The works of Willa Cather may be analyzed, or has always been looked at, through Cather’s own sexuality. Cather’s lesbianism provides an analytical tool, is in fact a piercing tool, which enables critics to put her characters and stories to light.
The short story “Paul’s Case” which was first published in 1905 provides an outstanding example of how queer theory and criticism has taken on sexuality in an attempt to articulate what was unsaid in the story itself. The development in this specific field of theory and criticism has changed drastically our understanding of homosexuality in literature.
Central to the short story is the suicide of the main character, Paul, for a variety of reasons it seems at first: boredom, failure in school, the theft he has committed and his father knowing about that act later on.
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But underneath all those, the motivation or the drive behind the act of killing himself proves to be masked and left not said in the entire story. Why did Paul kill himself, really? One gets the sense that it wasn’t because of any of the acts he has committed because the author herself leaves traces and marks that ask readers more questions instead of giving them answers.
A struggle seems to be happening within Paul himself. This is where queer theory comes in. What was it he was reckoning with? What were those forces? This for sure would lead us to some rational sense of why he did what he did.
For Cather critics one of her more important and articulate expositions of the homosexual nature of her works was her insistence on “the thing not named” which is distinct from known fictional elements (Anders 3).
Roger Austen sees a homosexual current in Paul’s Case in Cather’s attempt to paint a picture of sensitive young males who were raised in small towns and who were trying to live in the big cities. Austen believes that while this in itself does not explicitly mean homosexuality, some of those sensitive young males were in fact gay. He believes that Cather writes “with photographic realism” about these men “who were unlucky enough to have been born and raised in a provincial environment” (Anders 53).
For Larry Rubin, another critic, Paul’s homosexuality is shown by Cather when she left some distinct clues in the story that leave its readers asking. Rubin considers the Yale freshman, for example, and the incidents surrounding Paul’s encounter with him to be in fact Cather’s way of informing readers, though not explicitly, of Paul’s sexuality (Anders, 54).
The issue of homosexuality, however, is coupled with other issues as well, and Rubin focuses on how young men like Paul are torn between their sensitive nature and the morality imposed by society. More importantly, Rubin sees the problem of alienation of these same young men from what is considered normal.
Finally, Claude Summers argues that Paul’s Case is a wonderful example of a homosexual story, not just because it has clues that lead readers and critics to such an assumption, but because this work enables Cather, through “diction suggestive of homosexuality” (Summers 67) to have her take, in the form of a commentary, on society in general.
- Anders, John. Willa Cather's Sexual Aesthetics and the Male Homosexual Literary Tradition. USA: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.
- Summers, Claude. A Losing Game in the End: Aestheticism and Homosexuality in Cather's ‘Paul's Case’ from Modern Fiction Studies 36, no. 1, spring 1990.