Study Guide

Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament

Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament Summary

We open in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, steel capital of the world. Paul is getting the once-over by a panel of angry teachers. They're trying to decide whether to let him back in school, and their mood is not improved by the saucy red carnation he's tucked into his buttonhole.

After they grudgingly agree to re-admit him—with Paul being like, thanks, but this is not a party I really want to be invited to—Paul heads off to the Carnegie Music Hall for his job as an usher. Music, art, and a snazzy uniform: It's the perfect outlet for an aspirational kid like Paul.

When the concert is over, Paul doesn't want to go home. He follows the lead singer back to her hotel and fantasizes about going inside instead of standing out in the cold rain. (An umbrella and a raincoat might improve things, dude.) Back at his house, he is so totally not into dealing with his dad, so he sneaks into the basement and passes a lovely, rat-filled night.

And here's what Paul is trying to escape from: a really nice-sounding life, where families sit out on their porches on Sundays and hang out with their neighbors. True, their conversations sound deadly—har, har!—boring. Still, it doesn't seem that bad.

Anyway, Paul hangs out a lot with a teen actor, cuts up at school, and is basically acting like a little punk kid, so it's not too surprising when his dad finally steps in, puts him to work, and forbids him from going to theater. End of Act I.

When we next see Paul, he's on a train headed to New York City. (Huh. Didn't see that coming.) It gets even more surprising when he starts dropping some change on a snazzy new wardrobe and checking into the Waldorf. How is he financing this little vacation? With about $3,000 in money stolen from the firm where he works.

You might think that this little flirtation with law-breaking would put Paul on edge, but in fact he feels great. This is the life he was born to lead and he lives it up for just over a week—until one morning he picks up the newspaper to find that he is so totally busted, and his dad is actually on his way up to New York to haul him back to Pittsburgh.

So, the jig is up. Paul spends one more night on the town and then heads back to Pittsburgh—but not to go home. To throw himself in front of a train.

  • Chapter 1

    • We meet Paul when he's heading in to sweet-talk a bunch of teachers into letting him back into school after his suspension last week.
    • Paul's clothes are a little threadbare, but he's tucked a saucy red carnation into his jacket, anyway,
    • As soon Paul opens his mouth, he starts lying. Lying is pretty much his default mode.
    • Are we supposed to like this kid, or what?
    • Here comes the list of crimes: "disorder and impertinence" and "insolence" and being "defiant" (1.3), not to mention clowning around. Translation: He's got a big mouth and acts like he's too cool for school. In other words, not exactly suspension-worthy crimes these days.
    • Okay, but maybe the worst offense is that red carnation. Why? Check out "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory" for a rundown on why this flower is such bad news.
    • Paul keeps his cool while the teachers rip him a new one, mostly because they can't think of any other way to deal with him.
    • Eventually, they decide to let him back in school. Paul's drawing teacher, who seems to be the only adult with any sense in this story, says that he doesn't think Paul exactly means to be insolent. There's just something wrong with him.
    • Like maybe he never got over his mother's death? She died when he was a little baby, only a few months after he was born.
    • They were out in Colorado when he was born, which at the time was basically code for "she had tuberculosis."
    • The teachers do have the grace to feel a little ashamed of the way they've all ganged up on this poor kid.
    • Meanwhile, Paul is like "see ya!" and runs down the hill toward Carnegie Music Hall where he works as an usher.
    • We know that something's really off about Paul when he gets to work early and, instead of killing time on his iTouch or Nintendo DS, he goes upstairs to look at art.
    • When it's time to get dressed, he gets so rowdy that the other ushers have to sit on him to calm him down a little.
    • Yes, they sit on him.
    • Paul is all over this usher job. Need a program? Paul's got it. Want to send a message to that pretty girl sitting in row K? Paul will take it.
    • (Sidenote: In the revised 1920 edition, Cather includes a little scene where, right before the show starts, Paul's English teacher shows up with borrowed tickets. Forgetting that he's an usher, he gets all snooty when he sees she isn't dressed right.)
    • When the orchestra starts, Paul is swept away by the music.
    • Paul finds the female soloist incredibly romantic, even though she's not exactly young…or unmarried.
    • Feeling even more "restless" (1.15) than he usually does after a show, Paul follows her carriage over to the Schenley Hotel.
    • (Quick brain snack: The Schenley is now the William Pitt Union, the student union at the University of Pittsburgh's main campus.)
    • When she walks in, he fantasizes about enjoying himself in the luxurious dining room he's only seen pictures of.
    • Paul must have a good imagination, because he's actually standing out in the freezing rain.
    • When he gets tired of standing outside like a stalker, he heads home. He's totally bummed that the night is over.
    • As he closes in on his ugly house on ugly Cordelia Street, he starts to get really afraid of his dad, since he's broken his curfew by hours.
    • He just can't take a fight with dad tonight, so he sneaks into the basement through a window and sleeps there. With the rats.
    • Next Sunday is the last Sunday in November, and November in Pittsburgh can be pretty grim.
    • Paul goes to church and Sunday school. You have to imagine he's not thrilled about it.
    • Afterward he sits out on the steps of his house. All his neighbors are out on their steps, too. It's like an awesome block party, only without the awesome.
    • His sisters are there gabbing with neighbors, and Paul's dad is talking to the guy he keeps nagging Paul about being like.
    • The guy works for a wealthy company and is married to a woman way older than he is, who's already had four children. All this at the ripe old age of 26.
    • Paul is like, no way.
    • After eating dinner and helping with the dishes, Paul hits his dad up for public transit money so he can go to his "friend George's house" for "help with his homework."
    • In other words, he's seriously not going to do geometry.
    • Instead, he heads to the theater to hang out with Charley Edwards, who's the "lead juvenile actor" (1.28).
    • These nights full of music, art, and beauty make his ugly school and the ugly people in it seem worse than ever.
    • Paul tells wild and totally made-up stories to his friends about his adventures in the theater and plans for travel to faraway places.
    • Naturally this doesn't go over too well at school. Neither does his bad attitude with his teachers. Paul even brags to one teacher that he doesn't have time for his lessons because he's so busy hanging out with his fancy friend at the theater.
    • The principal finally gets fed up and has a talk with Paul's dad. His dad takes him out of school, puts him to work, makes him quit his job, and ensures that he won't get to hang out with his theater friends any more.
    • Way to go from bad to worse.
  • Chapter 2

    • We begin in medias res.
    • It's now January, and Paul is on a train in a snowstorm early in the morning.
    • He's been traveling all night. He's nervous, especially about something in the breast-pocket of his coat, but he's feeling pretty good.
    • New York, New York! You get the sense that Paul has been waiting all his life for this.
    • The first thing he does, besides eat breakfast, is go blow some change on a sweet new wardrobe.
    • After the shopping spree, Paul arrives at his hotel 'o dreams, the Waldorf.
    • He gets a room by telling a little white lie about how his parents have been traveling and he's just come to wait for their boat.
    • Paul has obviously planned this trip down to the last detail—with the help of his friend Charley Edwards and lots of careful reading of newspaper articles about New York.
    • Paul's room is just as swank as he expected, but it's missing one detail: fresh flowers.
    • Clearly, you have to have fresh flowers if you're staying in a fancy hotel room, so Paul sends the bell-boy off for flowers.
    • When they arrive, Paul can finally relax. He takes a hot bath and then lounges around in a red robe and silk undies.
    • There's snow outside, but he and his flowers are nice and toasty.
    • He sits back and relaxes, finally free from the fear that's been with him all his life. Paul reflects on how he came to be in this fantasy hotel in New York City. (Flashback time!)
    • After all the adults in Paul's life conspired to take away everything he cared about—music, art, cute boys (maybe)—he didn't have much of a choice but to steal money from his job and run off to New York. Right? Right.
    • Here's how he did it.
    • Yesterday, Paul was supposed to make a deposit for Denny & Carson, the firm where he works.
    • Well, usually Paul has to bring the bankbook back right after he deposits, but this time he's supposed to leave the firm's bankbook with the accountants at the bank so they can balance them.
    • So, since nobody will find out about it until later, Paul helps himself to about three thousand dollars.
    • Yeah, yeah, today that would barely buy you a new suit, but back in the day it could keep you going for at least a week.
    • Paul then coolly headed back to work and asked for the next day off of work.
    • Oh, by the way? The next day was Saturday. Remember to thank your local union representative (and Henry Ford, apparently) for the five-day workweek.
    • Anyway, no one's going to figure out that he never made the deposit until at least Monday, and his dad will be out of town for most of the week. So, basically the stars have aligned for this bit of white-collar crime.
    • Congratulating himself, Paul falls asleep.
    • Paul wakes up a couple of hours later ready to head out and show off his new duds. He spends hours getting ready…to sit in a carriage and drive up 5th Avenue. It's all about the experience, we guess?
    • The best thing is the flower stands on the street corners, "whole flower gardens blooming under glass cases […]; violets, roses, carnations, lilies of the valley—somehow vastly more lovely and alluring that they blossomed thus unnaturally in the snow" (2.47).
    • Back at the hotel, things are heating up. Rich people are driving in, bellboys are running around, and actual red carpets are being rolled out.
    • Everybody is just as "hot for pleasure" (2.48) as Paul is. This is the life he was born to lead, and he is on fire, baby.
    • Paul heads to dinner. The dining room is just as spectacular as he figured it would be. He loves everything from the sounds of the corks popping to the orchestra music playing to the champagne.
    • Especially the champagne.
    • It's like Cordelia Street never exited.
    • So you'd think Paul might be lonely or uncomfortable, but he's just fine sitting on the side and taking it all in.
    • On Sunday, Paul has a late breakfast and then parties all night doing who-knows what with a rowdy college guy.
    • Everything is going beautifully. It's like living on the set of Gossip Girl.
    • Then, on the eighth day of Paul's New York vacation, Paul is horrified but not exactly surprised to read all about himself in the morning papers.
    • You might think that the police are after him, but it's even worse: Paul's dad is on his way to haul him back to Cordelia Street, and the minister and Sunday school teacher are on a mission to save him.
    • Ugh. This is just the worst.
    • After pitying himself for a few minutes, Paul heads to the dining room and starts drinking a little too fast. It's too bad he got caught, the whole thing has been totally worth it.
    • Well, maybe he should have been a little smarter about it and used the money to hit the road—but, too late for that now. It was pretty awesome just the way it was.
    • The next morning, Paul has a bad hangover, a vengeful dad in pursuit, and only $100 left.
    • The game is no longer afoot. It's actually at an end, and Paul knows just the thing to end it with.
    • A revolver.
    • On second thought, nah. Not a revolver. Something better.
    • Paul heads back to Pittsburgh and gets a driver to take him way out on the train tracks.
    • The carnations in his coat are wilted from the cold and Paul takes one of them and buries it in the snow.
    • Hm, think this might be symbolic? We're going to go with a yes. Check out "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory" for more on that.
    • Paul falls asleep. When he wakes up, there's a train coming.
    • Paul realizes this is all a huge mistake and decides to try escaping his life some less deadly way.
    • J/K. Unfortunately, Paul jumps. He does think that maybe this isn't such a good idea, but it's way too late to change his mind.
    • We get a rather vivid description of his chest and brain being crushed, and then Paul is back in "the immense design of things" (2.66).