Text of Willa Cather's "Paul's Case"
Brief biography of Willa Cather

Toward a Critical Reading of "Paul's Case"

Note: The numbers in parenthesis following many of the questions/statements refer to the number paragraphs in "Paul's Case" at this site.
  1. From a first reading of the story (any story, in fact), basic plot, main characters, and certain events can be remembered. However, there are a few specifics which most readers of "Paulís Case" remember. For instance, the red carnation, Cordelia Street, Charley Edwards, and Carnegie Hall are mentioned enough times to stay with the reader. What is the importance of each? Then, why is the carnation red? Why is Charley Edwards the only person in the story with a first and last name?

  2. As is evident from the story, Paul escapes his real world of Cordelia Street and the school by going to the theatre. An indication of his theatrical interests comes early when Paul is to "appear before the faculty" and he uses his eyes "in a conscious theatrical sort of way" (1). Look in the first paragraph and locate words which would suggest various aspects of the theatre. Go through the episode at school and find other words and/or phrases which show Paul's theatrical aversions.

  3. Reread the first ten paragraphs and concentrate on the number of times reference is made to Paul's smile, Paul's "twitching," the little use of dialogue, the incident in English class, and Paul's peculiarities, referred to through his actions and by his teachers.

  4. What facts do we know about Paul? His physical features? His height, his clothes, his face? Which are concentrated on primarily? Why?

  5. When Paul leaves school and goes to his job he gets there early and goes to the picture gallery. What does Paul's whistling of the "Soldiers' Chorus" tell us about him? In the picture gallery he views, in particular, "Raffelli's gay studies of Paris streets." What can this mean? Why is the sleeping guard mentioned? What does the phrase "Paul possessed himself of the place indicate? Looking at the "blue Rico" Paul "lost himself," as he does later at the symphony. When he leaves the gallery he makes a face at Augustus and "an evil gesture at the Venus of Milo." What kind of face do you think he made? What kind of "evil gesture"? (11)

  6. What significance is there to the scene in the dressing room? Why does Paul tease the boys? What do you think he teased them about? Why do the boys "put him down on the floor and [sit] on him"? (12)

  7. Why does Paul feel his English teacher is out of place at Carnegie Hall? Consider the comment: ". . .she had about as much right to sit there as he had"? Is it important that the performer at this particular concert is a woman--"a veritable queen of Romance"? Why does Paul wait for her? In the phrase ". . .whether she were not an old sweetheart of his," does his refer to Paul or to the conductor? How does this episode heighten Paulís detachment from his real world? (13-16)

  8. Throughout the episodes at school, at the gallery, at the theatre, and outside the theatre Paul watches and looks at people and things. What does this reveal about him?

  9. As Paul approaches his home, how does the diction reveal his feelings? What words depict Paulís attitude towards Cordelia Street? Why does he enter his house through the basement window? Windows are mentioned frequently; what is their importance? (18-21)

  10. Why are the people who live on Cordelia street referred to as "burghers"? What do the people talk about? Paul is apparently repelled by these discussions. What kind of an attitude in Paul does this suggest? The pitcher in which lemonade is brought is "red glass. . . ornamented with forget-me-nots in blue enamel." Why is this detail brought up? Notice that "the neighbors always joked about the suspicious colour of the pitcher." (22-23)

  11. Why is Paul disgusted by the "young man with a future"? How is the contrast between Paul and this man brought out? What is meant by the statement that Paul "had an awful apprehension that they might spoil it all before he got there"; what does it refer to? How does the fact that Paul enjoys the "legends," "stories," and "high play" further develop his desires? Is Paul only interested in fame, as revealed in the statement "he was interested in the triumphs of these cash boys who had become famous, though he had no mind for the cash boy stage"? What is "the cash boy stage"? (24-25)

  12. Money seems unimportant to Paul, yet he needs it for car fare and for his trip to New York. What does Paul discover about money? How is the reality of the need for money bought in throughout the story?

  13. Before Paul leaves to see Charley Edwards he scrubs his hands and sprinkles on "a few drops of violet water" to destroy the odors of washing dishes. Is Paul symbolically destroying more than odor? What does "lethargy" mean? Notice the use of opposites at the end of the paragraph: "two deadening days and began to live again." Does the story contain other direct opposites as dead and alive? How do you interpret this use of opposites in conjunction with Paulís confusion? (26-27)

  14. How do you picture Charley Edwards? He is the only character with a complete name. Why does the author choose the word loitering in "Paul spent every available moment loitering about Charley Edwardsís dressing room"? What is meant by Charleyís recognition of Paulís "something akin to what churchmen term Ďvocationí"? Why churchmen? (28)

  15. The diction used describing Paulís feeling at the theatre and Carnegie Hall include words such as "sleep," "forgetting," "fairy tales," "secret love," and "free." How do these words and others in this paragraph enhance the conflict within Paul? Paulís "senses were deliciously, yet delicately fired" when hearing the orchestra begin. How do you think each sense (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) responded? (29-30)

  16. Look up the word Romance. What definitions apply to Paulís world? Could the word be ironical? Consider, too, Paulís feelings toward women: his English teacher, Venus de Milo, the soprano, his sisters, the women in the stock company, the women on Cordelia Street. (31)

  17. Interpret the following excerpt: "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." (32)

  18. Does the description of the school with its "bare floors," "naked walls," "prosy men," the women in "dull gowns" with "shrill voices" and teaching with "pitiful seriousness" sound like a description Paul would give or an opinion of an objective narrator? From whose viewpoint do we get our impression of the school? From the description are we more liable to "side" with Paul or his teachers? Why does the author use this point of view? (For what obvious reason is it impossible for Paul to narrate he story?) (33)

  19. Paul's desire for escape from Cordelia Street and his school becomes more crucial for him as the story progresses. Note the number of times Paul lapses into his "fairy tale" world. At what point does a major crisis force his real escape from Pittsburgh? (34-35)

  20. Why do you feel the author includes the paragraph concerning the women in the stock company? What is meant by "Paulís was a bad case"? (36)

  21. Look closely at the paragraphs 37-39 which describe Paul's train trip. Notice Paul's uneasiness. (37-38) What does the following statement infer: "When the whistle awoke him, he clutched at his breast pocket, glaring about him with an uncertain smile." (38)

  22. Throughout the story Paul is looking around him apparently afraid? What is he afraid of? Childhood fears and shadows prevail. Yet we never know "the fear of what." After you have studied Paul and his circumstances, speculate what Paul's fear is.

  23. Note how many times words referring to water (tide, wash, streams, floods, etc.) are mentioned. What is the meaning of these repetitions?

  24. Paul had planned his escape to New York and had apparently "rehearsed" it in his mind. What actions does he go through which indicate he is preparing for a performance? (40-42)

  25. Why does Paul go to New York? Why not Boston? Or London?

  26. The snow is described as "whirling" (37, 41, 45) most of the time. Why? Does this word choice indicate something about Paul?

  27. Paul is somewhat nervous when he sees no flowers in his hotel room. What added meaning does this give to flowers? He is particularly conscious of the flowers under glass as he rides through New York and notices that they are "More lovely and alluring" under glass and, in this state, are unnatural since they are blooming in the snow. Refer to the earlier statement about Paulís feeling that natural things were ugly; artificiality makes beauty. Is he, too, now more beautiful since he appears artificial in his new garb and in his new mode of living? (41)

  28. Why is Paul "surprised" at "his own courage"? Before the act of stealing money Paul has apparently done little which was aggressive, except perhaps, at school. Before his thievery he was constantly twitching, looking, gazing at, through and around things. His stealing was apparently necessary in his eyes to reach his goal. His goal, which was tangible and Romantic, depended on something tangible and Realistic. What conflict is implied? Are you surprised that Paul is aggressive? That he steals? Is this a flaw in the story or is it a natural act for Paul? (42)

  29. What unnamed fear do you think Paul feels in the phrases: "Even when he was a little boy it was always there--behind him, or before, or on either side. There had always been the shadowed corner, the dark place into which he dared not look, but from which something seemed always to be watching him--and Paul had done things that were not pretty to watch, he knew"? Is the expression "he knew" a shift in point of view? We learn now that Paul had done things which he felt were visually objectionable. Speculate what these things might have been. (42)

  30. The paragraph retracing Paul's stealing is quite explicit. Why is this necessary? What does this episode reveal about Paul? (44-45)

  31. When Paul has rested, has dressed, and is ready to leave his room "Everything was quite perfect; he was exactly the kind of boy he had always wanted to be." Recall the other boys or men Paul has known. Who would most likely be the one after whom Paul would pattern himself? Why? (46)

  32. As Paul travels up Fifth Avenue he observes the activity around him, then focuses on "wholeflower gardens blooming under glass cases." What is revealed when we are told that Paul saw these flowers as "vastly more lovely and alluring" than those grown naturally? (47)

  33. Of course Paul goes to the Metropolitan and hears the orchestra, but his theatrical world is not emphasized as much while he is in New York as compared with the emphasis on the theatre in Pittsburgh. Why? What is the importance of the emphasis on "the omnipotence of wealth"? (48)

  34. Compare the idea expressed in the following quote with that in question 19. "The boy set his teeth and drew his shoulders together in a spasm of realization; the plot of all dramas, the text of all romances, the nerve-stuff of all sensations was whirling about him like the snowflakes." Are the same ideas expressed? Are any new ideas brought out? (49)

  35. While Paul is eating dinner in the Waldorf dining room, he reflects on his surroundings. How personal does the author get toward Paul? Notice the vagueness in the paragraph through the use of such words as "this" and "the struggle." Comment on the statement: "Cordelia Street--Ah, that belonged another time and country." (51)

  36. Paul has no desire to meet or know the New Yorkers; again, all he wants to do is "to watch the pageant." He was not nervous or apprehensive: "He felt now that his surroundings explained him." What does this mean? Why does it take him this long in New York to decide this? Should it not have been an immediate admission? Is Paul one to make quick decisions and evaluations? (52)

  37. How is the freshman from Yale a contrast to Paul? They begin as friends and finish "cool" to each other. Why? How can this boy be compared or contrasted to Charley Edwards and the "young man with a future" on Cordelia Street? (54)

  38. Paulís self respect is "restored" in New York because he doesnít have to lie anymore. Is this ironical? What factors beside lying led to his lack of self respect? (55)

  39. Notice some unusual facts presented in the paragraph where the newspaper has reported Paulís stealing. Why is the sentence about the minister included? The money motif is expanded here with "a wealth of detail"; Paulís father has refunded the money stolen. Comment. Do you think a defeat for Paul is the fact that Paul "has been seen in a New York hotel"? Why is this fact necessary? Does it seem likely that a friend of Paulís father would have been in New York at that hotel and seen Paul, then returned to Pittsburgh and told Paulís father "Oh, I just saw Paul in New York at the Waldorf"? Why does Paulís father go after him? (56)

  40. There is a definite contrast in Paul after he reads the news as compared to before. He recalls his home; he feels the same as he had at home after concerts. Then he briskly leaves the room whistling. Analyze the paragraph. What causes the change in Paul from the beginning of the paragraph to the end? (57)

  41. When Paul is sitting in the basement of his house he contemplates the reactions of his father if, accidentally, his father would shoot him. Then, knowing his father is coming East, Paul decides to "finish the thin splendidly." Is his suicide part of his original plan, or only decided when he knows his father will take him back? Look a the next four paragraphs. (58)

  42. Interpret: ". . .all the world had become Cordelia Street." (62)

  43. Why doesn't Paul commit suicide with the revolver? Where does the revolver come from?

  44. Why does Paul go away from New York to commit suicide? He seems to backtrack the steps he took when he arrived. Is this part of Paulís plan? Or does he have a plan at all?

  45. How have the flowers under glass become a metaphor for Paul? When Paul buries one flower in the snow, he seems like that flower. (64) How? Is Paul really like the flowers throughout the story? Or are flowers more a part of Paul's dream world than Paul is?

  46. Interpret the last sentence as an explanation of Paul's dilemma. Dead, Paul is a part of something--"the immense design of things." (66) Is he now successful? Why couldn't he really blend into the atmosphere he desired earlier? Is aggression necessary?