What kind of person is Paul in "Paul's Case"?

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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The character of Paul in Willa Cather’s “Paul Case” is meant to instill in the reader a sense of the supernatural, combined with aesthetics and pathos. This is because Paul is, like the story’s full title says, “a study in temperament”. This entails that the things that Paul does, thinks, and feels are for his character to feel alone.
Paul represents the aesthetic movement. This means that he has an exaggerated preoccupation with all things beautiful. Aesthetes believe that life should imitate art, instead of art imitating life. He is one to which the appearance of beauty is most important, especially, an appearance of being something that one is not.

.....there was something of the dandy about him, and he wore an opal pin in his neatly knotted black four-in-hand, and a red carnation in his buttonhole.

Paul’s arrogance toward his teachers and his dislike of school are symbolic of the individual who cannot get used to the world around him, simply because he may or may not truly belong to it. The implication that Cather makes is that Paul is somewhat otherworldly. 

Cather places Paul’s job at the Carnegie Hall for a reason:it suits him perfectly. It is a fake palace where fake situations take place; Paul gets to experience the superficiality of it all while being able to play dress up as an usher and believe to be someone of importance.

It was at the theatre and at Carnegie Hall that Paul really lived; the rest was but a sleep and a forgetting. This was Paul's fairy tale, and it had for him all the allurement of a secret love. The moment he inhaled the gassy, painty, dusty odor behind the scenes, he breathed like a prisoner set free, and felt within him the possibility of doing or saying splendid, brilliant, poetic things.

This is why Paul feels that the artificial, being that it never ages, gets ugly, or dies, is more enticing than the natural world. This is another tenet of aestheticism.

Perhaps it was because, in Paul's world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness, that a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty.

When Paul decides to live his dream at the Waldorf he does it more out of a sense of desperation than of want. He cannot bare the idea of going to a regular job, and living in Cordelia street forever. He has to somewhat escape his reality from its roots. He may have already considered suicide as his ultimate solution. We never quite know as readers.

To give further evidence of Paul’s aesthetic behavior, consider the flowers as one of the most important motifs of the story. The artificial flowers that Paul admires in 5th avenue are, to him, the symbol of the true beauty of such a gift of nature as a flower is.

The flowers that adorn his room represent the desperate need for Paul to entice ALL of his senses to beauty. Finally, when he buries his lapel flower right before she starts to die symbolizes Paul’s own issues as a whole: he must rather be dead than living a life where ugliness may lurk at any given moment.

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