“Saying things regardless”: Transgression, capitulation and the rejection of conventional masculinity, gendered identity and heteronormativity in Paul’s Case

Cather’s Paul’s Case is a story of transgression; transgression of the law, of the moral imperatives of religion, of the code of honour and shame that typifies conventional gendered identities, both masculine and feminine, and transgression of normative gender and sexual stereotypes. Paul is presented as an unconventional boy, even to the extent of disturbing and perplexing his father and his teachers, both male and female, who cannot place him within the framework of a binary hierarchy of gender and sexuality: he is neither masculine, nor feminine; neither overtly heterosexual nor overtly homosexual, a boy who “made […] men and women alike, conscious of the same feeling of physical aversion.”1 Cather achieves this neutrality of gender and sexuality not necessarily directly through the content of her story, but through the language of her prose, which uses an omniscient narrator with Paul’s voice to describe the world and the events of the story.

In his eventual suicide, Paul believes that he is perpetuating a “revolt against the homilies by which the world is run,”2 against the “tedious moralising discourse”3 which prevents him from living in the way which he sees fit and constrains him by means of religious sensibilities, social conventions and legal restrictions. His ‘temperament’ is founded in “the nerveless sense of defeat, the hopeless feeling of sinking” which rises from his unwillingness or inability to comply with and situate himself and his identity within the “flavourless, colorless mass of everyday existence.”4 Cather demonstrates Paul’s rejection of and repulsion towards a binary system of gender difference through the language of her prose in three key ways: the portrayal and rejection of gendered identities, which pertain to all characters except Paul; the use of sexual language and images of transgression and excess which provide an alternative or opposition to gendered norms; and the objectification of beauty and ugliness as signifiers for individuality and commonality.

In ‘Paul’s Case’, every character except Paul is projected as a gendered stereotype; Paul sees himself surrounded by oppressive, all-encompassing and homogenous gender identities which he is unable to replicate or fulfil. Throughout the extract Paul is tormented by the homogeny of his surroundings, both physical and social, by the “respectable street where all the houses were exactly alike, […] large families of children […] all of whom were exactly alike as their homes”5. In a world of similarities, Paul’s character is not only ‘different’, but his individuality is smothered, “the waters close above his head” as he is forced to contemplate the “commonness”6 of the heteronormative, binary-gendered world which is typified by the images of christian and american masculinity in the “pictures of George Washington and John Calvin” which hang above that most intimate space, his bed. It is because of this invasion of a space which should be his, and should share his identity, with images of conventional masculinity that Paul is unable to face his “ugly sleeping chamber”7 - no longer his bedroom but a more formal space, one in which he still cannot be comfortable.

It is, perhaps, simplistic to describe ‘Paul’s Case’ as a story of “gay suicide”8. As intertwined as the two may be, it seems to me that ‘Paul’s Case’ is a story which examines gender more closely than sexuality. Paul is not overcome by repressed sexuality, or by an overwhelming desire which he cannot satisfy, but by a more complex struggle, a crisis of identity which he cannot suppress. He is not only repulsed by heterosexuality, although he does struggle to accept the traditional family structure, referring to the upbringing of children in a language more suitable to describing livestock (“businessmen… [who] reared large families of children9 [my italics]). He is more overwhelmed by images of overt masculinity and manliness, such as his father’s “hairy legs”, which are described as being “thrust”10 into his slippers - a word which hints at a violence and force which is alien to Paul, who prefers a world of “cool things and soft lights and fresh flowers.”11

It is in this same image that another of the preoccupations of Cather’s story is distilled: the idea of beauty as a relief from the monotony of the world which oppressively surrounds Paul. The idea is portrayed throughout the story in various manifestations, not only in the plot with Paul’s love for Opera and the theatre, but in language. In the extract, Paul equates “ugliness and commonness”12; the difference between what Paul sees as the ugliness of normality and the beauty of luxury that he longs for is also exemplified in the rhythm and flow of Cather’s prose. The stilted rhythm and harsh, hard sounds of Paul’s “shuddering repulsion for the flavourless, colourless mass of every-day existence” are opposed in the next phrase by the soft tones and flowing rhythm of the description of the luxury that he longs for, accentuated by the omission of commas and the repetition of the word ‘and’: “cool things and soft lights and fresh flowers.”13

Indeed, the ugliness of the world which he perceives around him becomes too much for paul, he feels “absolutely unequal […] to the sight of it all.” It is not only the internal ugliness, as it were, of a society which cannot allow him to perform his true gender, but the harsh physical ugliness which reflects, for Paul, the masculinity which surrounds him and to which he is expected to mould himself. He is unable to face “the cold bath-room with the grimy zinc tub, the cracked mirror, the dripping spiggots” not because of snobbery, but because they represent a masculine ideal of hardship, abstinence and modesty which he does not fit. Paul is repulsed not necessarily by the lack of commodity or luxury, but by the obligation to conform which is embodied in the uniformity of his physical environment; he is unable to be, as his neighbours, “of a piece with the monotony in which they lived.”14 It is precisely the respectability and moderation which he sees all around him, along with the idea of the institution of the heterosexual family as a cornerstone of society, which Paul rejects as a manifestation of a patriarchal society’s oppression of individuality, and whilst it is possible to formulate a reading of the text which identifies Paul as obsessed with material wealth and commodity, the luxuriant lifestyle about which Paul fantasises is as much about his longing for the freedom to express his gender and sexuality as it is a manifestation of capitalist greed.

Whilst I do not necessarily subscribe to the idea of ‘Paul’s Case’ as a story of repressed sexuality, I do believe that Cather’s use of language which implies sexual and material excess is crucial to an understanding of Paul’s ‘temperament’, and of Cather’s portrayal of gender identities in the text. Cather uses these words not only to imply a transgressive sexuality which is never made explicit, but to emphasise the incompatibility of Paul’s gender/identity with the social structures which entrap him. Words such as “orgies”, “debauch” and “morbid desire”15 distance Paul’s character from the christian-american norm which is embodied in the stories other characters. Cather also uses images of more mundane transgressions, such as Paul breaking into his basement, as metaphors for the far more serious transgressions which would fulfil his desires and comply with his identity. Her description of Paul’s reaction to his own illicit acts (“he stood, holding his breath, terrified”16) convey the dangers and difficulties inherent in defying the stereotypes of patriarchal/heteronormative society, and perhaps his success in this early ‘transgression’ paves the way for his later more serious “revolt”17.

The passage also highlights the thrilling possibilities of excess and transgression for Paul as a means of escaping the system which he cannot contemplate without a “shudder of loathing”18. Paul contemplates his lucidity and the stimulation that such transgressions provide him, the “experiences which made days and nights out of the dreary blanks of the calendar, when his senses were deadened”19. However, Cather is clear in emphasising that Paul is not unaware of the danger that these excesses imply. In supposing that his own father should easily mistake him for someone else, he implies the lack of common identification he feels, and the loss of his current identity that transgression would bring about. He envisions the danger of physical harm, implied by the scenario of his father failing to recognise him and shooting him. He also understands the more complex and emotional danger of rejection, that his father, not having shot him, would later wish him dead, and it is this idea of rejection with which “Paul entertained himself until daybreak.”20 Perhaps for Paul though, this kind of complete rejection, the idea of being cut loose from his family and his community, represents his only real chance of freedom - a chance which he is later denied, as he learns that his father has followed him to the city.

If we take ‘Paul’s Case’ as a story of transgression, his ultimate transgression is his suicide, in which he escapes definitively, and in the only manner available to him, the oppression of a society which does not accept his identity as valid. But in the moment of his suicide, he realises it as erroneous, he sees “the folly of his haste”21. His final act is to separate himself not only the world in which he feels he does not belong, but also his own identity and his right to live out his desires. Paul is no longer “saying things regardless”22, but finally conforming to the identity which society has forced upon him, performing the actions required for him to be regarded as a medical ‘case’, the victim of an affliction. Perhaps Paul’s suicide should be viewed not as a final act of subversion, but as an act of complicity with the social structure and mores to which, finally, he has submitted.


Beasley, Chris, Gender and Sexuality: critical theories, critical thinkers (London: Sage, 2005)

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble (London: Routledge, 2006)

Cather, Willa, Paul’s Case: A study in temperament (Kessinger)

Haralson, Eric, Henry James and Queer Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Nealon, Christopher, ‘Affect-Genealogy: Feeling and Affiliation in Willa Cather’, American Literature, 69 (1997), 5-37 (accessed online on 19.02.11, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2928167)

Whitehead, Stephen M. and Frank J. Barret (eds.), The Masculinities Reader (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001)

  1. Willa Cather, Paul’s Case: A study in temperament, p. 200

  2. Cather, p. 233

  3. Definition of ‘homily’ from OED Online

  4. Cather, p. 209

  5. Cather, pp. 208-09

  6. Cather, p. 208

  7. Cather, p. 209

  8. Eric Haralson, Henry James and Queer Modernity, page 137

  9. Cather, p. 208

  10. Cather, p. 209

  11. Cather, p.208

  12. Cather, p. 209

  13. Cather, p.209

  14. Cather, p. 209

  15. Cather, p. 209

  16. Cather, p. 210

  17. Cather, p.233

  18. Cather, p. 209

  19. Cather, p. 210

  20. Cather, p. 210-11

  21. Cather, p. 234

  22. Cather, p.202