Paul's Case

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"Paul's Case"
AuthorWilla Cather
CountryUnited States
Published in1905
Publication dateMcClure's Magazine
Published in English1905

"Paul's Case" is a short story by Willa Cather. It was first published in McClure's Magazine in 1905 under the title "Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament" and was later shortened.[1] It also appeared in a collection of Cather's stories, The Troll Garden (1905). For many years "Paul's Case" was the only one of her stories that Cather allowed to be anthologized.[2]


Around the turn of the century, Pittsburgh was an industrial center with a successful class of business leaders. According to Cather's story, these leaders were able to manage their companies while they were in Europe. New York City was known to be a place that one can escape to. It was the center of fine living and society, and “the symbol of ultimate glamour and cosmopolitan sophistication at that time.”[3]

The symbol of New York lifestyle in "Paul's Case" is the luxurious Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The descriptions of New York City contrast the descriptions of Paul's home, Pittsburgh, which he despises.[4]

Paul, a Pittsburgh high school student, is frustrated with his middle-class life. From his negative surroundings, he would be anxious to make a perfect way of living. From his conservative environment, he would purposely separate himself from everyone else and feel isolated.[5] While his appreciation of the arts is more social and superficial than aesthetic, he dreams of another life in which he would attend concerts and theater. For example, he enjoys a symphony concert not so much for the music, but for the atmosphere: "the lights danced before his eyes and the concert hall blazed into unimaginable splendor." Later on in the story, he steals money from where he works to support a short escapade in New York City. Once he exhausts his funds and his father catches wind of what has happened, he commits suicide rather than allow his father to take him back to Pittsburgh.

Paul's teachers and father refer to Paul's "case," representing him at a distance and as an example of someone to be studied, handled, and managed. The term enables Cather to adopt "the voice of medical authority."[6]

Plot summary[edit]

The short story “Paul’s Case” is about a young man who struggles to fit in at home, school and in the world. At the start of the story, Paul is suspended from his high school in Pittsburgh for a week. He meets with his principal and teachers who complain about Paul's "defiant manner" in class and the "physical aversion" he exhibits toward his teachers. One of Paul's teachers also mentions that Paul's mother died back when he was a child in Colorado, which is later shown to be of importance. He then goes to work at a music hall in Pittsburgh, named Carnegie Hall. Here he enjoys donning his uniform and performing his job as an usher with enthusiasm as if he were the host of a grand social event. He stays for the concert and enjoys the social scene while losing himself in the music. After the concert, Paul follows the soloist and imagines life inside her hotel room. Unfortunately, the audience learns that Paul and his father have a poor relationship. Upon returning home very late one night, Paul enters through the basement to avoid a confrontation with his father. Paul stays awake all night imagining what would happen if his father mistook him for a burglar and shot him, or if his dad would recognize him in time.

Paul despises the "Burghers"[7] on his respectable but drab street. Although his father considers him a role model for Paul, Paul is unimpressed by a plodding young man who works for an iron company and is married with four children. While Paul longs to be wealthy, cultivated, and powerful, he lacks the stamina and ambition to attempt to change his condition. Instead, Paul escapes his monotonous life by visiting Charley Edwards, a young actor. Later on, Paul makes it clear to one of his teachers that his job ushering is more important than his schoolwork, causing his father to prevent him from continuing to work as an usher.

Paul takes a train to New York City after stealing over $1000 from his new job at Denny & Carson's to finance a new life. He buys an expensive wardrobe, rents a room at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and walks around the city. He also meets a young San Franciscan who takes him on an all-night tour of the city's lively social scene. His few days of impersonating a rich, privileged young man, brought him more contentment than he has ever known because living a prosperous life is Paul's only hope and dream.[8] However, on the eighth day, after spending most of his money, Paul read from a Pittsburgh newspaper that his theft has been made public. His father has returned the money and is en route to New York City to bring Paul back home to Pittsburgh. Paul then reveals that he had bought a gun on his first day in New York City, and briefly considers shooting himself to avoid returning to his old life in Pittsburgh. Eventually, he decides against it, and instead commits suicide by jumping in front of a train. Paul made the ultimate decision of taking his own life because the thought of returning to his old one was too much for him to handle. He felt the need to escape into a whole different world where it was much more enjoyable to be.


Flowers- Flowers, such as a red carnation and violets, appear many times throughout the story. Since Paul sees everything as dull and boring, the flowers represent the desire that he has to find the beauty in life.[9]

Embroidered hanging done by Paul's mother- This is thought to represent Paul's yearning for love in his life since both love and his mother are absent from his life.[9]

Paul's suicide- Paul's choice to end his life by getting hit by a train is thought to represent the impact that commercialization and industrialization has on Paul, who would rather lose himself in theater and music.[9] Paul's choice to get hit by a train as his method of suicide also reflects his relationship towards his father. Paul had the opportunity to use a gun to end his life. However, the gun belonged to his father. Paul had always feared his father. His choice to not use the gun shows that Paul doesn't want to give his father anymore power over his life.[10]

Cordelia Street- This street contains the house that Paul currently lives in. On the street, every house is of "cookie cutter" description-every house is exactly the same with exactly the same type of family style and dynamics in them. Paul's hatred for its unoriginality makes it one of the reasons why he hates living in his neighborhood.

Snowfall - Cather utilizes extensive imagery related to snowfall throughout Paul's case in order to represent the coming of a richer lifestyle. The "whirling" motions of said snowfall occurs a number of times; as Paul gazes out of the train window on his way to New York, as well as consistently throughout the time he is actually in the city. It's almost as if we as readers are as much in a fantasy world as Paul is himself. Note that on his way back from New York, he gazes out of the train window to see nothing of the sort besides the snow that has already fallen - A depressing representation that Paul's fantasy has come to an end.[11]


The foreshadowing demonstrated in "Paul's Case" is seen through the carnations that Paul wears. Right before Paul kills himself, the carnations are "drooping with the cold...their red glory all over".[12] The carnations symbolize Paul, so when the flowers die and are buried in the snow, it is hinting to the reader that Paul is about to die.[13]

Literary criticism and significance[edit]

"Paul's Case" has been called a "gay suicide" for multiple reasons, including Paul's lack of a relationship with his father and the absence of a mother figure.[14] Many critics have attributed his suicide to the forces of alienation and stigmatization facing a young homosexual man in early 20th-century America.[15] In 1975, Larry Rubin wrote The Homosexual Motif which includes the reinterpretation of the story since the stigma on sex has eased. He identifies the hints dropped throughout the story that would lead the reader to believe Paul was homosexual.[16] Jane Nardin also explores the possibility that Paul's character is gay, and that this is a metaphor for a general feeling of being an outsider or not fitting in with a specific group of people.[17] Author Roger Austen states that Paul might be portrayed as a homosexual character because of the "depiction of a sensitive young man stifled by the drab ugliness of his environment and places the protagonist in an American literary tradition of "village sissies".[18]

Wayne Koestenbaum reads the story as a possible portrait of Willa Cather's "own desire for aesthetic fulfillment and sexual nonconformity."[7] He also identifies the literary topos of opera queendom, commingled here as it often is with a suicidal sense of self-loss.[7] Another critic, Tom Quirk, reads it as an exploration of Cather's belief in the "irreconcilable opposition" between art and life.[16]

James Obertino of the University of Central Missouri and Rob Saari suggest that Paul displays several characteristics that suggest symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder according to the DSM-IV.[19][10] Obertino also suggests that Paul may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.[10]

Hayley Wilhelm of the University of New Haven suggests the possibility that Paul has autism due to certain signs and symptoms he displays throughout the story.[19]

In Modern Fiction Studies, writer Claude J. Summers suggests that Cather, herself being homosexual, chose to depict Paul as being homosexual due to her relationship with author Oscar Wilde.[20] Wilde, an early critic of Cather's work, inspired several aspects of Cather's work on "Paul's Case".[20]


The story was the basis for a chamber opera in two acts with music by Gregory Spears to a libretto by Spears and Kathryn Walat. It premiered in April 2013 at the Artisphere in Washington, D.C.[21] and was then performed for the PROTOTYPE opera festival in New York City, performed at HERE, 145 6th Avenue.[22]

Paul's Case was adapted into a TV movie in 1980 directed by Lamont Johnson, starring Eric Roberts.[23]

Paul's Case was also released as a book-on-tape by HarperCollins in 1981.[24]

In 1986, Paul's Case was released as an audiobook by Caedmon Audio Cassette [25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, University of Nebraska Press; revised edition, November 1, 1970, p. 261
  2. ^ Acocella, Joan. Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. Lincoln, NE.: University of Nebraska Press, 2000, p. 27.
  3. ^ Rubin, Larry (1975). "The Homosexual Motif in Willa Cather's "Paul's Case"". Studies in Short Fiction. 12: 5.
  4. ^ Summers, Claude J. (January 1, 2009). ""A Losing Game in the End": Aestheticism and Homosexuality in Cather's "Paul's Case"". MFS Modern Fiction Studies. 36 (1): 103–119. doi:10.1353/mfs.0.0369. ISSN 1080-658X.
  5. ^ Sirridge, Marjorie. "Paul's Case". NYU School of Medicine. Retrieved December 3, 2017.
  6. ^ Koestenbaum, Wayne (1994). The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire. Gay Men's Press. pp. 28–29.
  7. ^ "Paul's Case". The Willa Cather Archive. University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Retrieved April 11, 2018.
  8. ^ "Paul's Case". Retrieved November 17, 2016.
  9. ^ a b c Cather, Willa, and Karl Schlenk. Paul's case. Westermann, 1963.
  10. ^ a b c Obertino, James (May 21, 2012). "'Paul's Case' and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder". The Explicator. 70 (1): 49–52. doi:10.1080/00144940.2012.663009.
  11. ^ Czernicki, Martha (2017). "Fantasy and Reality in Willa Cather's PAUL'S CASE". The Explicator. 75 (4): 242. doi:10.1080/00144940.2017.1379466.
  12. ^ Cather, Willa (May 1905). "Paul's Case". McClure's Magazine. 25: 74–83.
  13. ^ "Paul's Case" (PDF). eNotes. Gale Cengage. Retrieved April 9, 2018.
  14. ^ Eric Haralson, Henry James and Queer Modernity, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 137
  15. ^ Moore, William Thomas (2014). "The Execution of a Homosexual in Cather's "Paul's Case"" (PDF): 103.
  16. ^ Rubin, Larry (March 1, 1975). "The Homosexual Motif in Willa Cather's "Paul's Case"". Studies in Short Fiction. 12 (2): 127. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  17. ^ Nardin, Jane (2008). "Homosexual Identities in Willa Cather's 'Paul's Case'". Literature & History. 17 (2): 31–46. doi:10.7227/LH.17.2.3 – via Academic Search Premier.
  18. ^ Summers, Claude J. (January 1, 2009). ""A Losing Game in the End": Aestheticism and Homosexuality in Cather's "Paul's Case"". MFS Modern Fiction Studies. 36 (1): 103–119. doi:10.1353/mfs.0.0369.
  19. ^ Saari, Rob (Summer 1997). "'Paul's Case': A Narcissistic Personality Disorder, 301.81". Studies in Short Fiction. 34 – via Academic search premier.
  20. ^ a b Summers, Claude J. (1990). "A LOSING GAME IN THE END': AESTHETICISM AND HOMOSEXUALITY IN CATHER'S 'PAUL'S CASE". Modern Fiction Studies. 36 (1): 103–119. doi:10.1353/mfs.0.0369. JSTOR 26283357.
  21. ^ Catlin, Roger (April 23, 2013). "Skillful singers bring a short story to life in UrbanArias Paul's Case". Washington Post.
  22. ^ Jorden, James (January 14, 2014). "New—And Improved: In Paul's Case, a Young Opera Festival Yields Its First Masterpiece". The New York Observer.
  23. ^ Zucker, Carole (1995). Figures of Light: Actors and Directors Illuminate the Art of Film Acting. Springer Science+Business Media. pp. 181–2. ISBN 9781489961181. Retrieved June 22, 2016.
  24. ^ Paul's Case Movies & Media Adaptations | Retrieved November 17, 2016.
  25. ^ Paul's Case Movies & Media Adaptations. Retrieved November 13, 2017.

External links[edit]