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Willa Cather uses flowers and regular changes of clothing as symbols for Paul’s destiny to be something more than he is; it shows the transition of Paul from a poor dull schoolboy to a rich man in a tale all too similar to those seen in plays. Paul’s fascination with theater and opera goes hand in hand with his own life story, which is described as if Paul were an actor, “acting” his way through life. Paul slips into character and is very apathetic, not really feeling the impact of his actions until the end of the story, where he “dies”; although critics say that Paul’s life in New York is just another of his daydreams. In “Paul’s Case”, Willa Cather uses symbolism along with a theatrical structure to illustrate the life of a young man who lives his life as though it were a play.
“Paul’s Case”, written by Willa Cather, tells the story of Paul, a young man who is always in search of something more in his life. Willa Cather helps the reader visualize Paul’s longing for a more luxurious life by placing symbols of flowers within the story. In the beginning of “Paul’s Case”, Paul wears a red carnation on him while in a meeting with his teachers. “Paul uses the red carnation as a visible symbol of his alienation from the world of Cordelia Street”(Crabtree, 206) while his teachers see it only as adding to his “defiance”. The flower he wears is very important because it creates a stark contrast with the rest of the world around him. He is said to live in a dull, colorless life, but the red carnation adds excitement to Paul’s world and allows him to imagine he were someone else. As Sherry Crabtree suggests, “His fantasies of escape always include flowers” which symbolizes that Paul believes there is far more beauty in the world that he is destined to see. When Paul finally escapes to New York, his journey does not seem final until he is brought a beautiful bouquet of flowers. The scent of flowers is also used in the story as a symbol, this time to basically “scrub” away the drabness of normal life. Paul “scrubbed the greasy odor of the dishwater from his hands with the ill-smelling soap he hated, and then shook over his fingers a few drops of violet water from the bottle” (Cather); in this act the violet water makes Paul feel as though he is worth more. The flowers that Paul always see seem to always belong to the wealthy, which is one reason why Paul has a bouquet delivered to him when he gets to his hotel. Flowers are also used to show the contrast between high society and the middle class home of Paul. The red carnation added to Paul’s attire is the first of many wardrobe transitions through the story, and it creates a stark difference between what Paul desires and what he actually has. Flowers are also used to symbolize Paul’s detachment from the world, before he eventually is killed. Flowers in a vase are “cut from their roots”, “for they are dead to their natural environment just as Paul is dead to his once he steals the money and uproots himself to run away from Cordelia Street” (Carpenter, 596); the flowers then only survive a few days, much like Paul did. Another similarity between Paul and the flowers is: “the blossoms in the flower shops cannot take root after being removed from their world, and neither can Paul establish roots in this artificial world he so desperately wishes to become part of” (Crabtree, 207), meaning that Paul tries to change his life into something he dreams of, but he is unable to leave his home.
Over the course of “Paul’s Case” Paul’s attire varies drastically, which Willa Cather uses as a symbol to show that the changes in Paul’s life are like scenes in a play- complete with periodical costume changes. In the beginning, Paul is seen wearing an outfit that is “outgrown” and “frayed and worn” (Cather), but the addition of a red flower adds a bit of mystique to his demeanor. The bright red flower “is in sharp contrast to Paul’s drab surroundings” (Crabtree, 207), which is foreshadowing that Paul is not fitted properly to his life on Cordelia street. He is disgusted at the plain men who “never wore frock coats, or violets in their buttonholes” (Cather). Paul is determined to find greener pastures, and his outfits only escalate in appearance from his torn day clothes. Paul changes into his work uniform, still not fitting, but which is nicer and less worn as his previous clothes. The attire that Paul wears in the early parts of the story “suggest that Paul is miscast” (Page). His change of apparel is symbolic that Paul is climbing a ladder to a happier place. When Paul arrives to Carnegie Hall to usher, he is “gracious and smiling” and “nothing was too much trouble for him”, and you can tell that with each new uniform Paul wears the happier he gets. Paul is like an actor going through a routine costume change just to play another part; he feels as though when he is in the theater he is an entirely different person, far from the dreary life he once lived, but not quite in a part that fits him. As Paul lives out the days outlined in the story, he slowly transforms himself into something he feels he is more suited for. This is made apparent partly by the way his clothing fits after he goes to New York. When he steals the money and flees to New York, he spends “upward of two hours” at a clothing store buying a new suit, then buys a new pin at Tiffany’s (Cather). Paul picked the best of the best, and is finally in a role that fits him perfectly.
“Paul’s Case” is a rag to riches story; Paul lives a poor, dull, normal life and is always in search of something more. He then becomes wealthy, and then gets caught up in his own destruction. In the beginning of the story, Paul is seen as a different boy, living in a normal, middle class home. He goes to school, has a job, goes home and cleans, but something is always missing. He thinks the life he lives is very dull until he decides to change it into something spectacular, which is unfortunately short lived. Paul is extremely fascinated with opera and music, and even before he makes his way north, he is dreaming and telling stories “of his acquaintance with the soloists who came to Carnegie Hall” (Cather). He believes that the wealthy live altogether better lives, with their expensive clothing and vases of flowers. Paul seeks out the finer things in life, such as a pin from Tiffany’s and a vase of beautiful flowers. Since he thinks so highly of the wealthy, Paul steals some money and makes his way to New York, in hopes of making his life as he seems it should be. He seemingly finds his destiny when he gets to New York but things quickly go downhill after Paul finds out that his father is coming to get him. As in all great plays or movies, there is a lesson to be learned which in Paul’s case is that anyone not of good character will eventually meet their downfall. The only difference between “Paul’s Case” and most other rags to riches stories is it’s dark demeanor. Paul does seem to rise above his middle class life, but he is brought out of it by corruption (stealing and lying) and he is punished by his actions with the realization that he may never be able to truly become what he desires.
Paul’s life is lived as though he is a character acting out his scenes in a play. Paul is an eccentric young man who seems as though he is always out of place. He slips into a different character (in attempt to feel that he is where he belongs) throughout the story by changing his appearance and lying. Lies are used in the story as though every successful person uses them to get their way; Paul has no remorse for stealing money and lying to everyone. It is suggested by Paul that everyone is just “lying” to get through things how they want, and that anyone can get what they want by simply acting as though it is rightfully theirs. Paul is apathetic, as though he is an actor playing the part of a killer- the actor isn’t actually hurting anyone. As Rob Saari states: “he acts as if he had as much right to their money as they did. During his stay in New York, Paul experiences no remorse; it was “characteristic” that remorse did not occur to him” (394). This shows that Paul was merely slipping into a character. Paul always wants to stand out from the crowd, and he “needed only the spark, the indescribable thrill that made his imagination master of his senses, and he could make plots and pictures enough of his own” (Cather). He dreams about changing his own life into what he thinks is his destiny, by lying and acting the part, as if the world were a stage and he was merely a performer. The trip to New York is merely a theater production to Paul, but he finally realizes that life is not just one big play, it is real and you cannot escape reality. Paul seeks out his last thrill when he jumped in front of a train, pulling the curtains closed on his own theatrical masterpiece.
It is suggested that Paul’s endeavor is actually just a figment of his imagination, that he never left his home, instead he that “dreams he finds himself violently thrown back toward his home” (Salda, 119). This references that when Paul throws himself in front of the train, he is not committing suicide, because it is not real. The entire escapade is just a dream and Paul just realizes that “Cordelia Street is inescapable” (Salda, 117). The realization that you cannot lie your way through life, even though it may seem that everyone around you is simply playing a part, finally hits Paul. It is also hinted at that Paul’s venture to New York is just a dream by “the flowers, the white linen, the many-colored wineglasses, the gay toilettes of the women, the low popping of corks, the undulating repetitions of the Blue Danube from the orchestra, all flooded Paul’s dream with bewildering radiance” (Cather); this states that while Paul is in the dining room of the hotel experiencing all of this, it is just a dream.
“Paul’s Case” lays out a series of theatrical events reminiscent of a play scattered with symbolism. Will Cather uses the beauty of flowers, and the transition of costumes through the story to paint a motion picture of an eccentric, apathetic young man’s life. She draws a fine line between what is real and what is inside Paul’s head, making it difficult to distinguish between the two. This “rags to riches” story shows a young mans short rise to a greater life, and the inevitable turn of events where everything goes downhill.
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