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Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case”: A Study in Temperament Essay

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Updated: Sep 9th, 2021

“Paul’s Case” published in 1905 by Willa Cather is a short story that is often cited as Cather’s representative gay fiction and one that signifies Cather’s personal and artistic growth. It is the story of a depressed young man whose feelings of superiority and desire for the finer things in life make him a misfit in his world. Thesis: Paul’s Case deals with various themes such as illusion and reality, poverty and richness, art and boredom, father and son, homosexuality and alienation; – all of these themes are explored within the framework of Paul’s rebellion in a manner strongly suggesting that reality is relative to each individual.

The character of Paul is the main anchor of the story. Paul is a sensitive teenage boy longing to find meaning in his life through romance and art to escape the drab reality of his daily life. Paul prefers to live in a dream world of art, music, and beauty – rather than in the real world. Unaccustomed to receiving attention Paul finds it very much unnerving to accept the attention of his teachers at school. When his English teacher attempts to guide his hand while writing on the chalkboard. Paul withdraws in a shock, pulling away from his hands to his back. This incident gives a glimpse into the deep sense of alienation and vulnerability that Paul feels.

Cather describes Paul in three ways: in terms of how other people perceive him; in terms of his feelings and in terms of what he loves. The reader is first introduced to Paul in the high school principal’s office, and he is shown through the eyes of his teachers. Paul is, in his teacher’s opinion, a little odd. When he comes with his dad to the Principal’s office after being suspended, his attire and attitude seem little ostentatious, with “something of the dandy about him”; he wears a carnation in his lapel and an oval stud in his tie, and his unusually large eyes are also unusually brilliant and dilated, somewhat reminiscent of someone on drugs. In the context of feelings, we find that Paul dreads the idea of living in Cordelia Street. Paul never went up Cordelia Street without a shudder of loathing…. He approached it tonight with the nerveless sense of defeat, the hopeless feeling of sinking back forever into ugliness and commonness(117) After school, Paul works at the local performing arts theater, and here he is completely at home: “It was very much as though this were a great reception and Paul were the host.” He hands out programs “as though it were his greatest pleasure in life.” Of the three ways in which Paul is portrayed, the greatest emphasis is on what he loves, because Paul is a boy in love with many things. After running away from home and arriving in New York, the first thing he does with his stolen money is buying himself a “street suit,” a frock coat, dress shirts, a hat and shoes, silver brushes, and a scarf-pin. His room at the Waldorf conforms in every respect to the residence of his dreams except for a lack of cut flowers, so Paul immediately orders some. He drinks champagne, rides in carriages, dines to the accompaniment of a string orchestra.

Throughout the story, Paul is shown as a true sensualist. Each sentence of “Paul’s Case” is filled with the sensual: “Lulled by the sound of the wind, the warm air, and the cool fragrance of the flowers, he sank into deep, drowsy retrospection”; “the sight of it all; his ugly sleeping chamber; the cold bathroom with the grimy zinc tub, the cracked mirror, the dripping spiggots” (117). The author shares his world with us in the most graphic sensual way so much so that the reader can develop empathy for Paul as he decides to kill himself rather than go back to that soul-numbing world. In Paul’s view, the world of the theater sets is real life; the garish satins and rhinestones are real silk and diamonds, and the glamour of the actors and actresses is real class. The scenes of Paul’s schools and homes are described with the utmost drabness. His schoolroom had “bare floors and naked walls,” and teachers in “dull gowns” with “shrill voices”. Paul’s room has “horrible yellow wallpaper,” a “creaking bureau” and a picture of George Washington and John Calvin. Willa Cather also uses colors to bring out the contrast between the two worlds of Paul. The story refers to several colors, which symbolize his frustrations, feelings, and desires: yellow, blue, red, purple, and black. His upstairs bedroom is covered in dingy, old “horrible yellow wallpaper” (116).

In the picture gallery of Carnegie Hall, this introverted lad dreams of leaving Pittsburgh, exhilarated by “Raffelli’s gay studies of Paris streets and an airy blue Venetian scene” (114). He sits down before a “blue Rico” and loses himself (114). His imaginary world even includes a “blue-and-white Mediterranean shore” (120). By wearing the “scandalous red carnation,” Paul portrays his contempt, arrogance, and defiance to a society with middle-class values. The proud purchase of a new “red robe” in New York enables him to express his audacity in a daring way (123). While at the Waldorf, the “red velvet carpet laid from the door to the street” for him to walk up and down, proclaims his freedom (125). Red symbolizes Paul’s power of choice as he prepares for his grand finale. In New York, Paul was surrounded by all the beautiful people, fresh flowers, and champagne, Paul “felt now that his surroundings explained him. Nobody questioned the purple; he had only to wear it passively” (126). As Paul rides out of town, the black, dead weeds sticking up through the snow in the passing fields signify his approaching death. The author skillfully employs the metaphor of dying flowers and their burial by Paul to represent the fading rebellion of Paul and the tumbling of his dream world. As he jumps onto the railway track he gets “the disturbing visions flashed into black” (129). But the colors are soon back: “there flashed through his brain, clearer than ever before, the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands” (129) – symbolizing his power to carry his dreams to his death.

The story has a subtle undercurrent of homosexuality. There is a homosexual motif in “Paul’s Case” as can be seen in descriptions of Paul’s sexual nature, such as his physical appearance, social relationships, personal habits, and inner feelings, all of which, indirectly hint at Paul’s abnormality. Specific examples in the story include Paul’s theatrically expressive eyes, his use of violet water, friendships with boys his age or slightly older, and an “apprehensive dread” of “the thing in the corner” (114).

Particularly interesting among these suggestive details is Paul’s encounter with the “wild” ( 117 ) freshman from Yale. Throughout the story, Cather repeatedly uses diction suggestive of homosexuality: gay (used four times), fairy, faggot, fagged, queen, loitering, tormented, unnatural, haunted, different, perverted, secret love, and so forth.

The bustle of the city seems to be a teasing reminder that romance is near at hand and yet out of reach. Cordelia Street in a working-class section of Pittsburgh has all the “ugliness and commonness” which a sensitive boy like Paul resents coming back to after concerts at Carnegie Hall and glimpses of elegant life at the Schenley Hotel. His last moments are in the country. The last sentence of “Paul’s Case” seems to convey multiple meanings: the eternal cyclic rise and fall, interchange, and contrast of nature and man, and the idea of structure and pattern: “Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.”

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Willa Cather’s "Paul’s Case": A Study in Temperament." September 9, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/willa-cathers-pauls-case-a-study-in-temperament/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Willa Cather’s "Paul’s Case": A Study in Temperament'. 9 September.

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