I opened “Paul’s Case” with an expectation.

Everything we have read in this class thus far has revolved around a voice or character with openly ‘queer’ characteristics. As I first began to read “Paul’s Case,” I expected Something Gay to happen. I know, I know, I was stereotypical and prescriptive. “Paul’s Case” briefly mentioned his interest in a man, but it did not meet my expectation for explicitly stated sexual deviance.

Willa Sibert Cather was born in 1873 in Virginia. Cather grew up on the prairies in Nebraska, and was best known for writing about life on the American Plains. While attending the University of Nebraska in the 1890s, Cather was known to wear masculine clothing, go by the nickname William, and wear her hair in a short men’s style. Cather also had close relationships with many women and lived with a woman by the name of Edith Lewis for 39 years. However, Cather was a very private person and destroyed almost everything that she didn’t publish. Thus, it is not certain that Cather had sexual relationships with women, but many literary historians still like to read her work with a queer perspective.

Willa Cather published “Paul’s Case” in 1905 in McClure’s Magazine. The story is unusual yet simple. A boy named Paul desires a “beautiful” expensive life and detests his “ugly” albeit comfortable life. He causes a variety of small trouble, which escalates to him stealing $10,000 and running away to New York to live out his fantasy. When confronted with the return to normalcy, he commits suicide by jumping in front of a train.

Common analysis of “Paul’s Case” is as a literal ‘study of temperament.’ However, I personally found Paul’s case to parallel that of a person struggling with modern society’s prescribed heteronormative gender roles.

Paul’s social class is what defines him. He shouldn’t go to the opera except as an usher. He shouldn’t wear luxurious clothing. He shouldn’t dine in exclusive restaurants or stay in the fanciest hotels.

Paul does what he can, though. He wears a crimson carnation on his shabby coat in crude mimicry of formal wear. He works as an usher to get close to the people living the life he desires. He lies and cheats and steals to get a chance at his dream. When confronted with the return to his prescribed life, he takes his own life rather than succumb to social order in a final stand against throwing his dreams away.

Let’s compare to the expected life of a woman in the early 1900s.

Gender is what defines social order. She shouldn’t work outside of the house. She shouldn’t wear trousers. She shouldn’t wear her hair in a man’s hairstyle. Hell, she shouldn’t even have her own sexual desires at all, so she clearly shouldn’t desire women like a man does.

So what can she do? She can live a very private life and do all of these things she shouldn’t.

She could even pull a Paul and lie, steal, or even run away to live the “beautiful” free life that a man can. She can dream all she wants of living this masculine existence, but she shouldn’t.

So where am I going with this conspiracy theory?

I liken “Paul’s Case” to the life of a person experiencing gender dysphoria and struggling with their own gender expression. Society confines us with crude categories like class and race and gender. These social constructs are what keep everything aligned and in proper order, but they can also tear people down on a personal level. It is possible that Cather may have written her questioning of heteronormative gender roles into Paul’s character and used his fight against social class as a metaphor for our greater battles with social order.


Discussion questions:

Paul struggles with his social class and society’s expectations of him. What kinds of other struggles do you think that Paul’s Case could parallel?

How did you feel about Paul’s father paying back the money that his son took and coming to retrieve Paul? What do you think was Cather trying to achieve by including this information in the story?


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