Paul's Case Literary Analysis

Lauren Swanson

Point of View

By giving the story from the third person limited point of view, the reader learns to view the world as Paul does. In order to appreciate and understand the story, the reader must begin to also see the school as a cage, Cordelia Street as a lake to drown in, the theater as the life raft, and New York as the eventual shore. Only by providing the world as Paul sees it can Willa Cather successfully convey life as a struggle to stay afloat. Occasionally, there is brief insight into another set of characters, like the teachers, but only to reveal more about Paul.


Each different area of Paul's life characterizes him differently, and the reader gradually becomes familiar with the many masks Paul chooses to wear. By developing Paul in this many faceted manner, Cather challenges the reader to think about how they also show different personalities to different groups. For instance, in the later part of the story when Paul arrives in New York, Cather uses the following line to characterize Paul. "When he went to sleep, it was with the lights turned on in his bedroom; partly because of his old timidity, and partly so that, if he should awake in the night, there would be no wretched moment of doubt, no horrible suspicion of yellow wallpaper, or of Washington and Calvin above his head." This display of insecurity in his new situation directly contrasts the front of calm and detached collectedness he displayed for the teachers. Even though Paul chose to sleep with the lights on, it still did nothing to dispel the darkness around his true identity.


The setting was mentioned briefly in both Point of View and Characterization as an essential tool. Cather divides Paul's different identities and moods by location. New York is where Paul feels he belongs, and this choice is a very effective use of the setting as an archetype for fame, wealth, and the high life. However, it also conveys a certain amount of busyness and confusion, of lost people. By choosing New York as Paul's final destination, the reader understands that Paul himself is in search of the more pleasant side, but will also fall prey to the dark problems that accompany those benefits of New York. In addition, Cordelia Street is where Paul feels suffocated. It's important to note that the neighborhood is described as fairly well off, perhaps lower middle class. The knowledge that Paul feels suffocated in such an average setting is important in understanding his goals. Later, Paul will come to describe his life as Cordelia Street, an important reference to the mundane nature his life has fallen to.


Some of the symbols were already discussed in relation to the setting. However, there were a few other important ones. The first and most important is the carnation. Paul wears a red carnation when he goes to speak to his teachers. He also picks one up to wear when he is in New York. By adopting this as his signature finish to his wardrobe, Cather tells the reader a few things about Paul. Carnations are beautiful, and do represent a certain amount of civility and sophistication, as all flowers do. However, it is cheaper than a rose. It has an air of wanting to show class, but not being willing pay for it. This is very much like Paul, who wishes to be sophisticated, but cannot necessarily afford the rose.

Another symbol is the snow that the carnation is laid in. Snow, as part of the winter archetype, represents death, endings, and hopelessness. However, it also can have its own connotations of purity and innocence, like a clean snow fall. In this case, it is a combination of both. The snow encompasses the carnation, which represents Paul, just like death will wrap around Paul. Despite this, the snow offers the carnation a pure, clean resting place, just like death protects Paul before the world ruins him.

The final major symbol used by Cather is the train. Trains represent travel, and that is in fact the mode of transport that Paul takes to New York. It is of interest that this is how Paul chooses to die. In a symbolic manner, being killed by the train represents how Paul's quest for what he couldn't reach ruined his only chance at a happy life.


"It was the old depression exaggerated; all the world had become Cordelia Street." This is the line in which Paul realizes he feels like he is drowning not only at his home, but in the whole world. This is a crucial part to the theme. Paul thought he was misunderstood at Cordelia Street, but now he finds he is still not understood, nor does he really understand the world he is in. "Paul's Case" explores the effects of pursuing a dream at all costs. Sometimes, when a dream is achieved through cheap methods, it leaves the dreamer just as unsatisfied. Cather explores the idea the fufillment in life cannot be found in our condition or state by taking the reader on Paul's journey in which he reaches the lifestyle he thought he wanted, and still finds it is not enough.

Works Cited

Beach Dive Diving Mask Sand Scuba Sea Snorkel. Digital image. Pixabay Public Domain Images. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2013.
Beauty Bloom Blossom Carnation Colorful Colourful. Digital image. Public Domanion Images. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2013.
City New York Nyc United States Panoramic Hieght. Digital image. Pixabay Public Domain Images. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2013.
Flooded Street. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2013.
Street LIghtling LIght Lamp Architecture Dark. Digital image. Pixabay Public Domain Images. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2013.