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Willa Cather’s Mastery of Symbols - an Exploration of Connotations of “flowers” in “paul’s Case”

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Willa Cather’s Mastery of Symbols

An exploration of connotations of “flowers” in “Paul’s Case”

Introduction

Willa Cather, one of the most distinguished American short story writers, is a great master of symbolism in her works and an expert in illustrating and magnifying her ideas with concrete terms. Among all her works, “Paul’s Case” is a splendid example for the meaningful employment of symbols served as a key element for the enunciation of the theme. Critics frequently mention Paul’s red carnation, as a symbol of Paul’s desire for beauty and, at the same time, his fragility. Actually, the recurring images of other flowers, like violets and jonquils, all reflect Paul’s craving for wealth and mirror his alienation from the world he lives in. In order to understand the story’s theme more comprehensively and profoundly, we need to further explore the underlying implication of the symbols in the story and the close connection between Paul and the flowers.

Body

I. Connotations of “flowers” in the short story

The first scene we see Paul is at the faculty room of Pittsburgh High School where Paul receives the inquisition from his teachers. Paul dresses somewhat like a dandy, with a trifle outgrown clothes and a red carnation in his buttonhole. This red carnation is an emblem of his alienation from the world of Cordelia Street and his fidelity to his craving for beauty, for Paul is always inclined to show that he is totally different from his neighborhoods who lead a mundane life of “ugliness and commonness”. Yet, this visual symbol irritates his teachers, who view the red flower as a sign of arrogance and defiance. They think this adornment is “not properly significant of the contrite spirit befitting a boy under the ban of suspension”, and “his whole attitude was symbolized by his shrug and his flippantly red carnation flower.” So they state their charges against Paul without mercy. Of course, the teachers don’t understand Paul at all. In their eyes, Paul is really a bad case for his various offensive misdemeanors. He is such a rebellious boy with disorder and impertinence that even his suave smile and graceful bow are but a repetition of the “scandalous red carnation”.

In fact, the red carnation is perhaps the only brightness in Paul’s drab Cordelia Street life. Cather contrasts Paul's two views of his world. Though the narrator explains it is a highly respectable street, the monotonous and colorless mass of everyday existence makes Paul feel repulsive. And Paul has his own views of his home: his ugly sleeping chamber; the cold bathroom with the grimy zinc tub, the cracked mirror, the dripping spigots, all of which are a contrast to Paul’s inner desire for beauty. Paul despises the mundane and conventional world he lives in and “has a morbid desire for cool things and soft lights and fresh flowers”. Here the flowers stand for beauty and luxury, something unique and bright, which can satisfy his ascetic sense.

Paul’s loathing of the Cordelia Street can be clearly seen in one detail of the story when he shakes over his fingers a few drops of violet water to avoid the greasy odor of the dishwater and the ill-smell of the soap. We can feel that Paul tries every means to isolate himself from the unbearable ugliness in his home and he believes that fancy things can make him become more artistic, just as the fragrance of the violet water may help him get rid of the odors.

In asserting his superiority over the confirmative middle class, Paul seeks to live in the world of arts. Just like the flowers blooming under glass case in the cold winter, Paul also feels alive only in artificial environments, such as the Carnegie Hall and the theatre. “The moment he inhaled the gassy, painty, dusty odor behind the scenes, he breathed like a prisoner set free, and felt within him the possibility of doing or saying splendid, brilliant, poetic things.” In contrast to the offensive cooking smells at home, the alluring scent, together with artificial lights and vivid colors at the theatre, makes Paul feel floating on the waves of beauty. The fantasy world Paul seeks for is again shown by the image of flowers. “(At the theatre, he found) these smartly clad men and women so attractive, that he was so moved by these starry apple orchards that bloomed perennially under the limelight.” The starry apple orchards represent those successful actors and actresses at the theatre. Paul admires these distinguished people and desires to enter this glamorous world of art.

Later we see that Paul is desperate after being expelled from school and put to work. However, when Paul embezzles some money and flees to New York for a week of luxurious living, he both puts into action his own aspirations and sows the seeds of his own destruction. The moment he enters his hotel room at Waldorf, to our amusement, Paul finds everything is just as what he expects except one detail that the place does not realize—the flowers. It is not until he rings the bellboy to bring a bouquet to his room that he finally feels everything is perfect. Meanwhile, the “violets and jonquils” in his room calm him and lull him to sleep with their fragrance. Paul is eagerly in need of these flowers as if they are his “talisman” that can ward off all his fear and restlessness. [1] These flowers indicate that Paul finally attains a brief peace in New York.

The true reason why Paul likes those flowers is revealed in the description of blossoms Paul sees on the Fifth Avenue toward the Park. “Here and there were stands, with whole flower gardens blooming under glass cases, against sides of which the snow flakes stuck and melted; violets, roses, carnations, lilies of the valley—somehow vastly more lovely and alluring that they blossomed thus unnaturally in the snow”.  The essence of these flowers is artificiality. In Paul’s world, the natural nearly always wears the guise of ugliness, that a certain element of artificiality seems to him necessary in beauty. These fragile flowers thrive all the year round, even in the chilly winter, under the protection of the artificial glass cases, and the same with Paul, who thinks he can escape from the ravages of Cordelia Street by living in the art world of opulence and splendor.

Unfortunately, Paul’s ephemeral moment of glory has to end, so does the “splendid breath” of the red carnation. Once his crime is discovered, Paul realizes the futility of his flight and the impossibility of escaping into a better world. “It’s a losing game in the end.” Paul thinks an environmental change is all he needs, but he is wrong. Just as the cut flowers cannot stay outside the glass in the winter for long, Paul cannot escape from the environment that nourishes him too. In the end, the drooping carnations show his depression and impending death. His burial of the red carnation in the snow is also an act of burying himself. Despairing of a return to a world he loathes, Paul plunges back, by his suicide, into “the immense design of things.” The theatricality here is that it is just this “design of things” that determines Paul's fate and tragic.  

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