Paul S Case Critical Essays

"Paul's Case" by Willa Cather

A note in the back of Reed Woodhouse's surprisingly good, informative, readable and, yes, entertaining critical study Unlimited Embrace led me to Willa Cather's 1905 short story "Paul's Case." This century-old tale of an alienated young man's brief criminal career and its tragic end (a precursor to Salinger's less tragic Catcher in the Rye) remains of interest today largely because Cather's text is a veritable compendium of fin de siècle homosexual signs. The old gay gang's all here: a red carnation in the buttonhole, dandyish dress, opera, theatre, urban sophistication, outsider status, alienation, criminality, juvenile delinquency, violation of the 'work ethic,' social bounding, a Huysmanian preference for the artificial over the natural, personality as performance, etc., etc., etc. Given the strict censorship that reigned over American magazine fiction 110 years ago, there is of course no explicit mention of sex in the story and hardly a hint of homosexuality, but the semiotic texture of the tale fairly screams Paul's gayness from the top of a Met-worthy soprano's lungs. At one frenetic point in the tale Cather even, rather unfortunately, says of her protagonist, "He burnt like a faggot in a tempest." To our post-Larry Kramer eyes, that looks like a comically obvious wink, but Cather's 1905 usage might have been at least partly innocent. Maybe. Still, we must ask: in a story so drenched in homosexual innuendo, can the word 'faggot' truly be used to mean a stick of wood and only a (phallic) stick of wood? Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar, as Sigi said, but not in this story.

Cather writes here with characteristic restraint. She implies, she understates, she hints, believing that it is important to leave the reader to figure things out and become actively involved in “making” the story. The author purports to be writing a case history and thus aims for an emotionally detached quality in the style. She wants to let the facts speak for themselves, and she concludes without diagnosis or explanation. In spite of her desire not to appear to take sides or to prejudice the reader’s judgment, the nature of this writing brings one close to Paul and not to anyone else. By making the reader intimate with Paul’s thoughts, perceptions, and feelings, she draws the reader’s sympathy to him. The author takes the role of omniscient narrator, so that when she says, “in Paul’s world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness,” she justifies Paul’s need for artificial beauty. Paul may be deluded and extreme, but the author’s facts about his ugly world are not to be disputed.

Cather also has a special talent for creating the visible, an eye for that detail or mood or scene that calls on her talent and experience as a journalist when she wrote for a Pittsburgh paper and later for McClure’s magazine. She characterizes Paul’s thoughts of home by “damp dish towels” and shows the reader the champagne in his glass at his hotel dinner as “cold, precious, bubbling stuff that creamed and foamed in his glass.” By the use of such images and the vivid language conveying them, Cather is able to convey what Paul sees and feels and how intense the conflict must be that causes him to want to die rather than return to the flatness and drabness that he has managed to escape for a little more than a week.

It is interesting to note that the case history had become a vigorous form of psychological writing in the later half of the nineteenth century and has in the twentieth century established itself as a major story form, particularly in the genre of crime and detective fiction. Clinical case histories have escaped the confines of medical reports and obtained a wide, popular audience.

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