Willa Cather’s Story ‘Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament’


Willa Cather’s story ‘Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament’ explores a world where the youth yearn for beauty, splendor and wealth. Cather’s story is similar to Scott Fitzgerald’s novel ‘The Great Gatsby’ (Quirk 579). Cather’s short story identifies how art is sometimes dangerous when exposed to a competitive and commercial environment. In addition, the author is perturbed by how art seems to be addictive, especially to the youth. The alienation of homosexuals is a central theme of the story (Nardin 33). This paper explores how the characters in the story are depicted by the author. In addition, a critical analysis of symbols is discussed in the paper.

Character analysis

Cather presents several characters in the story to depict a society with varied personalities and elements. In this regard, the story surpasses to be a mere fictional story, but a reflection of the community that is endangered by youthful lust in art, beauty, splendor and wealth.


Paul is the main character of the story, as well as the protagonist. Ideally, the author presents Paul as the subject of discussion and as an ambitious young man (Cather and Shelley 13). Although Paul is an idealistic man, he also exhibits behaviors that depict him as the anti-hero of the story. The character of Paul fits that of a youth who displays the attitude, rebellion and social isolation. Like many youths, Paul’s attitude towards education, teachers and authority is blatantly snobbish. The character is depicted on several occasions propagating lies and excuses to obedience and to attend to his responsibilities. Paul is class-conscious and prefers socializing with the rich and powerful. The manner in which Paul interacts with other characters especially school mates is demeaning since it is full of teasing and antisocial theatrics. Paul’s social isolation not only emanates from his mental states and personal worldview, but also from non-conventional sexual behaviors.

Precisely, Paul exhibits homosexual tendencies that are uncommon in a conservative environment. In fact, his only notable friend in the story is Charley Edwards. In addition, he fits in a group of people with an inclined interest in the world of art. As a man in denial, Paul lies about his life and desperately seeks approval and acceptance among the rich and famous (Kahn, Carolyn and Larry 64). Paul’s desperate quest to own the world leads him to embrace vices such as theft. In this context, Paul is depicted as a lazy young man who disregards the virtue of working hard as the reality of life. In this context, the character seems to glorify escapism and fantasy. The ambivalent nature in which the author characterizes Paul is intriguing to the reader. For example, the manner in which the character resorts to committing suicide is confusing to the reader. The reader wonders whether Paul commits suicide out of choice or environmental determinism (Wasserman 124). Nonetheless, Paul’s character is a classical product of an environment that promotes class conflict within the social structure of the twentieth century. Indeed, youths of the twentieth century were known for their imagination, social isolation and rebellion.

Charley Edwards

Charley is depicted as a young actor working for a Pittsburgh stock theater company. In addition, Charley is Paul’s friend and encourages him to take an interest in theater. From the story, it is evident that Charley is a good companion of Paul as they share the same interests. Charley represents a rebellious young generation as he is referred to as the “leading juvenile.” This rebellious nature and distaste for a normal working person are exhibited when he remorsefully refuses to see Paul. However, this happens after Paul is forced to work by his father. Ultimately, peer pressure among the youths is portrayed through Charley who convinces Paul to travel to New York. The author emphasizes growing homosexual tendencies among the youths of the twentieth century through Charley. However, the author depicts Charley as an important symbol of life. For example, is a good friend to Paul and helps him to learn Latin verbs. In addition, Charley plays a critical role in helping Paul plan for the New York trip.

Paul’s father

Paul’s father is a widower, but an important figure in his son’s life. The author represents Paul’s father as a man who believes in the values of hard work. In fact, the character is a good representation of the American dream. Paul’s father’s contribution to building the country as evidenced by his work in a railway company is encouraging. The character’s dream is for his son to emulate a young man who works as a clerk in a steel corporation. In addition, Paul’s father does not give up on his son amid the troubles in school. The parenting role exhibited by Paul’s father is exemplary considering he went to look for a son who stole from him and ran away to New York. However, Paul reveres his father for his authoritarian nature. In fact, Paul dreads going home late due to unending inquiries and reproaches. Although the author does not give emphasis to the character of Paul’s father, the son’s views about him are relevant to the reader. For example, Paul views his father as strict and stingy.

Paul’s teachers

The author uses the character of the drawing master and English teacher as key figures in the story. According to the author, Paul has no respect for his teachers. In fact, his rebellion towards the teachers gets him suspended from school. The drawing master sympathizes with Paul on the basis that he is a haunted young boy. In fact, the drawing master’s sensitivity is revealed when he comments about the early death of Paul’s mother. The drawing master understands that the death of a parent can be detrimental to a young student. In addition, the drawing master’s concern over Paul’s mental and physical strength is unnoticed. In this context, the reader views Paul as “blue-veined” and “drawn and wrinkled like an old man” (Cather and Shelley, 49) On the other hand, the English teacher emerges as not a favorite of Paul’s behavior.

Apparently, the English teacher already knows that Paul harbors hatred and a physical aversion towards her. In this regard, she snobbishly disregards Paul without giving a professional concern about Paul’s welfare. Moreover, Paul acknowledges the teachers’ irresponsible behavior towards him. In this regard, he abhors how they talk with “rancor and aggrievedness,” and “without mercy” (Cather and Shelley 41).

Other characters

The author includes other characters such as the Yale student, a young clerk and the soprano. The Yale student who is depicted as a rich boy plays an important role in emphasizing Paul’s desire to interact with the wealthy. The desire to live a flamboyant life is evidenced when Paul sees a German singer referred to as the soprano. Apparently, the soprano lives a life of glamour and awe. The soprano works hard to live within her means compared to Paul who fantasizes about beauty in a way that depicts escapism. In addition, the Yale student who seems exposed to worldly matters raises concern as to whether he influences Paul’s homosexual tendencies. Paul’s interaction with the Yale student is important in determining his character of deceit, low-self esteem and escapism. Perhaps, this explains why the author does not explain what causes the end of Paul’s friendship with the Yale student. Paul’s father uses the character of the young clerk to depict how his son ought to be. The character of the young clerk provokes Paul to reveal his opinion about marriage, employment and family life. Apparently, it is evident that Paul loathes the thought of getting married or living with a member of the opposite sex, and perceives such a life to be boring.


Cather utilizes symbols effectively in the story. For example, the author exemplifies symbols such as the red carnations, flowers, windows and glasses, the train and illness (Crosbie X). The symbolic representation of colors exemplifies Paul’s frustration with life, as well as feelings and desires. Among the many colors depicted in the story includes yellow, blue, red, purple and black.

The yellow color symbolizes Paul’s fears. Apparently, Paul does not only revere but fears his teachers’ demeaning verbal attacks. However, Paul provokes his teacher’s actions against him once he exhibits signs of rebellion and a negative attitude. Paul’s fear also includes that of his father who does not provide emotional support. In regard to his father’s upstairs bedroom, Paul says, “it has horrible yellow wallpaper” (Cather 20). In this context, Paul’s fear in regard to approaching his father’s house is horrifying. It seems that Paul is frustrated by the level of poverty that his family tolerates. He adds, “The sight of it all; his ugly sleeping chamber; the cold bathroom with the cracked mirror and the spilling spigots” (117), is intolerable. The yellow color also symbolizes Paul’s fears of Cordelia Street. Every time, Paul walked along Cordelia Street, he shudders with the loath of the ugliness, poverty and commonness of the people. However, the extent of the yellow color as symbolically used in the story portrays Paul’s cowardice. Along with being portrayed as a character with a weak personality, his desire to stand out among the rest of the community members is rendered futile by his fears. In fact, this is evidenced by his lack of integrity through constant lying. The author asserts, “Paul was accustomed to lying” (Cather 112). Paul embraces chronic lying “to be noticed and admired, to assert his difference” (Cather 126). It is through lies that Paul manages to travel to New York.

The blue color is symbolically used to signify how Paul envisions a better world free of suffering. The blue color symbolizes dreams and a pompous lifestyle. Blue is a common color describing opera, romance and finer things in life. Paul’s escapism to a life of beauty and glamour is harnessed by the blue color. A picture gallery at Carnegie hall enchants Paul to leave Pittsburg for New York. In the picture gallery, “Raffelli’s gay studies of Paris streets and airy blue Venetian scene” (Cather 114), adds to the dream of a young, ambitious man. In addition, Paul envisions living a life where he enjoys a “blue Rico” and a “blue-and-white Mediterranean shore” (Cather 120). At one point, Paul desires “to be carried out, blue league after blue league.” The blue league is a culmination of a dream that forces Paul to make decisions to pursue a life full of fantasies.

The author uses the red color to depict a strong and confident personality. The red color is a controlling phenomenon that shows how Paul wishes to be viewed by the rest of the world. Compared to other colors, red is outstanding and illuminates effectively in terms of brightness. It is with the same vigor that Paul seeks to be superior to his peers in the community and school. In fact, Paul is notorious for wearing a red carnation as a portrayal of confidence and arrogance. Being defiant of society’s norms and values seems to inspire the character in question. To show contempt for middle-class values, the character wears a red robe to express audacity while in New York. The inspiration that Paul derives from the red velvet carpet in Waldorf is intriguing. He likens the red velvet carpet with his freedom. Moreover, Paul derives power of choice, as well as the freedom to fantasize about life.

The symbolic representation of the purple color is effectively used to show the vibrancy of life full of luxury. It is a common phenomenon that purple represents loyalty and prosperity. New York City vibrates with the glamour and freshness of beautiful people. Paul seems to enjoy the finest things in life, especially the scent of fresh flowers and taste of the champagne. However, the impact of a new luxurious life is passive, explaining why Paul only wears the purple color occasionally. Surprisingly, Paul forgets his past and refers to himself as “one of the fortunate beings born to the purple” (Cather 127). While in New York, Paul believes that his dreams have come true. The interaction with the powerful brings out the style and lifestyle he desires. In fact, Paul feels protected from the mediocrity that surrounds Cordelia Street. Paul assumes the role of the nobility with vigor and expectation of achieving power, a concept the reader perceives as vague.

The author symbolically includes the black color to portray Paul’s next stage in life. To be precise, black denotes loneliness and a life full of darkness. A common perception among world cultures is that black is a color of death. It is surprising that once Paul squandered his money, his flamboyant life comes to an end. According to the author, the end of money meant “the play was over” (Cather 127). The author portrays Paul standing in a dark fork as he reflects on a miserable life. At this moment, darkness engulfs Paul to the extent he contemplates ending his life. Paul envisions reliving a life where he is surrounded by the burghers of Cordelia Street. Finally, Paul decides to end his life by committing suicide, signifying the horrible end of an ambitious young man.


Willia Cather’s story is interesting as it exemplifies the luxurious life of the youth who lived in the 20th century. The author directs her interest into how the youth perceived life, especially with great expectations. However, the author uses the character of Paul to emphasize the importance of making good decisions. Other characters included in the story are used to emphasize the character of Paul through interpersonal interaction. The use of symbols as depicted by the author signifies Paul’s life as he progresses from a world of fantasy to a horrifying death.

Works Cited

Cather, Willa, and Shelley, Carole. Paul’s case. New York: Caedmon, 1981. Print.

Cather, Willa. “Paul’s case.” Great stories by American women. Ed, Candace Ward. New York: Dover Publications, 1996. 111-129. Print.

Crosbie, Lynn. Paul’s case: The Kingston letters. New York: Insomniac Press, 1997. Print.

Kahn, A. Elizabeth, Carolyn, C. Walter, and Larry, R. Johannessen. “Making small groups work: Controversy is the key.” English Journal (1984): 63-65. Print.

Nardin, Jane. “Homosexual Identities in Willa Cather’s ‘Paul’s Case’.” Literature and History 17.2 (2008): 31-46. Print.

Quirk, Tom. “Fitzgerald and Cather: The Great Gatsby.” American Literature (1982): 576-591. Print.

Wasserman, Loretta. “Is Cather’s Paul a Case?” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 36.1 (1990): 121-129. Print.

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