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The Significance of the "Flower Scenes" in Willa Cather's "Paul's Case"

Willa Cather mentions flowers so often in "Paul's Case" that the reader is forced to reflect a bit on the metaphorical or symbolic meanings of all these carnations, roses, jonquils, violets, and lilies-of-the-valley. There is, of course, the general and rather obvious suggestion that Paul's glorious, fairy tale-like holiday in New York will be as temporary as the flowers which quickly droop and wilt in the cold air, "all their red glory over." Cather, however, repeatedly goes beyond that sort of general and obvious symbolism; she also uses flowers to enrich the significance of specific "flower scenes" in the story.

The first of these scenes begins in the first paragraph of the story where we see Paul showing up for a meeting of the Pittsburgh High School's faculty. He has already been suspended from school and is in serious trouble. He should be dreading this meeting that had caused older boys than Paul "to break down and shed tears under that ordeal." Paul, however, has dressed up in his finest clothes and has popped "a flippantly red carnation" into the buttonhole on his lapel. It is clear from that image that Paul's attitude is as out of place as the "scandalous red carnation." In this case, Cather uses the red carnation as an image for Paul's arrogant attitude toward the teachers and towards school in general.

Another "flower scene" takes place when Paul checks into his hotel room in New York and finds that "everything was as it should be" except for one detail, that is, there are no flowers in the room. It is the dead of winter, and the snow is falling so heavily that Paul can scarcely see across the street from the window of his eighth-floor room; nevertheless he orders flowers, and gets them -- fragrant jonquils and violets. Later that evening when Paul takes a carriage ride through the fanciest part of the city -- up Fifth Avenue toward Central Park -- he sees many flower shops,

whole flower gardens blooming behind glass windows, against which the snowflakes stuck and melted; violets, roses, carnations, lilies-of-the -valley -- somehow vastly more lovely and alluring that they blossomed thus unnaturally in the snow.
To Paul, New York is a magical place where flowers bloom in the snow. These flower images suggest that only those with enough money can create and maintain such an artificial or " unnatural" fairy tale world, the only kind of world where someone like Paul could ever be happy.

At the end of the story, Paul has spent nearly all of the stolen money that keeps his fairy tale adventure alive, and he has learned that his father is on the way to New York to find him and bring him back home. But Paul has no intention of returning to the dreariness and misery of the "real world" back on Cordelia Street in Pittsburgh, so the final "flower scene" of the story is the account of Paul's suicide. As Paul leaves snowbound New York to wander out into the countryside, he stops one last time to buy carnations from a "toothless old woman," a figure which might remind us of the evil witch in Snow White whose beautiful apple is really full of poison. As he wanders along the railroad track a little later, he notices that the carnations are wilting in the cold air just as all the beautiful flowers he had seen along Fifth Avenue a week earlier will have wilted by now. Paul realizes that both for the flowers and for himself, "it was a losing game in the end." In his last few moments, he plucks one of the wilting carnations from his lapel and buries it in the snow. Paul's dreams are now symbolically dead and buried, and a few moments later Paul and all his dreams are quite literally dead.

So the story begins and ends with a carnation and there are other "flower scenes" in between. Each of these scenes advances our understanding of Paul's unusual character and his fairy tale view of the world. In the end, Cather seems to be telling us that just as there is no happily-ever-after for the fragile beauty of flowers neither is there any happily-ever-after for dreamers like Paul.

To read other essays about "Paul's Case," click on the links below:

The Artist in a Hostile Society: A Reading of Willa Cather's "Paul's Case
"Paul's Case": The Adolescent as Tragic Hero