Paul is a deeply troubled young man, hopelessly at odds with everyone and everything around him. He longs to escape from his relatively humble background and emulate the opulent lifestyles of the Pittsburgh captains of industry he so greatly admires. But instead of working hard to try and improve his lot in life, Paul retreats into a fantasy world, in which a superficial attachment to high art brings him closer—or so he thinks—to the charmed circle of the gilded elite. As he lacks the discipline or the application to make his dreams come true, Paul resorts to theft, stealing over $1,000 from his employers. With his ill-gotten gains, Paul takes off for New York, where he briefly lives out his fantasy as a wealthy young man-about-town.
But the money soon runs out, and Paul's plunged into despair. Aware that his crime has been discovered, he resolves to commit suicide. As we come to the end of the story, Paul's standing by a railroad track, ready to jump in the path of an oncoming locomotive. As soon as he makes the fatal jump, he immediately regrets his actions, but it's too late. As the train smashes into his body, Paul's "picture-making mechanism"—that is, his over-active imagination—is destroyed. Now, at the hour of his death, he's finally been deposited back into the real world he fought so hard to escape through his fantasies of wealth and social status.