Discussion Questions for Paul’s Case (Willa Cather, 1905)
- What do you learn about Paul from the description of his physical features and clothes in the first 7 paragraphs?
- What could the red carnation in his buttonhole represent? What could the color of the carnation signify?
- Comment on how the following locations in the first 14 paragraphs of the story contribute to our understanding of Paul, his environment, and the potential themes for the rest of the story: the Pittsburgh High School, Carnegie Hall, the picture gallery.
- After Paul leaves the school, he runs down the hill whistling the Soldiers’ Chorus from Faust. In what way(s) could this be significant?
- What do the pictures of George Washington and John Calvin in Paul’s room and the framed motto “Feed my lambs” tell the reader about social and historical context in the story? How do they contribute to the readers’ understanding of the characters and the events in the story?
- What does Cordelia Street mean to Paul? How does the narrator describe Paul’s feelings when he turns into the street after finishing work? Make a comparison between Cordelia Street, the school and the theatre.
- Why does Paul use the basement windows to enter his house?
- Comment on how the narrator describes Paul’s father. What does this description tell us about the relationship between the two?
- What makes Paul dislike the young man his father is talking to?
- Why does Paul keep violet water hidden in his drawer? What does the violet water represent?
- What is the significance of Charley Edwards in the story? Why do you think he is the only character with a complete name in the story?
- What is the importance of the theatre for Paul?
- Why does Paul use flowers in his hotel room? What is their function in this part of the story?
- Comment on the following excerpt: “Until now he could not remember the time when he had not been dreading something. Even when he was a little boy it was always there–behind him, or before, or on either side. There had always been the shadowed corner, the dark place into which he dared not look, but from which something seemed always to be watching him–and Paul had done things that were not pretty to watch, he knew.” Discuss what fear Paul suffers from. What might the narrator mean by “things that were not pretty to watch”?
- What does New York represent in the story? In what ways does it differ from Cordelia Street?
- When the carriage drives up 5th Avenue toward the Park, the narrator tells the reader about the flower gardens blooming under glass cases. What do flowers under glass cases signify? Does the narrator mention about them later in the story? Where? Why?
- What does the Park itself signify?
- Comment on Paul’s friendship with the Yale freshman. Why do you think the narrator does not allow the reader to know his name?
- Comment on the following excerpt: “The carnations in his coat were drooping with the cold, he noticed, their red glory all over. It occurred to him that all the flowers he had seen in the glass cases that first night must have gone the same way, long before this. It was only one splendid breath they had, in spite of their brave mockery at the winter outside the glass; and it was a losing game in the end, it seemed, this revolt against the homilies by which the world is run.” What do flowers signify here? Is there a change in what they represent at the end of the story?
- Why does Paul bury a blossom in the snow? What does this imply?
- Discuss what the following phrases in the last paragraph might mean: “the picture making mechanism” and “the immense design of things”.
- Discuss how the story ends: Does Paul really commit suicide or is all this a scenario? If this is a scenario, comment on Paul’s function in the story as a playwright, as an actor and as audience.
- Is there a homosexual motif in the story? If yes, identify where and discuss how the author explores this.
- Why does the author call “Paul’s Case” a study in temperament?
© Ali Nihat Eken, İstanbul, 2007
Willa Cather Photo Credit: The Willa Cather Foundation