Bohemia Meets Presbyteria: Aesthetics in Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case”
“You must tell it in such a way that they don’t know you’re telling it, and that they don’t know they’re hearing it.”
Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark
First published in her 1905 collection The Troll Garden, Willa Cather’s early short stories are often described as fiction that predominantly deals with one overall grim topic: How an artist is undervalued by society, thus frustrated and finally destroyed by either his own depressions, society, or both (Carpenter 591). Those stories helped Cather, as Daiches claims, to justify her own status as a writer (146). However, “Paul’s Case” is not about the bitter life of an artist; instead, I rather like to suggest that it mirrors Cather’s ideas on the Bohemian lifestyle at her time and echoes her voice as a lesbian writer by revealing the strongly felt need to express a sexual deviancy that could not be expressed explicitly. As proven many years after the first publication of “Paul’s Case,” this text has, ironically gender- reversed, greatly contributed to the canon of male homosexual literature and thus deserves to be taken into queer account. A close reading of Paul’s deviancy, I hope to prove, reflects the Bohemian ideology of Cather’s time and shows that a mistreatment of deviant sexual identity is strongly in evidence.
Indeed, “Paul’s Case” offers its critic the possibility of various readings, a result which mainly roots in the author’s profound “tension between concealment and revelation” (Stout 88). On the one hand, Cather’s narrative indirection, her powerful silent rhetoric, questions the social construction of gender in her times; on the other hand, the author keeps this concern as a subtext to other motifs and thus makes it difficult to determine one overall explicit authorial statement. This circumstance makes it easy for the critic who prefers avoiding an examination of queer notions in “Paul’s Case,” even though this story has gradually emerged as Cather’s “representative gay text” (Anders 53). One of the more ignorant analyses is that by Rob Saari who, while comparing Paul to Narcissus, claims that the protagonist suffers from what contemporary psychiatry calls a ‘narcissistic disorder,’ a mental defect of which Paul would meet all known symptomatic criteria (Saari 389). The boy’s need for admiration, his sense of self-importance, his preoccupation with fantasies of success, power, and brilliance, or, to give another example, Paul’s taking advantage of others in order to achieve his own ends qualify for Saari to make Paul a case of severe mental illness. Thus, according to this critic, it would be difficult to feel sympathy for Paul; instead, Cather’s reader would have to follow the story through the teachers’ and/or the father’s eyes (390-91).
I argue though that Saari does not recognize the irony of the story’s title but takes it, contrariwise, way too serious; also, such a reading like his is only possible when ignoring the time in which “Paul’s Case” was written (namely, right after the famous Oscar Wilde trials which enormously shaped the homosexual discourse), when forgetting about the fact that Cather herself strongly struggled with her own deviant sexual identity, and, ultimately, when refusing to analyze the great number of stereotypical characteristics of both Bohemian lifestyle and male homosexuality in late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century Western society that are overall present in the text. The short story’s substance reaches much deeper than analyses like Saari’s point to; instead, a closer reading offers both a voicing of homosexual notions and the idea of Paul as a young adult who strongly deviates from his (Cather’s) culture, and thus exemplifies the tragic consequences of the “conflict between a sensitive and hence alienated temperament” and a “narrowly ‘moral’ bourgeois environment” (Rubin 131). In 1975, Rubin was the first critic who openly expressed a dominant homosexual motif in “Paul’s Case” (Anders 54). He pointed out that Cather wrote this story in the height of “Victorian repressiveness” and, consequently, found it “necessary to avoid altogether a direct confrontation with the question of her protagonist’s sexual nature” (127). Her used diction is, however, strongly suggestive of homosexuality, and a careful reading proves that the author has given her attentive reader all necessary clues to identify the protagonist as a gay male youth: Paul, approximately 17 years old, dresses like the typical dandy, wears, as Oscar Wilde regularly did, a red carnation in his buttonhole, and presents himself as a young man showing all stereotypical traits of effeminacy. The hysterical brilliancy in his eyes as well as the violet water reinforce his feminine nature, and, as Rubin also hints to, the Pittsburgh theater dresser and the Yale freshman from San Francisco are Paul’s only somewhat closer social relations (128-30). Moreover, not only Paul’s outward appearance and social contacts but also his inner anxieties hint to the idea of same-sex attraction and a nonconformist gender identity: Paul feels constantly haunted by an unnameable fear; a same-sex panic which was as unnameable as Oscar Wilde’s homosexual “Love that Dare not Speak its Name” and Willa Cather’s lesbianism, her, as she herself referred to, “thing not named” (Summers 106).
That there is no other role possible for Paul but that of an outsider is also reflected in language. After the interview with the principal, the boy does never speak again. His thoughts are revealed by an omniscient third-person narrator implying that even language is a social construction through which Paul cannot find himself expressed. The restricted polarities in speech are found in the comment he makes: “I didn’t mean to be polite or impolite, either. I guess it’s a sort of way I have of saying things regardless” (Troll 103). The only possibility is to be either polite or impolite, reflecting the “restricted polarities in speech” which “cannot embody his inchoate feelings just as the polarized social roles and gender identities he
confronts do not correspond to his inchoate desires” (O’Brian 307). Paul does not fit into the male role just as his feelings do not fit into the social constructed language; thus, it needs the third-person narrator to tell Paul’s story: He lets us experience the “tragedy of misunderstanding and weakness” and makes the reader “feel the relentless oppression of forces” (Dargan 318). The boy’s silence expresses his fears and incapability to adapt to the role society demands; he strongly suffers from the pressure his father and society put on him; Paul is thus forced to find his substitute in nonverbal expressions (e.g. art, music, theatre, perfume, or colors). He does not go to the theatre or the art gallery because he intends to become an artist; rather, Paul encounters a form of shelter in this artistic world, a place to withdraw from reality and, although he finds himself isolated there as well (because he himself is no ‘real’ artist), it is however the only place where he fits in, a place beyond binaries. Thus Cather shows how language is constructed by our cultural discourse rather than reflected by it and reveals her own personal dissatisfaction within the dominant cultural binary paradigms. She writes on her “resistance to the dualism which threatens to reduce human experience to passive observations of the material world” (Rosowski 6).
In addition to these given clues, the very title of the story already suggests a discourse on homosexuality since it couches in criminal and psychological terms; especially to Cather’s time, people were very much afraid of generic transmissions and inherited disorders, and the “Case” implies, definitely ironically though, that Paul is an enclosed pathological figure that needs medical treatment in order to be able to assimilate back into his conformist society. Moreover, the subtitle, “A Study of Temperament,” was in Cather’s time a well-known code for homosexuality (Summers 109), and words such as “gay,” “faggot,” “queen,” “unnatural,” “haunted,” “different,” “perverted,” or “secret love” enter into the picture too frequently in order to be just coincidental; in the nineteenth century, this diction had already been strongly connoted to sexual deviancy (Anders 60).
- Arbeit zitieren
- Anonym (Autor), 2005, Bohemia Meets Presbyteria - Aesthetics in Willa Cather’s "Paul’s Case", München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/162441