Although not directly involved with Grant and Jefferson, Paul is one of the key characters in the novel. Along with Miss Emma, Paul symbolizes the hope of the Civil Rights movement, which promised to transform the social, political, and economic relationships between blacks and whites.
As noted in the Introduction to the Novel section, the theme of transformation pervades the novel. To understand Paul's pivotal role in the transformation process, we must analyze three key aspects of his character: the symbolism and allusion surrounding his name; his role as a white authority figure; and his attitude toward Grant, Jefferson, and Miss Emma.
In literature, and especially in African-American literature, names often provide insight into a character's soul. In this novel, Gaines places special emphasis on Paul's name. Recall that even before Paul invites Grant to call him by his first name, Grant tells Vivian in Chapter 9 that he dreams of naming his future son "Paul." Keeping in mind Grant's ambivalent attitude toward religion, as demonstrated by his confrontation with Rev. Ambrose, it is significant to note that the biblical Paul is one of the most influential figures of the New Testament. The story of his miraculous transformation from Saul of Tarsus, a persecutor of the early Christians, to the Apostle Paul, a devout Christian and disciple of Jesus Christ, is often cited as one of the most inspiring testaments to the power of Christ. To countless Christians, Paul's life exemplifies hope and illustrates not only the changes that can be wrought in one individual's life based on faith, but also the profound impact that one individual can have on the lives of others. At the end of the book, as Paul Bonin bears witness to Jefferson's "death and resurrection," we see Paul accepting the same role as the biblical Paul in bearing witness and spreading the truth.
In the novel, Paul Bonin's role as a white authority figure is also significant. Although he takes his work seriously and performs his prescribed duties, such as inspecting the food brought into the jail and searching Jefferson's visitors, he makes an effort to break down the barriers between him and Grant and demonstrates his concern for Miss Emma. He also jokes with the prisoners and does what he can to treat them as men rather than as caged animals.
Just as Miss Emma signals Vivian's acceptance into the community of women (Chapter 9), Grant signals Paul's acceptance into the community of men by encouraging Jefferson to trust Paul. (Note that, on numerous occasions, Miss Emma refers to Paul as being "from good stock," indicating that, like Vivian, he is "quality" folk.) Jefferson accepts Grant's judgment, since he trusts Paul with his diary and offers him the radio, his most prized possession. Since Paul personally delivers the diary to Grant, we realize that Jefferson's trust has not been misplaced and that Paul genuinely values his friendship with Grant and Jefferson.
Paul's role is also significant in that it challenges the stereotype of the racist white Southern law officer. In this capacity, Paul's role is comparable to that of Gil Bouton, a character in Gaines' fifth novel, A Gathering of Old Men. Like Paul, Gil, a young white male, also demonstrates his respect and commitment to his black friend, Cal Harrison.