Response to “Paul’s Case.” The Willa Cather Short Story Project

Paul's Case McClure's Magazine
Paul’s Case was published in McClure’s Magazine in May 1905*

Of all Cather’s short stories, “Paul’s Case” is the one with which I’m most familiar. I won’t summarize the plot here since this post is intended for folks who have read the story.

I am of the school that thinks one the main reasons for Paul’s discontent is that he might be gay. He doesn’t seem to belong in his family or his community, which is a typical gay experience. Even today, as accepting as many people have become, the world still runs on heteronormative assumptions and expectations that make it challenging for non-heterosexuals to feel like they’ll find a place where they belong — this, on top of “normal” teenage discontent, is one reason for higher suicide rates among LGBTQI teens.

Reading “Paul’s Case” this time I saw more clearly how he’s been bullied and abused by his father for not fitting in to his expectations. And thinking about this, I was struck by descriptions of how much Paul smiles, as abused children often do. Paul is described as “nervously smiling.” He has an “uncertain smile,” an “unconscious smile,” and in the end a “frightened smile.” Early on the narrator says that, “Paul was always smiling, always glancing about him, seeming to feel that people might be watching him and trying to detect something.”

Although Paul’s teachers think his smile comes from insolence or “smartness,” the drawing instructor notes that, “there’s something sort of haunted about it.” Is it the haunted look of an abused child? They know they don’t understand him and, like Paul’s father, they don’t take the time to understand him. They chastise him for acting out, being different, and not falling in line.

Charley Edward’s, a performer at Carnegie Hall, is the only person who sees that Paul has a vocation for the performing arts. The narrator equates it to the religious calling of churchmen. Paul’s father, on the other hand, instead of trying to understand his son, wants to force the boy into a mold. There’s a particular young man in neighborhood who is, “daily held up to Paul as a model, and after whom it was his father’s dearest hope that he would pattern.”

This unnamed young man is, we’re told, barley 26 years old and already has four children. His boss, a rich steel magnate who is currently on his yacht in the Mediterranean, regularly advises his young male clerks to marry, and so the young man had married the first woman who would have him. (And, according to the narrator, she was no catch: an angular teacher who wears thick glasses and is older than her husband.)

Is Paul repelled by women, like that early scene when the English teacher touches his hand and he had “started back with a shudder”? Or is he repelled by touch in general? From abuse or perhaps from a lack of kind touch in his life? Either way, he knows that if he were to marry and have children at such a young age, he’d never have the life he desires. As much as he likes the stories about the rich steel magnates, those are the guys who need workers that are tied down, who’ll stay put. Class and labor issues side, it seems to me that Paul isn’t in the least sexually motivated.

Back to the father. Ideally, fathers want what they think is best for their sons. We all get that. But Paul’s father seems not to care about what his son wants or who he is as a person. He wants his son to fit into the community and that means a steel job, marriage, fatherhood. (Isn’t it interesting that the father hasn’t re-married?)

The scene where Paul would rather spend the night in a dark basement even though he’s afraid of rats rather than face his father’s wrath is intense. It seems a rather extreme reaction to avoiding typical parental frustration, which makes me wonder if the father is anything but typical. And then Paul worries that maybe his father heard him and will come down and shoot him by accident thinking he’s a burglar.

This is Paul thinking:

Then, again, suppose his father had come down, pistol in hand, and he had cried out in time to save himself, and his father had been horrified to think how nearly he had killed him?

That seems like the kind of wishful thinking a kid engages in when they’re not getting the love and attention they need. It’s the hope that a parent who doesn’t value you finally realizes how dear you are.

Paul’s next thought, however, is the stuff of terror:

Then, again, suppose a day would come when his father would remember that night, and wish there had been no warning cry to stay his hand? With that last supposition Paul entertained himself until daybreak.

After having thoughts like this, it’s little wonder Paul has a haunted look. There doesn’t seem to be textual evidence that Paul’s father is physically abusive, and perhaps he’s not maliciously emotionally abusive or neglectful, but for a child to think his father may one day NOT regret “accidentally” killing him speaks volumes about their relationship.

This is such a sad story and it seems to get sadder with each subsequent reading. Looking back, it’s nice to think of Paul having a few days where he felt that, “here it would be impossible for anyone to humiliate him.” A classic interpretation of his suicide is that there’s no place for gays in society at that time so they have to die, much like Edna Pontellier and other female characters who choose their own path but then pay for it with their death.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how this story ties into one of Cather’s artistic sentiments. She wrote to a friend in 1896,

There is no God but one God and Art is his revealer; that’s my creed and I’ll follow it to the end, to a hotter place than Pittsburgh if need be.

Cather was living in Pittsburgh when she wrote that letter. It seems she’s implying that she’d go to hell in order to follow her creed. In the Christian tradition, Hell is the destination for suicides. Earlier that year in an article Cather wrote that,

In the kingdom of art there is no God, but one God, and his service is so exacting that there are few men born of woman who are strong enough to take the vows.

It seems to me that Cather was exploring her creed with “Paul’s Case.” There’s that remark by Charley Edwards about recognizing in Paul “something akin to what churchmen term ‘vocation.'” Hinting at vows. We’re also told Paul isn’t strong. He lies all the time and then steals to grab a few glorious days of the life he’s always dreamed of.

When this story was first published it had the subtitle, “A Study in Temperament.” Perhaps the story isn’t so much about Paul being gay, but rather more about not having the right temperament to pursue art in a respectful, intentional — even godly — manner. After all, he does make a face at Augustus Caesar and apparently flips off the Venus of Milo as he runs down the stairs at Carnegie Hall. He also doesn’t reveal to anyone, not even Charley Edwards, his feelings for the theatre. Rather, he lives in a fantasy world. “It was at the theatre and at Carnegie Hall that Paul really lived; the rest was but a sleep and a forgetting.” Instead of figuring out how to live the life he wants, Paul daydreams.

But still, I can’t be too hard on Paul. It seems the deck is stacked against him. Wrong family, wrong community, wrong time-period, wrong temperament. I don’t know what I would have made out of this story had I read it in some high school anthology for English class. There’s certainly no sense of hope in the story. I’d be curious to know how contemporary teenagers respond to this story.

What do you think of Paul?

*You can see “Paul’s Case” as it appeared in McClure’s Magazine online. The story was not illustrated, but flip through and you’ll see lots of automobile and handgun ads. Click here.


  1. I really enjoyed this story, as sad as it was. Paul just did not fit in, and his father made no effort to understand him. I wonder if his mother had lived (or not left) would Paul have been better able to cope with his boring, uninteresting life until he was old enough to become who he felt he was supposed to be. I felt like he would have come back around and would have wound up backstage in a theatre or concert hall. I don’t know what to make of the Anna Karenina ending, except that, at the end Anna felt she could no longer live her “trapped” life and Cather may have used it to show that Paul could no longer live his “trapped” life.

    • It’s one of my favorites of Cather’s short stories. You make a great point about the Anna Karenina ending. I forget in what essay I read this, but the writer proposed that Paul didn’t use the pistol, which was his father’s, to kill himself in order to further distance himself from his father. It could also be that Cather is associating Paul with the feminine since readers might be familiar with Anna’s suicide. I really wish we could interview Cather on the Book Cougars to know her thoughts on this!

      • No, the pistol was not his father’s — he had bought it on his first day in NYC. Paul never takes responsibility for anything; jumping in front of a train is right in line with this since someone else does the killing. Also typical is that Paul has no thought of this person, the driver of the train. He thinks only about himself. He may be gay–he’s certainly gender non-conforming– but he’s also a textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder. A truly remarkable portrayal by Cather.

  2. I first read this story in my early 20s, and then watched the 1980 adaptation starring Eric Roberts. I’ll have to watch the adaptation again – it’s been so long, but I recall it was very well done.

    I agree, I think the main reason for Paul’s discontent is that he was gay, and that his fantasy life was his coping mechanism. Reading it again, I too recognize it as a much sadder story, and wish Paul could have held out until he could find a way to really escape his life and his father and perhaps find a way to make his way as an artist, and find a true family in a different place and environment. One of the last lines really hit me hard, “As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him and with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone.”

    I hadn’t thought about the connection to the ending of Anna Karenina. Interesting. Part of me wonders if at the end Paul’s suicide is an unfortunate part of his fantasy life. He sees ending his life in this manner as a grand dramatic moment, only too late recognizing that in reality he’s giving up his dear precious life. Yes, it would be wonderful if you could magically conjure up Cather for an interview on the Book Cougars!

    • Hi Robin! Yes, that line you’ve quoted is amazing. “Merciless clearness” is such a jarring wake up from the fantasy. I’ve only read half of Anna Karenina and don’t know the vibe of how her suicide is portrayed but I know I’ve read others that end with an attitude of the character ‘drifting to sleep in the soft embrace of darkness’ or some such nicety. Cather’s depiction seems to highlight the horror of suicide rather than the romantic fantasy.

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