What significance does the red carnation that Paul wears at the beginning of the story and when he buries it in the snow at the end have in Paul's Case?

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

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Flowers, as well as the color red, are constant motifs in Willa Cather's  "Paul's Case". The flowers are te ultimate symbol of aesthetic beauty: their shape, their delicacy, the sweet scent, their decorative value but, most importantly, their limited and sensitive lives appeal to the entire idea of the Aesthetic movement. As a story that follows the same style, the flowers are without question a symbol of Paul's own life.

Carnations have also been used throughout literature, and by commonly-known aesthetes (such as Oscar Wilde, for example), as a symbol for sensitive and unique personalities. However, Paul's carnations do not fare very well in the story. His first carnation, the flippantly red one that stands out as much as Paul does, seems to be revolting

against the homilies by which the world is run (ch. 2)

Paul's carnations first show their beauty, but shortly after wither and die, much like Paul, his impossible dreams, and the so-called perfect life he thought he had reached, died quite quickly.

At the beginning of the story, the color red symbolizes not only standing out, but it also reveals intensity and a desire to be looked at, admired, and even talked about. The flower does not go well with the somewhat outgrown clothing that Paul wears during the interview with his teachers

His clothes were a trifle out-grown, and the tan velvet on the collar of his open overcoat was frayed and worn; but for all that there was something of the dandy about him, and he wore ... a red carnation in his button-hole.

As you can see, the flower is dissonant, as it seems a bit too loud, even elegant compared to his clothes, which are obviously old. This tells us volumes about Paul. For once, that he is not really what he appears to be; he does not "come from money". Also, the flower is like Paul himself: extremely delicate, stands out too much, does not go with "the rest". Additionally, it actually may have made Paul look silly; that "dandy" persona that he tries to appear to be has no place among the common-place scenario taking place at the school.

This latter adornment the faculty somehow felt was not properly significant of the contrite spirit befitting a boy under the ban of suspension.

Therefore, Paul wears the flower as a way to distance himself from the other boys. He also wears it perhaps to cause shock among the teachers, as the flower is distinctly loud and elicits discomfort among them. Still the red carnation is entirely representative of Paul himself; a living "thing" that stands out in the wrong place, and at the wrong time. Something that has qualities of beauty and sophistication, but does not go well with everything. Something delicate, too sensitive, and with a very short lifespan.

The motif of carnations and the color red comes up again when Paul meets with the residents of his dreaded Cordelia St. and the girls serve the Sabbath punch in a red, glass pitcher that is thought to be very unique. Again the color red depicts something that is delicate and stands out. However, the color red also symbolizes Paul's own awkward uniqueness particularly when, Cather writes

the neighbours joked about the suspicious colour of the pitcher.

Could this be a reference to Paul? What about Paul makes him so suspicious? We will also find him burying a carnation at the end of his journey in hopes of preserving its beauty right before Paul commits suicide. Again, Paul and the flower part because they are one, and basically the same.

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