Paul’s Case Summary, Characters and Themes

“Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament” is a short story by Willa Cather. It follows Paul, a Pittsburgh teenager who despises his middle-class life and yearns for wealth and sophistication. 

Alienated from his family and school, Paul steals money and flees to New York City, indulging in a brief, luxurious escape. However, his fantasy is short-lived, and faced with the reality of his actions, Paul chooses a tragic end. The story explores themes of alienation, materialism, and the conflict between individual desires and societal expectations.


Paul, a young man from Pittsburg, stands before a disciplinary tribunal at his school, facing accusations of disruptive behavior. Despite his nonchalant demeanor, Paul is expelled. He finds solace in his job as an usher at Carnegie Hall, where he revels in the music and the company of the cultural elite.

One evening, after a mesmerizing concert, Paul follows the German soloist to her hotel, envisioning a life of luxury and sophistication. 

However, returning home to his drab surroundings on Cordelia Street, he is overcome with despair and sneaks in through a basement window.

On Sunday, Paul observes his neighbors living mundane lives, reinforcing his disdain for the ordinary. His only escape is the theater and Carnegie Hall, where he immerses himself in the world of art and performance.

Paul’s academic situation deteriorates, and he is expelled from school. After being banned from Carnegie Hall, he hatches a plan to escape his suffocating reality. 

With money stolen from the Hall, he flees to New York City, where he creates a new identity and indulges in a lavish lifestyle at the Waldorf hotel.

For a time, Paul lives his dream, surrounded by luxury and excitement. 

However, his blissful existence is shattered when he reads a newspaper article detailing his theft and disappearance. Fearing his father’s imminent arrival and the return to his mundane life, Paul is consumed by anxiety.

In a desperate attempt to preserve his fleeting happiness, Paul considers suicide but ultimately decides against it. He takes a train back to Pennsylvania, contemplating the futility of his rebellion against societal norms.

Walking along the railway tracks, Paul notices the wilting carnations in his coat, symbolizing the ephemeral nature of his escape. As a train approaches, he jumps in front of it, finding a tragic release from his unfulfilled desires and the oppressive weight of his reality.

paul's case summary



A young man from Pittsburgh who feels alienated from his middle-class life and longs for wealth, sophistication, and beauty. Rebellious and disruptive at school, he displays a deep indifference to authority and societal expectations. 

He finds solace in the world of art and music at Carnegie Hall, experiencing a sense of belonging and fulfillment. Desperate to escape his ordinary life, he steals money and flees to New York, creating a temporary illusion of happiness. 

Ultimately, Paul’s inability to reconcile his desires with reality leads to his tragic demise.

Paul’s Father

A stern and possibly distant figure who represents the societal norms and expectations that Paul rejects. 

The story offers little detail about him, but his presence looms large as a symbol of the life Paul desperately wants to escape. 

His willingness to forgive Paul’s theft suggests a flicker of compassion, but it’s unclear if this would have been enough to bridge the gap between them.

Minor Characters

  • The school administrators and teachers represent the stultifying environment of Paul’s school, unable to understand or connect with his artistic temperament.
  • Charley Edwards, the performer, offers Paul a glimpse into the world he craves, but ultimately cannot provide a lasting solution.
  • The Yale student represents a potential connection for Paul, but their brief encounter ends on a tense note.
  • The hotel staff serves as a backdrop to Paul’s fabricated life, oblivious to his inner turmoil.


Alienation and the Search for Beauty

Paul feels profoundly alienated from his middle-class life in Pittsburgh. He finds his family, school, and neighborhood stifling and devoid of beauty. The story portrays Cordelia Street, where Paul lives, as a place of conformity and mediocrity. 

In contrast, Paul finds solace and beauty in the world of art and culture. 

The music at Carnegie Hall and the glamorous world he imagines surrounding the theater performers become his escape. 

He yearns for a life filled with richness, sophistication, and excitement, a stark contrast to the mundanity of his everyday existence.

The Illusion of Escape and the Inescapability of Reality

Paul’s escape to New York City is ultimately an illusion. While he creates a temporary haven for himself at the Waldorf Hotel, indulging in a luxurious lifestyle, it is all built on a lie. 

The stolen money that funds his escape cannot buy him true happiness or freedom. The constant fear of exposure and the realization that his fabricated life cannot last forever hang over him. When he discovers the newspaper article revealing his theft, his carefully constructed world crumbles. 

The story portrays the harsh reality that societal expectations and pressures are inescapable. Paul’s tragic end highlights the impossibility of completely escaping his circumstances and the limitations of finding solace in a fantasy world.

The Destructiveness of Societal Norms

The rigid social norms and expectations of Pittsburgh contribute significantly to Paul’s alienation and unhappiness. 

The story portrays a stifling and conformist environment where individuality and artistic expression are suppressed. Paul’s teachers and family members are unable to understand or accommodate his yearning for beauty and a richer life. 

The pressure to conform to societal expectations and the lack of outlets for his creative spirit contribute to his feelings of isolation and ultimately lead him down a destructive path.

The Power of Art and Imagination

Art and imagination provide Paul with a vital escape from his harsh reality. The music at Carnegie Hall, the theater performances, and the world of sophistication he imagines offer him a sense of beauty, excitement, and meaning that is absent in his everyday life. 

Even though his escape to New York is ultimately an illusion, the power of his imagination allows him to briefly experience a life that fulfills his desires. The story portrays art and imagination as a double-edged sword. 

While they provide solace and a temporary escape, they can also lead to dissatisfaction with one’s circumstances and a disconnection from reality.

Final Thoughts

“Paul’s Case” is an exploration of alienation, societal pressures, and the yearning for beauty and escape. Cather’s vivid portrayal of Paul’s inner turmoil and his desperate attempts to create a life that aligns with his desires resonate deeply with readers. 

The story’s tragic ending serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of living in illusions and the harsh realities of a world that often stifles individuality and creativity.