Irony and Symbolism in Willa Cather's Paul's Case
"Paul's Case," by Willa Cather, is a story that deals with a young boy who does not feel that he lives a life befitting of him. Upon a close reading, it is evident that "Paul's Case" is ruled by irony and symbolism, which are apparent in the story through the words of the narrator. The irony woven throughout the text builds up to an epiphonic moment, a main paradox in the story, which reveals to the reader Paul's true nature.
Paul believes that everyone around him is beneath him. He is convinced that he is superior to everyone else in his school and in his neighborhood. He is even condescending to his teachers, and shows an appalling amount of contempt for them, of which they are very aware.
In one class he habitually sat with his hand shading his eyes; in another he always looked out of the window during the recitation; in another he made a running commentary on the lecture, with humorous intention.
Paul wanted everyone to think he was better than they were. Not only did he try to dress as if he were rich and important, his very actions displayed a great amount of disdain for everyone around him.
Paul sees himself as superior. He carries himself with a haughty countenance and air about him, apparent in the description "Paul entered the faculty room suave and smiling." His attempts to portray himself as elegant is obvious in the adornments with which he tries to accentuate his attire: "he wore an opal pin in his neatly knotted black fourin-hand, and a red carnation in his button-hole." The irony in Paul's self-delusion lies in the way he is, in reality, seen by the rest of the world. While he thinks that he is dapper and winning in his ornamented garb, the reader is informed how Paul is seen by everyone else, "His clothes were a trifle out-grown and the tan velvet on the collar of his open overcoat was frayed and worn... Paul was tall for his age and very thin, with high, cramped shoulders and a narrow chest."
There are several instances of this contrast between Paul's self perception and the perception of Paul by the people around him. The irony in these situations is that Paul wants to be seen in a particular way -- he perceives himself to actually be that particular way -- while it is obvious to the reader that he is seen quite differently by those around him.
Paul thought he was important and should be admired like the people on stage in the place he worked. The irony is that he worked for those kinds of people (the rich, privileged, haughty, admired)... he was a servant who seated them, he was not one of them. He thought that because he was allowed into the theater with them, since they were in the same place, that they were equal. However, in reality the guests and Paul were admitted to the theater under different circumstances: Paul's being one of servitude while the guests were those served by Paul. "It was very much as though these were a great...