“Paul’s Case” written by Willa Cather not only offers an entertaining read with content which at first glance can come off as merely a story, but when read closely it becomes evident that there are substantial themes being explored through Cather’s protagonist, Paul, along with his predicament. Paul, a young boy living on Cordelia Street, a place that quite inordinately contradicts his frequent exotic fantasies, sets course toward tragedy when he begins to realize he can no longer remain within the rigid dimensions set by his community’s perception of social norms.
Set in a Pittsburg town made up of cookie cutter homes, and where the children attend Sabbath school on a regular basis, Paul stands out with great conspicuity. One cannot help but ask, why? What makes Paul so different? The purpose of this essay is to explore varying critiques of Cather’s work in order to gain a better understanding of the purpose of the story. According to literary critics such as John P. Anders, Larry Rubin, and Jane Nardin, to name a few, Paul’s case can be directly associated with his presumed homosexuality.
Even further, each critic claims Cather’s potential homosexuality among several other influences manifest through the text. John P. Anders, author of Willa Cather’s Sexual Aesthetics and the Male Homosexual Literary Tradition, digs deep into several of Willa Cather’s novels and pulls sources from other critiques in support of his ideas regarding Cather’s “indirect articulation of homosexuality” (Anders 53) through a manner of aesthetics in a subsection he titled “Intimations of Homosexuality. Anders writes [b]y her own admission a practitioner of simplicity in art, Miss Cather affords the pleasures of uninvolved narration and yet embroiders and augments her stories with subtle layers of related meanings. Gradually, we felt that we were discovering a richness of aesthetic and idea in her novels which no single or superficial reading could possibly reveal (49). As an example of aesthetics in “Paul’s Case,” Anders quotes a passage written by Claude Summers who “stresses the subliminal impact of Cather’s language” (55): Throughout the story, Cather repeatedly uses diction suggestive of homosexuality.
Although in almost every instance the words are used with no specific allusion to homosexuality, the startling number and pervasiveness of such terms as gay (used four times), fairy, faggot, fagged, queen, loitering, tormented, unnatural, haunted, different, perverted, secret, love, and so forth create a verbal ambiance that subtly but persistently calls attention to the issue. However innocently used, these words and phrases appear too often to be merely coincidental.
They function to help establish the overtone by which the ear divines homosexuality in the text. (qtd. in Anders 55) She uses these words conspicuously throughout “Paul’s Case” in a manner that can be said to emphasize Paul’s homosexuality. Other language used by Cather hinting at Paul’s homosexuality can be found in the mere description of his eyes when Cather writes; “[h]is eyes were remarkable for a certain hysterical brilliancy, and he continually used them in a conscious, theatrical sort of way, peculiarly offensive in a boy” (Cather 2).
Both Anders and Summers focus heavily on the subliminal messages in “Paul’s Case” and discuss Cather’s potential motives as to why she keeps homosexuality inconspicuous throughout, but their assumed motives derive solely from external influences and so they fail to analyze the literary work through the lens of Cather’s purpose. What sort of statement is Cather making in writing “Paul’s Case? ” Larry Rubin is also cited within Anders’ work to help support his ideas on Cather, but vaguely at that.
Not only does Rubin’s piece on “Paul’s Case” offers resources to reinforce Ander’s argument regarding Paul’s homosexuality, but Rubin also suggests that “homosexuality does more in ‘Paul’s Case’ than describe its protagonist’s nature” (Anders 54). What are Cather’s reasons for writing in Paul’s potential homosexuality? Rubin offers insight in The Homosexual Motif in Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case. Cather illustrates “the tragic consequences of the conflict between a sensitive and hence alienated temperament, on the one hand, and a narrowly ‘moral,’ bourgeois environment, on the other” (Rubin 131). He then mentions how it is essential for one to understand and be fully aware of Paul’s homosexuality in order to better understand his “alienation from the ‘normal’ American society in which he feels trapped and hence the full pathos of his situation” (131).
According to these critics, one in fact cannot read “Paul’s Case” without keeping Paul’s sexual orientation in mind. But furthermore Cather seems to have planned her subtlety intently and purposefully to emphasize Paul’s suppressed anger and hostility which essentially says a whole lot about alienating those who are not considered of the social norm at a much larger scope. Cather writes; I don’t really believe that smile of his comes altogether from insolence; there’s something sort of haunted about it. The boy is not strong, for one thing.
I happen to know that he was born in Colorado, only a few months before his mother died out there of a long illness. There is something wrong about the fellow (Cather 8). Jane Nardin takes a historical approach in attempt to explain why Cather chose the manner in which she wrote about Paul’s sexuality. She claims: “we must examine the ways in which homosexuality was represented in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century imaginative writing, in order to understand why Cather chose to represent her protagonist’s sexuality through hints and innuendos” (Nardin 32).
Also, she suggests theories of contemporary sexologists may aid in comprehending why Cather attributed certain traits to Paul, and even goes as far as to posing the need to investigate “options” available to middle-class American homosexual boys in means to explain Paul’s actions (32). Nardin disagrees with both Rubin and Summers, calling their speculations vague, and declares “Paul’s characterization is related to a more inclusive set of historical circumstances” (32).
She continues on to expand effectively but a bit exceedingly and in essence over-analyzes, missing the importance of what Cather might actually be trying to get across to the reader. Cather undoubtedly succeeds in writing an entertaining, thought provoking piece of literature. All-in-all, each critic contributes a different outlook and a diversity of insight into the nature of Paul’s case. John P. Anders and Claude Summers provide valuable thoughts and ideas as to how Cather does in actual fact implicitly indicate Paul’s homosexuality.
Jane Nardin insinuates a more precise historical and geographical background is responsible for Cather’s manner of writing and can justify Paul’s actions. Larry Rubin, although a bit vague and brief with his deduction, gives the most significant meaning to Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament. ” Temperament refers to the mental, physical, and emotional traits of a person. With that in mind, Cather’s statement through “Paul’s Case” becomes a bit clearer. The importance lies in the realm of those seen as different within social norms.
Cather uses this story to emphasize potential consequences on individuals existing within social structures that excludes them and labels them as “abnormal” because of different forms of desire. With Paul’s suicide, she illustrates quite bluntly what the consequences on an individual can be if that same social structure doesn’t allow avenues for one to express their desires in positive ways. At first glance, “Paul’s Case” reads as entertaining, at second, some indirect sexual orientation is identified, and at third and fourth, her subtle hints become her own criticism toward society.