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Plot Overview

Paul has been suspended from his high school in Pittsburgh. As the story opens, he arrives at a meeting with the school’s faculty members and principal. He is dressed in clothes that are simultaneously shabby and debonair. The red carnation he wears in his buttonhole particularly offends the faculty members, who think the flower sums up Paul’s flippant attitude. Paul is tall and narrow-shouldered, with enlarged pupils that remind one of a drug addict’s eyes. The faculty members have a difficult time articulating their true feelings about Paul. Deep down, they believe that Paul loathes, feels contempt for, and is repulsed by them. They lash out at Paul, but he betrays no emotion. Instead, he smiles throughout the barrage of criticism. After Paul leaves, the drawing master says aloud that Paul’s mother died in Colorado just after Paul was born. Privately, the drawing master remembers seeing Paul asleep one day in class and being shocked at his aged appearance. As the teachers depart, they feel embarrassed about their viciousness toward Paul. Paul goes straight to Carnegie Hall in Pittsburgh, where he works as an usher. Because he is early, he goes to the Hall’s gallery and looks at paintings of Paris and Venice. He loses himself in one particular painting, a “blue Rico.” After changing in the dressing room, where he roughhouses with the other ushers, Paul begins to work. He is excellent at his job, performing every aspect of it with great enthusiasm. He is annoyed when his English teacher arrives and he must seat her, but he comforts himself with the knowledge that her clothes are inappropriate for so fancy a venue. The symphony begins, and Paul loses himself in the music. As he listens, he feels full of life. After the performance, he trails the star soprano to her hotel, the Schenley, and imagines vividly that he is following her inside the luxurious building. As if awaking from a dream, Paul realizes that he is actually standing in the cold, rainy street. He dreads returning to his room, with its ugly knickknacks and pictures of John Calvin and George Washington. As he reaches Cordelia Street, where he lives, Paul feels depressed and repulsed by the commonness and ordinariness of his middle-class neighbourhood. Unable to face his father, Paul sneaks into the basement, where he stays awake all night imagining what would happen if his father mistook him for a burglar and shot him—or recognized Paul in time, but later in life wished that he had shot his son. The next day, Paul sits on the porch with his sisters and father. Many people are outside, relaxing. It is a pleasant scene, but Paul is disgusted by it. His father chats with a young clerk whom he hopes Paul will emulate. This clerk took his boss’s advice: he married the first woman he could and began having children immediately. The only tales of business that interest Paul are those of the iron magnates’ expensive adventures in Cairo, Venice, and Monte Carlo. He understands that some “cash boys” (low-level employees) eventually find great success, but he does not enjoy thinking about the initial cash-boy work.

. and when asked to take a deposit to the bank. According to the stories. they end it in a bad one. paying for his rooms in advance. and Paul is forbidden to return to school. A lovely week passes. hats. staying out until 7 a. he checks into the Waldorf. After purchasing silver at Tiffany’s. The next morning. the principal speaks with Paul’s father. Paul takes an overnight train and arrives in New York City. bright and vibrant. Rather. Paul meets a rich boy who attends Yale. Their lives are difficult. The narrator notes that Paul’s mind has not been “perverted” by novels. and then Paul finds that his theft has been discovered and reported by the Pittsburgh newspapers. he recognizes “the folly of his haste” and thinks of the places that he will never see. The next day. protected by glass from the snow. Paul tells outrageous lies about his close friendships with the members of the theater company and the stars who perform at Carnegie Hall. The narrator explains what has happened to make all this possible: Paul got a job with Denny & Carson’s. as his teachers suspect. his father has paid back the $1. where he buys expensive clothes. and shoes. Paul’s effort to prove that he is better than his classmates and teachers winds up alienating him from them.After managing to get carfare from his father by pretending that he needs to study with a friend. All that’s missing are flowers. which are the only things that make him feel alive. a young actor who lets Paul hang around his dressing room and watch rehearsals. He dines at the hotel while listening to an orchestra play the Blue Danube. He feels utterly content. The theater company’s members hear about Paul’s lies and find them comical. hungover. he deposited only the checks and pocketed $1. he takes cabs to a set of railroad tracks in Pennsylvania and leaps in front of an oncoming train. He notices banks of flowers.000 in cash. Carnegie Hall. Paul goes to see Charley Edwards. Paul gets pleasure solely from theater and music. or the theater where Charley Edwards works.m. At school. The two of them enjoy a night on the town. He is using this stolen money to fund his spree in New York. Paul takes a carriage ride up Fifth Avenue. After a nap. In the end. not the glamorous dream worlds that Paul imagines. The narrator notes that although the boys begin the evening in a happy mood. In the end. Paul enjoys one last dinner at the Waldorf. and looks at the gun he purchased on his first day in New York.000 and is headed to New York to find his son. Before he dies. The eighth-floor rooms are nearly perfect. which Paul sends a bellboy out to buy. he wakes up.

The only people he observes with interest are those he idealizes—and he fails to see them as they really are. However. Charley Edwards. Paul also never thinks about what it means that his father paid back the money he stole and set out for New York to find him. Told in close third-person narration. “A Study in Temperament. his homosexual tendencies. He doesn’t consider the feelings of his father. the art teacher’s mention of Paul’s mother’s death. It doesn’t occur to him that his father worries about his whereabouts only because he loves him. Cather’s tight focus on Paul’s point of view mirrors his self-absorption. his alienation from society. Cather is less interested in writing a traditional short story than she is in providing a case study of a suicidal young man. This extremely focused point of view conveys the intense self-involvement of deeply unhappy people. The story’s subtitle. and his impossible craving for money. Paul’s father is never named. Not until midway through the story do we learn about the existence of Paul’s sisters. it hardly ever strays outside the confines of Paul’s mind. Each piece of exposition explains or elaborates on a motivation for Paul’s eventual suicide. Cather produces the effect of a story extrapolated from a doctor’s notes on the causes of a patient’s suicide. Cather wrote the story several years before Freud became popular in America. the story certainly anticipates America’s fascination with analysis.” provides the explanation for this unusual structure. his longing to join the upper class. they are mentioned only in passing and never named. we recognize a number of reasons for his action: the death of his mother. Even then. shortstory writers strive for a balance of exposition (discourse in which the narrator simply provides information and description for the reader) and dramatization (fully drawn scenes in which characters speak to each other). The Self-Absorption of the Clinically Depressed “Paul’s Case” is intentionally claustrophobic. Typically. Modern critics have diagnosed Paul as delusional and narcissistic. his idealized love for the arts. who lost his wife when his children were very young. After using one of them to justify a lie to his classmates. “Paul’s Case” is composed entirely of exposition. and Cather’s subtitle emphasizes her own interest in studying Paul’s psyche. By the time Paul leaps in front of the train. and the Yale student are not real people for Paul but rather figures in a fantasyland of theater . Even these words of dialogue come in the midst of exposition. His egoism blots out everyone. By doing away with dramatized scenes.A Clinical View of a Suicidal Young Man “Paul’s Case” is notable for its complete absence of dramatized scenes. Like the sisters. The soprano. These terms were not in common usage when “Paul’s Case” was first published. Paul never thinks or speaks about them again. Paul is so wrapped up in his own depression that he cannot think about others. It contains only three pieces of dialogue: Paul’s weak explanation of his bad behavior. and the young clerk’s awed account of his boss’s productivity. not just his family. Instead. he dismisses his father as an annoyance to be avoided and lied to.

and the portraits of George Washington and John Calvin that hang in Paul’s room. shows that the narrator is highly critical of Paul. the world of Cordelia Street brims with concrete details. and love of arithmetic.and money. . he demonstrates his inability to think of anyone but himself. the conversations about the children’s progress in school. the narrator is showing. however. the cushions on which the housewives sit. We might assume that the narrator considers Paul’s suicide the only way out of a world that does not understand him. it is tempting to conclude that the narrator presents Paul as a hero or at least a traditional protagonist. The details that horrify Paul the most get repeated: the yellow wallpaper. when in reality the two can hardly get along for the space of one night. when Charley is actually a youngster in an unremarkable local troupe. The repetition of these details reveals the class hatred that plays continuously in Paul’s mind. A closer look. He views the Yale student as the boy he himself was meant to be. Cather wants her readers to understand that despite what Paul believes. the residents of Cordelia Street are actually hardworking. Paul’s Scorn for the Middle Class Some of the most memorable passages in “Paul’s Case” are the descriptions of Paul’s neighborhood. decent people. Paul hates the piety and work ethic of the people he comes from. when in fact she is a middle-aged mother of several kids. smell of cooking. his last thought is for the places he won’t get to see. rather than sharing. by extension. In contrast. The angry tone of these passages brings up an issue that recurs throughout the story: the extent to which the narrator—and. Paul’s fury. The narrator describes Paul’s wooden bed. rather than the family members who will mourn his death. In the passages about his middle-class neighborhood. his scornfulness and other shortcomings are not. the bellies of the men. Every mention of the neighborhood and its trappings drips with loathing. Even in the seconds before he dies. Paul’s beloved worlds of theater and money are often described in vague terms because Paul knows almost nothing real about them. He believes that Charley walks through a magic portal into the theater world. And although Paul’s depression is treated with sympathy. not a valid or romantic reason for suicide. On first reading. which seethe with anger and resentment. Whether Paul is ignoring the people who love him or fantasizing about those who hardly know him. Cather—sympathizes with Paul. He imagines that the soprano is a queen of romance. and it is these details that are so upsetting to Paul. Cather asks us to recognize that Paul’s anger at his family and his neighbors is the typical product of teenage sullenness. He despises the very place that is most real in his mind and longs for the abstract world of the upper class.

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