One of the most notable thematic subjects in “Paul’s Case” is the idea of aesthetics and beauty. Aestheticism was a popular art movement which was supported most notably by Oscar Wilde. Wilde was also a proponent of the decadent movement which advocated for the pursuit of artificial luxury and hedonism. The style of the story borders on “purple prose”, overly detailed and descriptive, vividly describing every luxurious aspect of Paul’s hotel room. This is a common style of aestheticist and decadent literature.
Paul’s life can easily be seen as decadent. As soon as he manages to make off with a lot of money and escape to New York, he shacks up in a fancy hotel, buys even fancier clothes, and attends some very extravagant performances. Paul is even described as a “dandy”, a term most used to describe Oscar Wilde and his fabulous company. Perhaps Paul’s most direct connection to aestheticism and decadence is seen in this sentence, “In Paul’s world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness, that a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty”. This is pretty much a direct endorsement of aestheticism by Paul. In aestheticism, art and beauty is a means of escape from the ugliness of the natural world and that is almost precisely what Paul believes.
But why do we connect this short story to gay and lesbian literature? There is no direct discussion of Paul’s sexuality or love life. Maybe it’s because we view him as a tragic Oscar Wilde-esque figure who’s love for beauty leads to a tragic suicide. The natural world for queer individuals, especially in the time of Oscar Wilde and the time of “Paul’s Case”‘s writings, is extremely cruel. Wilde himself was imprisoned for sodomy. For these queer individuals, art and beauty provide a means to escape the harshness of a heterosexist world. Paul would rather die than go back to the drab heterosexual monotony of Cordelia Street.
- Why would you consider this story relevant to queer studies? Or why not?
- How do you view the character of Paul? Is he sympathetic? Tragic? Do you agree with the things that he does?