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Thread: In Willa Cather's short story "Paul's Case" is Paul's sexuality that important?

  1. #1

    Red face In Willa Cather's short story "Paul's Case" is Paul's sexuality that important?

    Has anyone here read that story?

    Anyway, it's about a bourgeois Pittsburgh teenager who escapes reality by going to Carnegie Hall and later fleeing to New York.

    My English teacher pointed out that Cather was probably a lesbian and demonstrated how Paul, the character, was homosexual. She's extremely politically correct, and she made it out like the source of Paul's misery is his homosexuality.

    That's a bunch of bullcrap, in my book. Paul's problem is the banality of his bourgeois life, not his homosexuality. While Cather does hint that the character is a homosexual, it it not the point.

    Any thoughts?

  2. #2
    Ever Benevolent and Wise
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    While I haven't read it, from what you've written it's made me cringe, and I don't want to read it. However the bourgeois lumpen middle class dealing with homosexuality by `feminists' makes me cringe too.

  3. #3

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    Hello!

    Well, I read that story. I'm not much fond of it, but it made me think of something and that is not, for sure, his sexuality which is not so important. The important thing is contrast- his world of Romance and the Real world. Those two interject, and he can't fine any solution suitable for him except suicide. His world are Opera, Theatre, Arts... Note that he is slightly mentally disabled- his mouth twitches and his eyebrow...
    I hope I helped u!
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  4. #4

    paul's case

    I read the story, and I agree that Paul's "CASE" is that he is a homosexual, and he is seeking acceptance. He goes to New york to find others like himself, so he can be free and not feel like such an outcast. I believe the "fear" he had about the "dark corner" was his actual 'coming out'.....but hey, that's just my opinion.

  5. #5
    Paul may be gay, but I'm convinced that, that is not the main point of the story. He seems like he wants the fancy life, more than anything. He brags about luxurious trips, and the autographs he has. He's more interested in how people look and smell (and flowers), then trying to settle down to boring life. He also hates the tacky yellow wallpaper, and how "normal" his life is.

    Paul also seems really childish. He's afraid of the dark and rats. He wants to fit in with the 'in' crowd. He's imaginative; and a day-dreamer. However, he always appears calm and collected.

    I think he's truly afraid, though of the mundain lifestyle. It was the only fear that he couldn't continually face with a smile. Killing himself was the only answer, in his eyes.


    (I also don't think the issue of being gay/ fitting in is the biggest issue, because while in New York. Paul doesn't really associate with anyone (except the one guy). It's mentioned that he was content alone. He could use his imagination, when he was alone.)
    Last edited by thesuperbandini; 03-20-2007 at 12:15 AM. Reason: Clarification

  6. #6
    We are actually studying Paul's Case currently in my English Lit. class. The idea doesn't seem so much that he was or was not gay, but more the desparities in his life that he can not accept. Paul isn't poor, but more he is unaccepting. His father plays a large role in this story, Paul is just self-absorbed.

  7. #7
    dreamer genoveva's Avatar
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    Willa Cather was a lesbian. Read more here:
    http://www.uic.edu/depts/quic/history/willa_cather.html
    And, I agree, Paul's hinted at homosexuality is certainly not the main point of the story. Of course, it is a worthwhile element to explore academically.

    Isn't it interesting that Paul has yellow wall-paper in his upstairs bedroom that he can't stand? I wonder if Cather was influenced by Charlotte Perkins Gilman who published The Yellow Wall-Paper 13 years earlier?
    "I have so often dreamed of you that you become unreal." ~ Robert Desnos

  8. #8
    dreamer genoveva's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sutomore View Post
    Note that he is slightly mentally disabled- his mouth twitches and his eyebrow...
    I don't know that I would describe Paul as "mentally disabled" because his mouth twitches and of the way he raised his eyebrow. This merely illustrates his temperament. Remember the subtitle is A Study in Temperament. These are aspects that describe his nervousness, irritability, appetite for more...
    "I have so often dreamed of you that you become unreal." ~ Robert Desnos

  9. #9
    dreamer genoveva's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by linda1968 View Post
    I agree that Paul's "CASE" is that he is a homosexual, and he is seeking acceptance. He goes to New york to find others like himself, so he can be free and not feel like such an outcast.
    Although your interpretation of Paul's fear of the dark corner is interesting, I do not agree with what you have said above. He is not seeking acceptance on any level. He goes to New York only to put himself in the middle of everything. He is simply an observer, and wants to be. If you notice, He makes no effort to make friends or engage with anyone for the 8 or so days he is in the Waldorf hotel. (Sure he goes out one night with a guy, but that's minor.) It is enough for him to dress and act the part. He needs not engage at all with others to feel satisfied. Further, his time in New York is only a taste of artificial freedom. His money runs out (actually he dies with still $100), and the split second before he is killed, the text hints that Paul realizes he has made a mistake by killing himself: "As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone. There flashed through his brain, clearer than ever before, the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands."
    "I have so often dreamed of you that you become unreal." ~ Robert Desnos

  10. #10
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    "Paul's Case"




    To answer your question, I don't think that Paul's sexuality is important at all to the story, and I think it is a little bit of a leap to assume that he is homosexual. Sometimes teachers can thrust their own attitudes and orientations upon characters in works of fiction.

    Paul loved and craved refinement and beauty and loathed the ugly, the brutal and the mundane.

    In reading the posts I must admit that I am surprised at how many of you have read this story. I thought it was my secret. I love Willa Cather's works and had supposed this one was relatively unknown.

  11. #11

    Exclamation Gender in "Paul's Case"

    I have read and taught "Paul's Case" many times.

    It seems to me that one part of Paul's "case" is that he is gender-variant. There are NUMEROUS indications of this both in Paul's actions and in the wording Cather often uses when describing him. For instance, on the first page alone, she uses "hysterical" twice and "peculiarly offensive in a boy." Hysterical comes from the Greek "hyster," meaning womb. Could anything be MORE feminine?!

    Paul does things which are more "typically" feminine than masculine-- looks at women only for their clothing, goes shopping the first thing upon his arrival in NYC, uses violet water (which he hides at home, indicating he knows it's not "right"), etc., etc. To miss these and as many more such details is inexplicable in any reader, in my opinion.

    As in real life, though, Paul's case and ultimate suicide are determined not just by gender non-conformity but also by the rampant capitalism and fairly rigid class structure of his time, not to mention family issues. Paul also exhibits elements of narcissistic disorder and ADHD, both of which could make school frustrating in the extreme for him. But I cannot see how any of these other factors are asprominent as is his being gender-variant (which is often but not always indicative of homosexuality, as recent studies have shown).

    Paul may also be representative of the American who wants to "reinvent" himself -- and perhaps his life thus far has not prepared him to do it. But I still think the real hitch, even here, is that he acts -- due to his very nature -- outside the bounds of what society considers ok for males.

    Remember, he seems to always be looking around him and to see if people are watching him and trying to notice something. What could be more typical of the feminine boy (or masculine girl) in a society where gender-variance is considered a reason for people to kill you?! The very way he moves his eyes is considered "peculiarly offensive in a boy"-- I don't think any valid reading of the work can ignore that.

  12. #12

    For me, the sexuality issue jumped right off the page

    I taught "Paul's Case" to an advanced ESL class last year. I was teaching out of school-based curriculum that insisted on a particular book of stories which contained a somewhat modified version of "Paul's Case" for English language learners. When I first read it to get my lesson plans together, the idea that Paul was gay seemed to leap right off the page and was, for me as a reader, quite central to the story.

    I agree with some of the other posters that his drive to escape his bourgeois life and flee to New York to a world of culture, beauty and freedom is inextricably linked to his non-standard sexual identity. The protagonist's flamboyant style of dress, his penchant for opera and many other traits Cather gives him point toward some kind of alternative sexuality. While it's true that dressing flamboyantly and liking opera do not make a person gay, I believe Cather's use of these quirks in such a short, concentrated story are her way of indicating that Paul is deeply different from the people around him on some level; they don't accept him and he doesn't accept them either. Whether this is a case of a homosexual who is unable to "pass" for straight or someone who is gay and doesn't even know it, or someone who is simply too unusual for his surroundings, we may never know. Perhaps it was an ingenious move on Cather's part to give every reader something to identify with in Paul.

    If, like me, you believe Cather has written Paul as a gay character, it gives the story a realistic edge. Paul's flight traces quite literally a centuries-old (at least two centuries and arguably closer to three) journey of many American gays. I've never explored Willa Cather's sexuality, but something compelled her to write about the difficulties of someone whose sexuality at best makes others nervous and uncomfortable and at worst makes the person who doesn't fit a particular societal mold wish they could escape society permanently.

    The debate still rages about whether society's treatment of gays puts them at higher risk for suicide attempts than the general population, especially during their teen years, but I am inclined to believe this is true, given the cruel treatment that gays and young people who manifest non-standard gender traits receive in schools even today, in a supposedly more "tolerant" era than that of "Paul's Case."

    I decided not to bring it up myself and to leave it to my students to delve into this if they picked up on it, which they did. The class debate is beyond the scope of this post, but one student did point out that she thought Paul was gay, most agreed, while a few, like some on this board, disagreed and thought she was making a mountain out of a mole hill. It did give the class reading of the story a definite arc that some of the more flat readings of the semester didn't have, making it a more memorable reading than most from that textbook.

  13. #13

    Unhappy Paul is a narcissist

    I don't think Paul's sexuality is as important as the fact that he is clearly a narcissist. He assigns a great deal of importance to himself and believes he is much too good for Cordelia Street. He does not want to be an actor; he only wants to consort with the rich and settle among the glitz and glamour of New York. He never once considers the feelings of anyone else in the story--only his own.

  14. #14
    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    Your teacher is perhaps half right, though she worded it incorrectly. Cather was, indeed, a lesbian (there isn't much doubt about it really), and Paul has, and easily can be read as a homosexual. But from my understanding, the sense of detachment and dislike of the world from Paul's perspective, is a mix of boredom and loathing for the realistic world, and a longing for the glamorous world where he can do anything he wants, or be detached from reality, symbolized by the theatre. The theatre is quite an ironic symbol, given that the picture painted is one of the drama being closer to what Paul sees as ideal existence, versus his mendacious acting he puts on during the day for everyone else, which upsets him (perhaps this is where the homosexual elements come into play the most). The theatre represents the true "Paul" more than the bourgeois schoolboy does, and he takes the glamor and glitter of the theatre by stealing the money, enjoys it, and realizes that he does not want to return to the 'regular' world, the world of modernism, and therefore, realizing his time is up, commits suicide, and "finally feels pain" (I think that's the phrase Cather used - it's been a few years), implying that he finally achieved a sense of reality, caused by the finality and absoluteness of his real moments, and also by the physical pain.

  15. #15
    Quote Originally Posted by genoveva View Post
    Although your interpretation of Paul's fear of the dark corner is interesting, I do not agree with what you have said above. He is not seeking acceptance on any level. He goes to New York only to put himself in the middle of everything. He is simply an observer, and wants to be. If you notice, He makes no effort to make friends or engage with anyone for the 8 or so days he is in the Waldorf hotel. (Sure he goes out one night with a guy, but that's minor.) It is enough for him to dress and act the part. He needs not engage at all with others to feel satisfied. Further, his time in New York is only a taste of artificial freedom. His money runs out (actually he dies with still $100), and the split second before he is killed, the text hints that Paul realizes he has made a mistake by killing himself: "As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone. There flashed through his brain, clearer than ever before, the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands."
    Rather the writer was a lesbian is not an important factor to the anyalsis of this story. I don't see Paul as gay at all. The above is a correct assesment, Paul did not require the company of anyone but himself and his warpped sense of reality. If you will recall, "The members of the stock company were vastly amused when some of Paul's stories reached them-especially the women." Suggests he had a vivid imagination of women which denounces the fact he was gay. Celtik

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