Willa Cather’s story Paul’s Case is an interesting tale revolving around the main character who was consumed by the thrill of a world not meant to be his. This short tale is rich with details and content that paint a vivid picture for the reader. Many important themes run throughout this story and the most important amongst them centered on money, greed, and selfishness. In addition to these, there was also a sense of beauty and life in the recurring symbols of flowers, colors and smells that gave depth to an otherwise distant and cold main character. These symbols were played up against the speckled scenery that ranged from the cold and dreary to the vibrant and colorful. Paul, as the main character of this story, was the only character that we had any extended contact with, and this gave him the fear and isolation that befit his demeanor and attitude. Because of this we as the readers only briefly received any details of the individuals in and around Paul’s life; this worked perfectly because in reality, they were of no consequence to Paul, and really no one was. Overall the tale blended the theme and symbols in a flawless manner that reconciled the vibrancy and dreariness of the symbols, themes, locations, and characters.
The major theme that I could not escape throughout this tale was the one that focused on economic issues, capitalism and exploitation. Greed and the desire to covet more than what was within his grasp was the eventual downfall of Paul and these themes were woven in from the beginning to the end. He was selfish and greedy and was only concerned with obtaining the materialistic and superficial trappings of the lives of those wealthier than himself. This desire for more caused Paul to retreat inside a fantasy world where he took on the role of an individual that could look down on those within his own social and economic community. These individuals had dark and drab clothes, lives, jobs and expectations. Paul sneered at their family lives and the smell of food that apparently only permeated the lives of those with little means to live a rich life. The symbol of smell made an appearance many times throughout the story to characterize those who were poor and beneath the dignity Paul felt wealthier individuals had. Cather used smells many times and they were generally used to associate a negative connotation, like with the “ill-smelling” soap (Cather 27).
With the greed and envy theme there was also the actual symbol of money as a physical object and not just an indicator of an opulent life. Paul craved obtaining money because it would be the salvation of his unfortunate life. Paul went on to steal money and escape to NYC to live out his fantasy of a wealthy life of leisure. While in the city he spent his stolen money to eat well, stay in a lavish hotel and associate with people from a world he was never meant to be a part of. Despair and anxiety clutch the reader as we count down this money alongside him. When Paul reaches those last $100.00 dollars the writing is on the wall and we all know that the time for it all to end was near (Cather 61). Paul started with no money and was living an unfulfilled existence and when he obtained money he was brought to the height of euphoria and ecstasy. Unfortunately for Paul, as the money ran out so did his desire to live and with the balance trickling down to $0.00, so did his life’s value in his eyes.
The characters and settings in this story ranged from the greys and misty blues to jewel toned reds and purples. Colors symbolized heavily the tone that locations and moods would take in each scene. Cather described Paul in detail, and one could picture this sad tall and thin young man who seemed to be aged internally. Other characters were described but in a manner that left them unmemorable and irrelevant. I believe this was done intentionally because we saw things through Paul mainly and Paul was far too self-involved to care greatly for people like his teachers or sisters. Paul did, however, have a bright view of certain individuals that gave him a feeling of closeness to the grand people he dreamed of. Individuals like the German soloist and Charley Edwards were mentioned by name and had value in the eyes of Paul. These characters all lived in settings that were appropriate to them specifically. Dingy grey settings like Cordelia street had within its poorer characters who reveled in their smelly existences according to Paul’s view of them. The soloist, Yale student and Charley Edwards were met in theatres and lavish hotels that befit the grandeur of their characters and were surrounded by brightness in every way. The disruption this had could be seen when the drab and grey teacher had the gall to stumble into the colorful and lavish world of the theatre; this so unsettled Paul that he could barely contain his contempt (Cather 13). The end of the tale also matched scenery with mood and character attributes when the cold lonely scene of the railroad was set as the end of Paul’s story. It was also impossible to escape the symbolism that flowers had. Flowers popped up in detailed descriptions in Paul’s fantasies as well as Paul’s reality. The red carnation symbolized Paul and we met it alongside him at the very start and followed it until the flower was buried in the snow in the end. Paul’s tale was a fantastically written piece that evoked major emotions and visualizations all in a very short story. The merging of the theme with the symbols went a long way towards informing the locations and characters. All of this came together to create the story of a very sad young man that the reader could manage to feel apathy and empathy for all in a very short period of time. The carnation being buried under the snow was enough to know that Paul too was close to his burial, and in that end, there was a sigh of relief as well as a sense of anxiety and injustice that was all invoked by Willa Cather’s brilliant writing.
Cather, Willa. Paul’s Case. Huntsville: Sam Houston State University, 1906. Web. 16 Oct. 2013