Willa Cather's "Paul's Case" has more than one theme, but the characters and setting certainly support all themes:
1. Deception - Feeling trapped in the materialsitic and petty world of steel workers who talk of the prices of things, the fortunes of the "iron kings," and the grades their sons make, Paul escapes into the world of the theatre. Yet, while he disdains much of the men's conversations, he does like to hear
these legends of the iron kings" and he is interested in the "triumphs of cash-boys who had become famous, thou he had no mind for the cash-boy stage.
Paul deceives himself by believing that he wants no part of the world of his father, creating his own "secret temple," although he does envy the wealth of the "iron kings" and the successful cash-boys. At home, Paul lies to his father; while at school, he creates tall-tales of his adventures. Finally, in his escape to New York, Paul lives his greatest lie: that he is a wealthy boy from Washington who awaits his globe-trotting parents. Certainly, the earthy "steel city" of Pittsburgh contrasts well with the center of arts, New York where the falseness of the flowers in winter support the theme of deception.
2. Choices and Consequences. Relative to the theme of deceit is the theme of free will. The portrait of John Calvin who believed in predestination supports the theme that because of his very nature, Paul creates his illusionary world that will satisfy him, for his personal foible of lying destroys him as he finally faces the reality that he will be punished for his theft in Pittsburgh.
3. Beauty Again tied to Paul's deception, beauty in Paul's life must be attached to illusion,
the natural always wore the guise of ugliness....a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty.
While beauty makes Paul lose himself and "feel free," his pursuit of beauty in a deceptive way becomes destructive. For Paul, too, the loss of beauty makes the ordinary life of his yellowed-wallpapered room and a mundane job seem "worse than jail."
4. Alienation The ordinary teachers who disapprove of the looks and actions of Paul make him feel alienated. The talk of the young women about who ate the most waffles at the bake-off on Sunday. At his hearing, surrounded by the teachers Paul feels "physical aversion"; even his street causes him "loathing" on Sunday when he listens to the prattle of the residents.
5. Limitations and Opportunities Obviously, Pittsburgh, with it many steel companies presents limited opportunity, while New York suggests a world of art, beauty, and delight. In fact, Paul's alienation grows out of his limitations. When his father refuses to allow him to usher where Paul feels "like a prisoner set free," Paul's world is greatly limited. Because he is denied any cultural opportunities in Pittsburgh, Paul has all the more reason to flee to New York. Then, when he discovers that his father is coming to New York, Paul feels that all opportunity is lost.
With characters who seem to Paul as constant antagonists and with the stultifying setting of Pittsburgh in contrast to the cultural New York, the main characters and the setting contribute greatly to the themes of Willa Cather's "Paul's Case."