In "Paul's Case," why does the author mention pictures of George Washington and John Calvin?
In Paul's bedroom at home, pictures of George Washington and John Calvin hang over his bed. They point to important themes in the story in regard to Paul's life and death. They represent influences at work in the development of Paul's character as he grew up.
Washington's picture suggests historical and cultural influences in American life. The country was founded upon the American Dream. Paul's pursuit of his version of the American Dream leads him to commit acts that lead to the story's disturbing conclusion. Interestingly, it is Washington's picture that Cather chose to include instead of a picture of any other American patriot, and it is Washington's picture that appears on the one dollar bill, perhaps symbolizing the emphasis on materialism in Paul's world. Paul grew up wanting the finer things of life that money could buy, but he did not embrace the work ethic.
The picture of John Calvin introduces the theological philosophy of predestination and raises questions in terms of Paul's acting of his own free will. Predestination also relates to the literary theme of naturalism; in naturalistic literature, characters become the victims of natural or societal forces beyond their control. Naturalism was a developing literary philosophy at the time Cather's story was written, although she seems to reject it in this story. A religious belief in predestination is also rejected. At the end of his life, Paul does not regret his fate.
This story the two pictures above Paul's bed are symbolic. On the surface, it is noted in the story that his mother had framed these pictures with the quote "feed my lambs,"and she is now dead. These pictures are all he has of her and they symbolize. He however has grown to hate the pictures.
The theme of predestination is symbolized by the picture of John Calvin who was a famous theologian. The idea that our lives are predetermined from birth and nothing we do can change the way things will happen to us is evident in the way that Paul looks at his life. He feels that he is meant to live differently than his life circumstances have him living. According to Calvin, Paul's suicide was predetermined at his birth.
George Washington is a symbol of honesty and truth. He is a symbol of all that was "right" in American. Paul lied, cheated and stole his way off of Cordelia Street. Paul believed in "the American Dream," but was the exact opposite of what Washington symbolized.
Paul decided he would rather die than be taken back to the mundane life of no money, music, art and the finer things in life. He at one point realizes "money is everything." To live in Washington's America you need money, but Calvin would say Paul didn't have a choice.