What is so interesting and enjoyable about the discussion of literature is that one can make an argument for an alternate analysis of a work. Certainly, character strikes readers as the most important element of Willa Cather's "Paul's Case." However, if one examines the title, one can perceive that the word case is given the position of importance. It seems, therefore, that an argument can be made that theme is the most important element with characterization driving the development this theme.
With the underlying theme of the American Dream, the question arises, "Was Paul driven to his fate by the destructive values of America?" (Do the worlds of business and industry, represented by Cordelia Street, destroy appreciation of culture and aesthetics?) [enotes Themes]
Paul's character, which is developed in great detail, lies at the heart of the story, certainly. This story is especially interesting in that the "real story" is found in Paul's internal life, not his external one, and the contrast between the two is paramount in developing the theme: the destruction of a sensitive, artistic soul trapped in a dull, harsh, critical, unforgiving environment.
I would suggest that Cather's theme is the most significant literary element in the story. Everything in Paul's character (and everything that happens to him) culminates in Cather's thematic statement. It is the same theme she developed in another fine short story, "The Sculptor's Funeral."
Don't forget to pay close attention so such details as the title and subtitle. The subtitle here is "a study in temperment"...and that points clearly to Paul himself. He dreams of art, music, and a glamorous life. His dreams and desires lead him to many unsavory things including getting kicked out of school and then stealing from his boss to make it to the glamour world of New York. Once there, of course, he realizes that without education and money, he will not be staying in fancy hotels or attending operas. When his crime is discovered, his termperment will not allow him to return to being "common" although, in his life he never really left "common"; however, he commits suicide. A tragic ending. The character of Paul is front and center.
I would agree with epollock that plot is the most important element in most fiction, and my initial thoughts were of plot, too, but in stories such as Willa Cather's "Paul's Case" (most of Joyce's stories in Dubliners are similar in this regard), character is more important than plot. (I revised my intial thoughts, before posting my reply, once I realized that this question had been posted in the group on "Paul's Case.")
#2 clearly identifies that this short story gives us insight into the main character - his thoughts, desires and how he interprets what goes on around him. It is thus how Cather characterises the main character of this excellent short story that is worthy of attention and study. You will want to think about how she succeeds in characterising him so effectively and also how his character is developed.
I would agree with you. For Willa Cather's short story "Plaul's Case," character really does seem like the most important element. The storyline or plot can probably be summarized in just a sentence or two. The settings are richly described, as I recall, but I believe that they are also not the most important element of fiction in the story. I didn't reread the story before answering here, but as I recall, the story is all about the young male character's desires, perceptions, and emotional reactions. It's all about his inside world.
I would say that plot is the most important. Most elementary literature anthology textbooks has that as the first element in order of interest and importance. There are many kinds of stories without traditional characters but there is still a plot. Plot is the arrangement of everything in the story.
I am writing a paper and need to have a paragraph with a topic sentence about the literary devices used by the author to convey the theme. Thoughts?