The tone of Cather's narrator is dry and factual, almost as though this is a set of notes written by a psychiatrist or detective at the conclusion of a case. You can check out "Narrator Point-of-View" for more about that, but for now, let's take a look at a passage from right near the beginning of the story:
When questioned by the principal as to why he was there, Paul stated, politely enough, that he wanted to come back to school. This was a lie, but Paul was quite accustomed to lying—found it, indeed, indispensible for overcoming friction. His teachers were asked to state their respective charges, which they did with such a rancour and aggrievedness as evinced that this was not a usual case. (1.3)
Check out the weird way the narrator says "When questioned by the principal as to why he was there." Something just sounds a little odd about that, doesn't it? Notice that Cather doesn't say, "The principal asked him why he was there." Nope, it's got the passive grammatical structure that you find in a lab report or case study—and not usually in fiction writing.
Other phrases jump out here, too. "Politely enough" sounds like something one of his teachers said, like maybe the narrator was interviewing people to find out more about what happened. And then comes some more passive voice: "His teachers were asked to state their respective charges." And we wind up with the incredibly distant, clinical statement: "this was not a usual case."
What this passage suggests is that the narrator literally has no investment in the story, and no affection—or any emotions at all—about the characters. So, sure, she or he is probably a great doctor—but is s/he equally skilled as a narrator?
Any more genres and we'd be in kitchen-sink territory. The thing is, all these genres are mixed up together, so you really can't have one without the other. Let's start with "Family Drama":
Relations between Paul and his family are strained, to say the least. Paul is gone as much as possible, sneaking in late to avoid "his father at the top of the stairs, his hairy legs sticking out from his night-shirt" (1.20). Ask Paul a question? He's going to lie about it. Not to mention that he doesn't even seem to have a relationship with his sisters, and, as in all good family dramas, his mother died when Paul was a baby.
So, basically, not a warm and nurturing environment for this fragile flower.
Crummy family life is just one step away from Gothic, as anyone who's ever read Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" or Stephen King's The Shining can tell you. Gothic stories often contrast beautiful, fantastical places (inside Paul's hotel room, inside the Waldorf dining room) with dark, scary places (Paul's bedroom, Paul's basement). These contrasts help emphasize the troubled, depressed state that Gothic characters always seem to find themselves in. (Well, no wonder.)
And Gothic interest in the troubled minds of their characters is just one step away from the psychological thriller. "Paul's Case" builds tension and suspense as Paul spirals further and further downward into depression. Why exactly Paul is so depressed? What he's doing that he's so ashamed of? What are his horrible fears? And what's going to happen at the end?
Okay, so how can a story be Gothic and realist at the same time? Well, Cather uses real places—Carnegie Hall, the Waldorf Hotel—as her settings, and she describes these places in accurate detail. She focuses on the mundane details of life, like hairy legs and worn-out clothing and "boots [that] were letting in the water" (1). Not to mention that her portrait of a suicidal student is written almost as though it's an entry in a clinician's case file.
That brings us to our last genre: tragedy. Our hero (such as he is) dies at the end of the story, which is the basic definition of tragedy. What's worse is that Paul regrets his decision to commit suicide at the exact moment he's throwing himself in front of the train. Totally, totally tragic.
Nancy Drew and the Case of the Old Clock Tower. He's got a bad case of the flu. "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria." Suzy's got a case on Timmy. Case study. "Flowers … in glass cases" (2.64).
Sit tight, Shmoopers, because we've got a lot to work with here.
So, the most obvious clue (LOL) to how to read this "case" is the subtitle: "A Study in Temperament." This subtitle dumps us pretty explicitly in the realm of psychological case studies, like the super-famous "Dora: Fragment of an Analysis a Case of Hysteria" published in 1905 by everyone's favorite cigar-smoking psychoanalyst, Dr. Sigmund Freud.
Also published in 1905: "Paul's Case."
Coincidence? Yeah, sure, maybe. But it also points out that people at the beginning of the twentieth century were obsessed with figuring out how to understand the motivations behind people's behaviors. This is the era that brought us neurosis, transference, and the Oedipus complex, after all.
With the title "Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament," Cather is saying not only that this is a pretty interesting dude (even if he's also pretty annoying), but also that we can use this "study" to understand people like Paul. Just like Freud's Dora became the typical example of a hysterical woman, we can take Paul to be the typical example of an arty emo kid.
Okay, but that's not all. "Case" also has pretty strong associations with the kind of cases that need to be solved—you know, mysteries. And the big mystery of Paul is: What the Shmoop made him this way? Is he the victim of his oppressive social atmosphere? Or is he prey to some inward genetic trait, like depression?
The cool thing about combining the psychological case study with the detective case story is that Cather gives us the details of the case and essentially implies that we're supposed to be figuring out why he threw himself under a train. Using the facts at hand—and we definitely don't have all the facts—we have to figure out what in the world would make some ordinary kid from Pittsburgh genuinely, truly believe that he belongs in a Manhattan penthouse.
"Whole flower gardens blooming under glass cases" (1.47) and "flowers in glass cases" (2.64): Guess who else is like a flower (remember that "red carnation" [1.1]) behind a glass case?
Gee, let us think. Um, Paul?
So, the "case" has at least two meanings, here. For one, it's like a box that Paul is in. He feels totally constricted by his ordinary, everyday life, the "tepid waters of Cordelia Street" that are about to drown him (2.57).
But "case," especially of the glass variety, could also refer to the story itself. The story is a like a glass case making Paul look all pretty for us to examine. Yeah, a little creepy.
One thing is that, when Cather republished the story fifteen years after its 1905 appearance in McClure's Magazine, she took out the subtitle and the two times that "glass case" appears in reference to flowers. The first time, she changed it to "glass windows" (1.47); the second time, "show windows" (2.64).
So, are we supposed to think that Cather made these revisions to deemphasize the connection between the title and the glass cases? Is the more important use of the word the "not a usual case" (1.3) and "a bad case" (1.36) that she left in?
Or is it possible that a more mature writer thought, you know, maybe I'm being a little heavy handed with the symbolism?
"Paul's Case" ends with a splat as Paul jumps in front of an oncoming train. If you're looking for a story to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, keep on looking. Basically, what's happened here is that a tender little caterpillar finally emerged from his chrysalis—hm, his case?—right before getting smashed on a windshield. In Cather's words:
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. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things. (1.66)
These lines argue for a particular view on life and death, but not one that's necessarily easy to pinpoint. Notice we have no mention of heaven or hell or reincarnation or other conceptions of the afterlife. At the same time, the line does not exclude such things. The words "immense design of things" is big enough to include just about any conception of life and death we can imagine.
There is a quiet, almost peaceful quality to the second part of the sentence, but at the same time something bitter and cold. Something that says, this could have been prevented. It didn't have to be this way for Paul. Any sense we have that Paul is at peace now, free from suffering, is minimized because Paul regrets his decision to jump at the last minute. Paul realizes "the vastness of what he had left undone" (2.65).
Not to say that this ending is much of a surprise, if you're paying attention. (But it's cool if you're not. We don't judge.) Right at the beginning of the story, Paul walks up to some train tracks and thinks, "The end had to come sometime" (1.18). Yeah, here he's just talking about his big night out in Pittsburgh but you have to admit that the anvil of foreshadowing is coming down here.
It's not a big surprise to Paul, either, who's had suicide on his mind since arriving in New York. Near the end, we find out that, during his big shopping spree, he "had even provided a way to snap the thread" (2.61).
Clear as mud, right? Well, a few more clues tell us that "it" is lying on his dressing-table and that the "shiny metal hurt his eyes" (2.61). Oh, the poor tender little flower. Yeah, it's a "revolver" (2.62), but you get the feeling that shooting himself would be a way mundane end for Paul.
We're not saying we would have wanted to live anywhere in 1905, since we're pretty attached to our smartphones—but if we did have to time-travel back a century or so, we'd definitely take New York. You have to admit it sounds like a magical fairyland: carriages, snow, twinkling lights, lampposts. All it's missing is a bunch of talking animals.
So you can understand why New York City becomes Paul's beacon of hope. The setting in "Paul's Case" is split between a (mostly) dreary Pittsburgh and a (mostly) dreary New York. Let's check out exactly how Cather plays these two places against each other.
Half of Paul's Pittsburgh is his school; his church; his street, Cordelia Street; and, most of all, his house. These are dreary, ugly, soul-killing places, and they all smell a little like cooking—probably the worst kind, too, all old soup and stale frying oil. Gross, gross, gross.
But then the other half is a magical wonderland of music and song. This is Carnegie Hall and the theater, and to Paul they're full of "unimaginable splendor":
It was at the theatre and at Carnegie Hall that Paul really lived; the 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. (1.29)
Look, we already know there's a problem here, because the thing about fairy tales? They're not real. All those queenly actresses? "They were hard-working women, most of them supporting indigent husbands or brothers, and they laughed rather bitterly at having stirred the boy to such fervid and florid inventions" (1).
In other words, they're just a bunch of actors in greasy makeup performing in front of cheap sets. This isn't even Broadway. This is so far off-Broadway that, well, it's in Pittsburgh. But to Paul, it's magical. Notice how abstract the descriptions of the theater are—all blazing light and music, but no concrete details—in comparison with his house:
[H]is ugly sleeping chamber, the cold bath-room, with the grimy zinc tub, the cracked mirror, the dripping spigots. (1.20)
No wonder he wants to escape. And when he does, he goes somewhere even more magical than the theater.
Compared to Pittsburgh, New York is beautiful. Check it out:
The snow had somewhat abated, carriages and tradesmen's wagons were hurrying to and fro in the winter twilight, boys in woollen mufflers were shovelling off the doorsteps, the avenue stages made fine spots of color against the white street. Here and there on the corners were stands, with whole flower gardens blooming under glass cases, against the sides of which the snow-flakes stuck and melted; violets, roses, carnations, lilies of the valley, somehow vastly more lovely and alluring that they blossomed thus unnaturally in the snow. The Park itself was a wonderful stage winter-piece. (2.11)
Notice how Paul just thinks of New York as a bigger theater. It's a "wonderful stage winter-piece." All he has for comparisons is plays, and so he can't even experience New York directly. He has to funnel it through his own expectations of what it would be like. And it's awesome. It gets even better at night:
When he returned, the pause of the twilight had ceased, and the tune of the streets had changed. The snow was falling faster, lights streamed from the hotels that reared their dozen stories fearlessly up into the storm, defying the raging Atlantic winds. A long, black stream of carriages poured down the avenue, intersected here and there by other streams, tending horizontally. There were a score of cabs about the entrance of his hotel, and his driver had to wait. Boys in livery were running in and out of the awning that was stretched across the sidewalk, up and down the red velvet carpet laid from the door to the street. Above, about, within it all was the rumble and roar, the hurry and toss of thousands of human beings as hot for pleasure as himself, and on every side of him towered the glaring affirmation of the omnipotence of wealth. (2.12)
Here is Paul in the very thick of things. If Pittsburgh to him seemed like a backwater horror of a city, New York is the center of the world. All the activity and energy of the nation is concentrated here, and it all has to do with wealth.
This is a good place to point out that, while people may have been spending their money in New York, they were making a lot of it in places like Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was a city built around steel. Andrew Carnegie founded a steel factory there in 1875, and the industry's success turned the city into a bustling metropolis by the 1910s. This association with steel is probably part of why Paul hates it so much. It was a city of workers, a city about making money rather than spending it.
It's also key to note that the U.S. in 1905 was just coming off of the high of the Gilded Age, a period that saw a few people make vast fortunes—and a lot more people suffer in dreadful conditions in order to produce all those fortunes. Paul and his father aren't factory workers, but they're still part of a system that rewarded a very few at the expense of many.
"Paul's Case" is short, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Cather's writing is full of elaborate sentences like, "had he not always been thus, had he not sat here night after night, from as far back as he could remember, looking pensively over just such shimmering textures and slowly twirling the stem of a glass like this one between his thumb and middle finger?" (2).
And then once you plow your way through those bad boys, there's the problem of never really quite knowing what's going on with Paul. It's an enigma wrapped up in a mystery—but that doesn't mean it's not worth it.
Visual and dramatic—sounds a lot like Paul, doesn't it? Let's take a look:
This is an easy one. Cather paints lots of vivid little pictures for us, like Paul's red carnation, or his red robe, or his wacky facial expressions. Check out this passage, which includes three different kinds of visuals blended together:
He reflected upon the mysterious dishes that were brought into the dining-room, the green bottles in buckets of ice, as he had seen them in the supper party pictures of the Sunday World supplement. A quick gust of wind brought the rain down with sudden vehemence, and Paul was startled to find that he was still outside in the slush of the gravel driveway (1.17)
Overall, we are getting a description of Paul standing outside the fancy hotel, in the rain. We also get a visual description of the inside, but only as Paul imagines it. This fantasy isn't just pulled from thin air, but comes from another type of visual: photographs of the insides of hotels from the newspapers.
Way to write, Willa!
Or how about this one? When Paul is listening to the orchestra tuning up, the narrator describes him as "twanging all over to the tuning of the strings and the preliminary flourishes of the horns in the music-room" (1.12).
"Twanging," a nice example of onomatopoeia, shows us the physical effect the music is having on Paul. And all these vivid, visual descriptions really highlight the narrator's sense of the…
Some people go to dinner, they eat, and they go home. How was the restaurant? "Fine." Not Paul. Check out this description of his fantasy dinner at the Waldorf:
The flowers, the white linen, the many-coloured wine glasses, the gay toilettes of the women, the low popping of corks, the undulating repetitions of the Blue Danube from the orchestra, all flooded Paul's dream with bewildering radiance. (1.51)
These descriptions and images create a multisensory, dramatic description of the scene, one that even Paul reacts to by sinking "back into one of the chairs against the wall to get his breath" (2). We've got popping corks, pretty ladies, and even a soundtrack. And then Cather really ups the stakes with words like "flooding" and "radiance." See, this is no ordinary dinner. This is rich people dinner.
This one's a freebie:
His teachers felt this afternoon that his whole attitude was symbolized by his shrug and his flippantly red carnation flower, and they fell upon him without mercy, his English teacher leading the pack. (1.4)
Yep, Cather tells us straight out that the red carnation symbolizes Paul. So, there seem to be two things going on here.
(1) The carnation. Check out "Character Analysis: Paul" for more on this, but basically, the carnation seems to be a hat tip to Oscar Wilde. After Wilde went on trial for homosexuality in England in 1895, his trademark green carnation became unofficial code for "gay"—or depending on whom you ask, "lover of the arts."
So, whether or not this red carnation is telling us specifically that Paul is gay, it's definitely telling us that he fancies himself an aesthete. It's a symbol for Paul of the life he wants to lead; and it's a symbol for his teachers of his being "hysterically defiant" (1.2). In other words, different.
(2) Red. Sure, we tend to associate "red" with being intense, sexy, and daring—but that's not why we want you to read it that way. Cather actually tells us to read it this way. Check out the description of the red glass pitcher that Paul's sisters make lemonade in:
When the weather was warm, and his father was in a particularly jovial frame of mind, the girls made lemonade, which was always brought out in a red glass pitcher, ornamented with forget-me-nots in blue enamel. This the girls thought very fine, and the neighbors always joked about the suspicious color of the pitcher (1)
Red is both "fine" and "suspicious." In other words, it's better than ordinary—that's what "very fine" means in this context—but there's also something a little off about it. Sure, it makes the day extra special. But it also doesn't sit quite right with the neighbors. It's daring. It's unusual. It's excessive. It doesn't fit in. Sound like someone we know?
And here's the other thing about cut flowers: They're cut down in their prime, and they die. As Paul notices that the carnations in his coat are drooping, he realizes that
all the flowers he had seen in the glass cases that first night must have gone the same way… It was only one splendid breath they had, in spite of their brave mockery… and it was a losing game in the end, it seemed, this revolt against the homilies by which the world is run. (2.62)
This little passage packs a big punch. Here, Paul seems to realize for his very own self that these carnations are symbols of his own life, since his big New York adventure has been one short "revolt against the homilies by which the world is run."
Basically, a "homily" is a sermon. It's a little bit of moralizing instruction, like a lecture about how you need to eat your vegetables, or clean up your room, or do your homework before playing Farmville. In other words, boring, bourgeois, and exactly the opposite of how Paul wants to live his life.
So, translation: The carnations, like Paul, are rebelling against conformity by braving the storm and attempting to be beautiful. The problem is, people who try to live a different kind of life—think of the 27 Club—tend to end up dead.
Paul spends so much time peering in windows that we're pretty sure he's going to end up with a restraining order some day. After his night ushering at Carnegie Hall, he follows the lead soprano back to her hotel, where he sees the "the windows of its twelve stories glowing like those of a lighted cardboard house under a Christmas tree" (1)—in other words, like a total fantasyland that might as well be a dollhouse for all Paul is ever going to enter it.
In case we don't get it, Cather spells it out later in the same paragraph: "the rain was driving in sheets between him and the orange glow of the windows above him. There it was, what he wanted…but mocking spirits stood guard at the doors" (1). Paul is on the outside looking in. Windows symbolize the frustration of Paul's longing for a better life—one that smells a lot less like cooking.
This becomes really clear once Paul makes it to New York. There's still a storm outside, but now he's on the other side of the window. In his hotel room, he looks out at "the snow…whirling so fiercely outside his windows that he could scarcely see across the street" (2). Lucky for Paul, he's inside where "the air was deliciously soft and fragrant" (2).
Later that night, he can hardly even drag himself away from the window to go to bed, "watching the ranging storm from his turret window" (2). See? Storms are great, as long as you get to be the one inside.
Here's the thing about windows. They're like walls, because they separate people. But if rich people live behind thick walls, it's no big deal. You can fantasize about what their lives are like, but you can't actually see in and know for sure that they're living it up with champagne and pretty dresses while you're out soaking your feet in a chilly puddle.
Windows, on the other hand, let you know exactly how good it could be. They give you a glimpse of a different life, a little peek behind the curtain. And that's Paul's problem, or at least part of it. Without windows, he'd never know what he was missing.
P.S.—There's also some window-related symbolism around the whole "flowers blooming in glass cases" business. Check out "What's Up With the Title?" for more about that.
All aboard, Shmoopers. You may have noticed that trains are important in this story. They take Paul from place to place, and, well, you know what happens at the end. (If you don't, check out "What's Up With the Ending?").
So here's our thought: Trains are (1) a symbol of the mobility that Paul lacks, and (2) a runaway metaphor about the trajectory of Paul's life (and the story's plot). Want some proof?
(1) Trains cut through the snowy landscape, linking Pittsburgh and New York City. They're a symbol to Paul of the possibility that he could someday leave his dreary life and make it in the big city.
But they're also a symbol of what he can't have. When he takes the night train to New York with his stolen stash, he rides a day car—i.e., coach—rather than a cushy, business-class Pullman car because he's "ashamed, dressed as he was" (2.2). In other words, he can't even go where he wants to on a train.
In a way, you could say that the train is even responsible for his death—not because it actually kills him, although, duh, it does—but because it emphasizes that he'll never be able to live the way he wants to. Like cars did for Americans in the 1950s, trains in the nineteenth century often symbolized the mobility of the modern world. People could overcome their circumstances and change their fate on a train car. But not Paul. Realizing that he's stuck seems to be a final straw for him.
(2) Moving up and out an analytical level, trains also symbolize the inevitability of Paul's fate. Check out the way the last train comes: Paul wakes from his chilly nap when he hears the "sound of an approaching train" (2.63). In other words, he wakes up out to realize that there's no way out. Just like a train, his life has been barreling toward this conclusion.
And so, we realize, has the plot. Paul wouldn't have survived if he'd just worked harder at school, or if his dad has just let him keep that usher job, or if he'd just hung on a few more years until he got to college. This is the only end way the story could ever have ended. Uplifting, right?
Shmoop is pretty convinced that there's subtle imagery of illness running under "Paul's Case"—like maybe part of "Paul's Case" is that he's got the same illness that killed him mom. It's really subtle, but the subtle parts are the ones that make you feel smart. Check it out:
First, we learn that his mother "died out there of a long illness" (1.8). In this case, "out there" means Colorado, which is basically code for "had tuberculosis."
Some quick facts about tuberculosis: It killed a lot of people throughout history; it was thought to be hereditary (although it turned out to be contagious); and, in the nineteenth century, it was the most fashionable way to die because, not only did it show that you were totally romantic and too good for this world, it made you pretty: pale skin, bright eyes, and unnaturally flushed cheeks. Not to mention skinny.
Anyway, Paul doesn't have the coughing-blood-into-a-handkerchief symptom that usually gives the illness away in books and movies, but he does have a lot of other key symptoms: unnaturally bright eyes with a "glassy glitter" (1.2), a "white, blue-veined face," and an unhealthy looking set of "high, cramped shoulders and a narrow chest" (1.2). Not to mention that, when the music starts playing, his "cheeks and lips" flush (1). Oh, and there's also the fact that tuberculosis (or consumption, as it was called) was though to make its sufferers sensitive and nervous.
We're not saying that Paul actually has tuberculosis. By 1905, people understood that the disease was contagious, so Cather probably isn't trying to suggest that Paul inherited it from his mom and is actually dying. Rather, the imagery of illness probably suggests that Paul has some kind of other disease—a disease of the mind.
The narrator in "Paul's Case" might know everything—like the fact that the teachers are "in despair" about him (1.8), but it sure doesn't tell everything. In fact, this narrator leaves out big chunks of information, especially about Paul's after-hours activities and his fears.
One of the most eyebrow-raising omissions is the account of Paul's nights in New York. We know for sure that he's not just staring out the window, because we learn that he falls in with a "wild San Francisco boy" who's a freshman at Yale. But what do they do? We have no clue. All we know is
[T]he two boys went out together after dinner, not returning to the hotel until seven o'clock the next morning. They had started out in the confiding warmth of a champagne friendship, but their parting in the elevator was singularly cool. (1)
If this sounds like a bad case of the morning-afters, it's not just you. Plenty of scholars have suggested that something illicitly sexual is going on here, like maybe the wild Yalie and Paul got a little too friendly—or maybe Paul wanted to get a little too friendly, and the other boy turned him down.
The point is, we don't know. And this lack of information gives the narrator a kind of clinical voice, like a doctor or psychiatrist (or detective) who's presenting the facts of a case to an expert audience. So maybe the narrator doesn't actually know what happened here. He (or she) has to guess and conjecture—just like we do.
"Paul's Case" starts with Paul getting the business from his teachers about being rude, insolent, and just basically not the way they expect a good student to be.
Paul loves his job at Carnegie Hall. So where's the conflict? Well, he might love it a little too much. Plus, it makes home and school look extra ugly. And of course there's the other perspective: Paul's father and community don't quite trust art or artists and don't approve of his hanging around down at the theater.
Paul's dad has had just about enough of his rebellious kid. He yanks Paul out of school and puts him to work at some big firm, where he even has to go in on Saturdays. Oh, and he forbids him to go to the theater or hang out with BFF Charley Edwards.
Maybe letting Paul take care of the bank deposits wasn't the best responsibility to assign him. As soon as he gets the opportunity, he steals three thousand dollars and puts his fantasy New York City vacation into action.
It's a relief for Paul when he makes it to New York City, since he can finally put on fancy clothes and relax. But it's not too relaxing for us, since we're just biting our nails waiting for him to get busted.
Explanation/Discussion: Now Paul really feels like he's out of options. He puts on a brave face, though, and tries to enjoy the last bit of his vacation. Still, he can't sustain the fantasy. The reality of his situation is too strong.
Okay, sorry to be graphic, but that's basically what Cather does at the end here. Paul throws himself in front of a moving train.