society?
A: Yes, “Paul’s Case” can be interpreted as a critique of society, particularly of the early 20th-century American society’s materialistic values and its lack of understanding and acceptance for individuals who do not conform to societal norms. Through Paul’s story, Cather comments on the potential destructiveness of these societal expectations.

Q: What ultimately leads to Paul’s tragic end?
A: Paul’s tragic end is the result of a culmination of factors, including his deep-seated sense of alienation, the unbridgeable gap between his dreams and reality, and his inability to find a sustainable way to escape his circumstances. His despair is compounded by the realization that his brief escape to New York cannot last, leading him to conclude that death is his only escape.

Q: How does “Paul’s Case” reflect Willa Cather’s views on art and beauty?
A: “Paul’s Case” reflects Willa Cather’s views on art and beauty as essential human needs that transcend the mundane aspects of everyday life. Cather portrays Paul’s affinity for art and beauty as his means of seeking a deeper, more meaningful existence, suggesting a critique of a society that undervalues these elements.

Q: Is there a resolution for Paul’s case?
A: The resolution of Paul’s case is tragic; unable to reconcile his dream world with his reality and facing the prospect of returning to his life in Pittsburgh, Paul chooses to end his life. This resolution highlights the ultimate consequence of Paul’s internal and external conflicts.


QuestionABCDCorrect Answer
What symbolizes Paul’s defiance and desire for a different life?The winter landscapeThe red carnationNew York CityPittsburghB
Where does Paul work that makes him feel connected to the arts?A bankA schoolCarnegie HallA hotelC
What does Paul do with the money he steals?Donates it to charityBuys a houseTravels to EuropeLives lavishly in New York CityD
What is the main reason Paul feels out of place in Pittsburgh?His family is wealthyHe dislikes the weatherHis artistic and aesthetic sensibilitiesHe has no friendsC
How does the story end?Paul returns to PittsburghPaul becomes a successful artistPaul takes his own lifePaul moves to New York permanentlyC
What literary device is used extensively to contrast Paul’s internal desires with his external reality?MetaphorSymbolismIronyAlliterationB
Which character represents societal expectations and pressures?Paul’s FatherCharley EdwardsPaulThe TeachersA
What theme is central to ‘Paul’s Case’?The importance of educationThe conflict between individual desires and societal expectationsThe benefits of hard workThe inevitability of fateB
Where does Paul find temporary escape from his dissatisfaction?In his dreamsAt Carnegie HallIn New York CityAt schoolC
What does the winter landscape symbolize in the story?Paul’s cold relationship with his familyThe warmth of communityThe bleakness of Paul’s life in PittsburghThe beauty of natureC

This quiz is designed to test comprehension and engage with the story’s characters, themes, and literary elements, encouraging a deeper understanding of “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather.


Spot the Literary Devices Used in This Paragraph from ‘Paul’s Case’:

“Paul never went up Cordelia Street without a shudder of loathing. He approached it with the nerveless sense of defeat, the hopeless feeling of sinking back forever into ugliness and commonness that he had always had when he came home. The dull houses stared at him with that peculiarly vacant and derisive air which he had come to know so well; every hideous lump of a house seemed to leer at him as he passed. The street was ugly, the houses were ugly, the whole neighborhood was ugly; but worst of all, his own house was in it.”


  1. Personification: The houses are described as staring and leering at Paul, giving them human qualities to emphasize the anim

osity and disdain he feels towards his surroundings.

  1. Repetition: The word “ugly” is repeated multiple times to stress the profound aversion Paul feels towards his environment, reinforcing the theme of his alienation and despair.
  2. Imagery: The vivid description of Cordelia Street and the houses provides a clear and repulsive picture of Paul’s neighborhood, evoking a strong sense of place and Paul’s disdain for it.

This exercise encourages students to identify and understand the use of literary devices in “Paul’s Case,” enhancing their analytical skills and appreciation for Willa Cather’s storytelling technique.