In her short story “Paul’s Case,” Willa Cather’s use of red carnations serves as a symbol for her protagonist Paul’s own life. The carnations, alongside the significance of the color red, appear multiple times throughout the story. They exemplify the statement Cather makes about how people and objects who attempted to live a different kind of life in the early twentieth century were not rewarded.
Cather cleverly takes advantage of her third person omniscient narration to provide the reader with different perspectives on the carnations and their color. Not only do the carnations depict Paul’s desperation to stand ut from his peers and urge to escape his suffocating neighborhood for a more liberating life, they portray his delicate and sensitive nature, as well as foreshadow his short lifespan. The red carnations play a significant part in distinguishing Paul’s ‘case’ as one that is misunderstood and looked down upon from the very beginning. He wore an opal pin in his neatly knotted black four-in-hand, and a red carnation in his buttonhole” (1) to his trial at school – a tribute by Cather to the infamous green carnations sported by Oscar Wilde, a man who was also on trial, and went to jail for sodomy. Cather’s brilliant se of focalization and free indirect discourse in her omniscient third person narration allows the reader to see that while Paul is proud that adorning the flowers separates him from the way people dressed at the time, the same decision also causes discomfort in his teachers.
Paul not only perplexes his teachers because he causes disorder in the classroom, but because he is different. He is “the boy which none of them understood,” (1) just like the flowers. The fiery carnations in Paul’s buttonhole don’t go along with his outgrown and shabby clothes, just like Paul himself – in the midst of this all, there was still “something f the dandy about him. ” (1) Referring to the carnations, Cather writes that “this latter adornment the faculty somehow felt was not properly significant of the contrite spirit befitting a boy under the ban of suspension. (1) Paul on the other hand continues to be “suave and smiling” (1) An important aspect of the carnations is Cather’s intentional use of them being red in color.
According to color symbolism red is a warm hue which usually signifies desire, energy, passion and many other levels of intense connotations – images that can all be used to associate with Paul as well. It is no coincidence that Cather describes the ed in the glass pitcher where Paul’s sister makes lemonades as “very fine” (3) according to the girls, yet “the neighbors always joked about the suspicious color of the pitcher. (3) Again, thanks to Cather’s narrative style, the reader can see that while some attempts at standing out may have been thought clever by the architect of the act, others could view as unnecessary or eccentric: Paul views himself as extraordinary compared to his classmates as opposed to how his teachers view him as disruptive. Cather’s use of the word “suspicious” carries a criminal connotation, perhaps indicating how they could get omeone in trouble, similar to how sodomy was a crime.
Therefore in their “suspiciousness,” the red carnations also serve as a symbol of Paul’s queerness, a significant part of his identity and life. Cather never states explicitly that Paul is homosexual, but it is apparent across the story. Looking contextually beyond “Paul’s Case,” Cather’s own relationships with women alone can cause the reader to ponder over whether there is something very queer about the way in which she writes Paul’s behavior.
An interesting parallel is that similar to how there are signs pointing to Paul’s homosexuality, Cather’s relationships were lso speculated instead of being explicitly admitted to by her. From the Oscar Wilde and trial parallels, to his fascinations with the Yale boy, Cather unabashedly showers Paul with several allusions to homosexual behavior and attributes. Cather’s mention of Paul’s encounter with the Yale boy is very brief: “The young man offered to show Paul the night side of the town, and the two boys went out together after dinner, not returning to the hotel until seven o’clock the next morning.
They had started out in the confiding warmth of a champagne friendship, but their parting in the elevator was singularly cool. The freshman ulled himself together to make his train and Paul went to bed. ” (7) The author is intentional in stating exactly what Paul and the Yale boy were up to that night. It seems to be an exhilarating and alcohol fueled, and it was temporary and flick to the carnations, and many of the adventures Paul has across the story.
While Paul was looking for a permanent getaway, the Yale boy had only been visiting. This goes hand in hand in the author being implicit about Paul’s sexuality and the way in which she drops subtle hints about his dandy habits. It is upto the reader to ponder over what the two had been up to.
Paul is escribed as “theatrical,” (1) possessing a “hysterical brilliancy,” (1) and most importantly, having characteristics that are seen as “offensive in a boy. (1) The red carnations in his buttonhole are at the wrong place at the wrong time, just like Paul exists at a time when it is against the law to show his true nature, to be himself. We learn that, “he was a model usher; ring, similar gracious and smiling, he ran up and down the aisles; nothing was too much trouble for him; he carried messages and brought programs as though it were his greatest pleasure in life, and all the people in his section thought him a charming boy, feeling hat he remembered and admired them.
As the house filled, he grew more and more vivacious and animated, and the color came to his cheeks and lips. It was very much as though this were a great reception, and Paul were the host. ” (2) When Paul is in the hotel in New York, Cather articulately captures his whirlwind of emotions as she writes, “The boy set his teeth and drew his shoulders together in a spasm of realization; the plot of all dramas, the text of all romances, the nerve-stuff of all sensations was whirling about him like the snow-flakes.
He burnt like a faggot in a tempest. ” (7) In both these cases, Paul is fully in his own element, enjoying the glamorous aspects of the job or the hotel that drives overwhelming sensations in him. The reason he is so captivated by his job as an usher and the New York Hotel is because he longs for a different life from the one where he lives in fear of his father, away from his “loathing” of Cordelia Street. “He is in the omnipotence of wealth. (7) “He burnt on a faggot in a tempest” is not only notable because of the double meaning of the word ‘faggot,’ (a word which became coined as a slur towards gay men in 1914) but because he wants to be freely ble to express himself, to break beyond the shackles of society and stand out amidst the regular – just like his flowers. Perhaps the biggest connection between the carnations and Paul lies in similarities in both of their downfalls. Flowers provide a sense of warmth and beauty like no other, but they eventually die young.
Towards the end of his stay in New York, which happens to be the end of his life, Paul notices that “the carnations in his coat were drooping with the cold, the noticed, their red glory all over. ” (9) This again emphasizes the importance of the carnations’ symbolism. They have lost their finesse and suspicious’ nature, an essential driving force, just how Paul has reached the end of his stay in New York and is unmotivated to go back to Cordelia Street. He too realizes that life is short and his time is soon up as he too is “insensible to the cold. (9) Cather symbolizes Paul’s death by writing, “Paul took one of the blossoms carefully from his coat and scooped a little hole in the snow, where he covered it up. ” (9)
By the end of the story, it becomes clear to the reader just how vividly the carnations’ life and fate, and Paul’s own complete each other, just how Cather has designed their togetherness. The way the red carnations trike the eye and instantly stand out, Paul does the same as he carries grace and beauty in a way other boys his age do not. Paul’s Case” depicts the red carnations as “revolt[ing] against the homilies by which the world is run,” (9) similar to its main character. The carnations themselves are sensitive in their unique aesthetic glory, skilfully personified through Paul. There are certain dimensions of his character that cannot be stated in words due to the setting and the time the story was written, such as his homosexuality, and Cather’s execution of the metonym of the carnations and their symbolism work perfectly to fill in those blanks.