Ray's Introduction to Literature, Fall, 1998 Kate's
last updated Oct 14, 1998
"Paul's Case" (1904)

by Willa Cather

How different is Paul's case from Faulkner's Emily's or Updike's Sammy's?
Have you ever been different from the people around you, if not a misfit in society?
Above: Willa Cather Homepage
Right: from Cather Photos, by Carl Van Vechten


Online Discussion--
Ray's Class; Kate's Class

Historical Background

"The story "Paul's Case" was based on the real suicide of a high school boy...that Cather heard about when she was a teacher at a Pittsburgh high school. It is probable then, that this is the reason she set the story in Pittsburgh. ...Also, the grimy streets of Pittsburgh, covered in soot, dirt, and ash from the many steel plants in town, provided a stark contrast of the clean, well-lit, beautiful streets of New York City. Cather describes a setting from which ANY boy would want to escape. " (The Significance of Pittsburgh and Cordelia Street)

Leading Questions for Journal and Group Discussion


Paul vs. school, family and society

  • Why are the teachers so angry at Paul, and then "humiliated to have felt so vindictive toward a mere boy" (258)?  What would you feel if you were his teacher?
  • Paul -- How do you characterize Paul?  A dandy or a poor boy?  A rebel, a misfit, or one with learning problems?  As the story has us follow Paul and go from the school, to the galleary and concert hall, and then back home, we get to see more of what he hates and what is interested in.  Can you tell exactly what he likes, the world of art or luxuries?   (Be specific and get examples from the gallery scene, usher scene and the scene where he follows the soprano.)
  • How does the narrator explains Paul's interest in Carneigie Hall (p. 263).  How is it different from the teachers' account on the same page?
  • How is Paul related to his father in appearance and in his imagination (p. 261)?   What does his father expect of him and treat him (p. 262)?
  • From the Sunday scene, we get to see Paul's family more as well as their neighbors on Cordelia Street.   If this is a miniature of the Pittsburgh society, how do you characterize it?   (Cf. Cordelia Street )
  • Setting --contrast between the two worlds Theme & the Image of flower
  • Is Paul impractical in being attracted to the world of theater and uppler class--or the world of Romance?  What do you think about his "elastic power of claiming the moment, mounting with it, and finding it all sufficient" (268)?  Why does he feels that at the end  "all the world had become Cordelia Street"?
  • Who is responsible for the tragedy, Paul or the environment?
  • We see flower mentioned several times in the story: e.g. the red carnation, the violet water.  Taken together, do they take on some symbolic meaning?
  • Is the third-person narrator a reliable one?  Is s/he sympathetic?  Does s/he change her/his position in the story?

  • Further references on the web (*is for beginners.)
  • *Paul's Case Homepage-- including Paul's Case! Defended by Willa Cather,  A Marxist look at "Paul's Case," the use of flower in the story, etc. very important for both teachers and students.
  • * Background--Carnegie Hall, Paul's Room, The Significance of Pittsburgh and Cordelia Street (from the above site; important!
  • Willa Cather Homepage-- Events/Publications/Locations/Quotations/Biography/Other
  • Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial