The Execution of a Homosexual in Cather's “Paul's Case”

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William Thomas Moore
The Execution of a Homosexual in Cather’s
“Paul’s Case”
Starting in 1975, many critics have interpreted Paul, of Willa
Cather’s “Paul’s Case,” as a homosexual, reading his suicide at the end
of the story as a comment on the forces of alienation and stigmatization facing a young homosexual man in early 20th-Century America
(Nardin 31). I find these interpretations compelling, but incomplete.
Paul is portrayed not only as a homosexual, but also as a criminal, in
everything from the words authority figures use when condemning him
to the fundamental plot structure of the story. At the most basic level,
“Paul’s Case” begins with a trial and ends with a gruesome death. Between condemnation and death, Paul’s life is dominated by sensations
of surveillance and imprisonment. When we bring Paul’s criminalization to bear on his homosexuality, we arrive at a useful reading of the
phenomenon of adolescent gay suicide: suicide as public execution.
In this essay, I will draw on Michel Foucault’s theories of imprisonment, surveillance, and execution, as laid out in his work Discipline
and Punish, in order to understand “Paul’s Case” as the condemnation,
imprisonment, surveillance, and public execution of a homosexual.
Foucault’s theory of the Panopticon is useful for understanding how
Paul comes constantly to assume the threat of surveillance and thus
to enforce the dominant culture’s gender binary upon himself. Paul’s
self-policing culminates in his self-execution, which serves not only
as an enforcement of normative sexuality but also as a public reaffirmation of the dominant culture’s unchallengeable power to crush deviance.
Although Cather never explicitly announces Paul’s homosexuality, heavy hints are dropped, and a reading of Paul as a homosexual becomes compelling if we contextualize the story with regard to
Cather’s larger project. In her work “Willa Cather: Queering America,”
Marilee Lindemann argues that Cather’s writing is animated by a desire to destabilize dominant American norms of sexuality and gender
(114). It was widely known during Cather’s lifetime that Cather was
a participant in a so-called “Boston marriage” with her companion
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Margaret Bourke-White
American, 1904–1971
Village School, Kolomna, Volga Region, ca. early 1930s (negative)
Gift of Albert G. Preston, Jr., Class of 1935
Photograph courtesy of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art,
Cornell University
Louise Pound. Although Cather went to some lengths, in her later years,
to protect her privacy and conceal her sexual orientation, biographers
have now come to a broad consensus on Cather’s lesbianism and her
opposition to the heteronormativity of American culture (Lindemann
5). In a private letter to Pound, Cather writes that it is manifestly unfair that “feminine friendships”—a phrase that Cather herself places in
euphemistic quotation marks—should be deemed “unnatural” (Lindemann 19). In response to being “queered,” as Lindemann puts it, by the
dominant culture of America (that is, being labeled as deviant), Cather
uses her writing to “queer” America, to destabilize American discourses of heteronormativity. To portray a homosexual adolescent’s suicide
as an execution carried out in the name of gender norms thus fits into
Cather’s larger critique of American culture.
Willa Cather’s half-secrecy surrounding her own sexual orientation is mirrored in her partial concealment of Paul’s homosexuality.
Jane Nardin argues that this concealment is made necessary by Cather’s literary context, within which overt references to sexual “deviance” relegated fiction to the realm of “popular” fiction at best, and, at
worst, the realm of pornography (34). In order to communicate Paul’s
homosexuality to perceptive readers without compromising her work’s
status as “serious” fiction, Cather taps into the language of sexology,
the pseudo-science of sexual “deviance” popular in the late 1800s and
early 1900s. Paul’s “high, cramped shoulders” and “narrow chest,” as
well as his medical history involving the early, traumatic death of his
mother, recall sexological case studies of sexual deviants, a discourse
that would have been familiar to those portions of Cather’s audience
whom she wanted to pick up on Paul’s homosexuality (Nardin 36).
“Degeneracy theory,” the theory of sexual deviance dominating sexology at the time Cather wrote, is of particular relevance to our study
of Paul’s criminalization and execution. Degeneracy theory holds that
psychiatric and medical problems are transmitted by birth and progressively worsen over the course of generations; moreover, this progressive degeneracy is to blame for both sexual deviance and criminal
behavior. Thus, in the discourse Cather references to suggest Paul’s
sexual orientation, there is already an implicit connection between homosexuality and criminality.
In the trial at the beginning of “Paul’s Case,” Paul’s teachers criminalize his gender non-conformity, on the most basic level of physical
appearance and mannerisms. Our first introduction to Paul characterizes
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him as a defendant appearing in court. The story begins, “It was Paul’s
afternoon to appear before the faculty of the Pittsburgh High School to
account for his various misdemeanors” (93). What follows, however, is
not a list of infractions against school rules, but rather details of Paul’s
demeanor. The teachers themselves have a hard time articulating why
they see Paul as a criminal. At the beginning of the trial, Cather writes,
“His teachers were asked to state their respective charges against him
. . . . Disorder and impertinence were among the offenses named, yet
each of his instructors felt that it was scarcely possible to put into words
the real cause of the trouble, which lay in a sort of hysterically defiant
manner of the boy’s” (94). The teachers have a hard time articulating
Paul’s crimes because Paul transgresses not against written laws, but
rather against unspoken norms about physical masculinity. We are told
that there is “something of the dandy about him” and that he uses his
eyes “in a conscious, theatrical sort of way, peculiarly offensive in a
boy” (93). The implication is that his effeminacy constitutes his main
offense. Throughout the trial, such descriptions are interwoven with
interrogations and punitive lectures by the teachers. Cather describes
how they “fell upon [Paul] without mercy, his English teacher leading
the pack” (94). This description of punishment is quickly followed by
another physical portrait: “[Paul’s] lips were continually twitching, and
he had a habit of raising his eyebrows that was contemptuous and irritating to the last degree” (94). Paul’s most trivial physical mannerisms,
like raising his eyebrows, are characterized as acts of active malice
and contempt. The phrase “to the last degree” already suggests a legal taxonomy being applied to Paul’s mannerisms. By literally putting
Paul on trial for his gender non-conformity, Cather draws a compelling
analogy between the criminal’s relationship to the State and the deviant’s relationship to the dominant culture.
Although the teachers find Paul “guilty,” he leaves the trial unbroken, his punishment incomplete. Cather writes, “Older boys than Paul
had broken down and shed tears under that baptism of fire, but his set
smile did not once desert him, and his only sign of discomfort was
the nervous trembling of the fingers that toyed with the buttons of his
overcoat, and an occasional jerking of the other hand that held his hat”
(94). Note, again, the juxtaposition of punishment with descriptions of
Paul’s mannerisms. We shall return to the image of a “baptism of fire”
later, when we deal with the imagery of Paul’s suicide/execution. The
immediately relevant point here, though, is that Paul’s punishment,
an afternoon of being shouted at by authority figures, is ineffective.
The teachers leave the building “dissatisfied,” “unhappy,” and “humiliated,” while Paul “[runs] down the hill whistling . . . looking wildly
behind him now and then to see whether some of his teachers were
not there to writhe under this light-heartedness” (Cather 95). Part of
the problem, from the teachers’ perspective, is that they are trying to
enforce subtle cultural norms, such as how to dress and how to raise
or not raise one’s eyebrows, within a legal, authoritarian setting, i.e., a
student’s trial before his teachers. The teachers themselves are at a loss
regarding exactly what to punish Paul for. Gender conformity relies
not so much on legal power as on self-enforcement, on self-regulation
inspired by a sort of discursive power. According to gender activist
Riki Wilchins, “This kind of discursive power does not operate from
‘the top down’ but from ‘the bottom up.’ It is not central, but diffuse
and capillary. It is not held by authorities and institutions; rather, it is
held by no one but exercised by practically everyone” (63). This is not
to say that Paul does not have gender norms imposed upon him, only
that the imposition happens diffusely, through discursive forces that
pervade the culture surrounding him.
In understanding how the dominant culture enforces its gender
norms, I find Michel Foucault’s theory of the Panopticon instructive.
The Panopticon is a prison originally conceptualized by Jeremy Bentham, in which prisoners are kept isolated and constantly under the
threat of surveillance (Foucault 200). The prisoner need not actually be
watched at all times; it is enough that the prisoner could be watched at
any time, and does not know at any given moment whether or not he
or she is being watched. The effect of the Panopticon, Foucault writes,
is to “induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (201). Thus,
Foucault concludes, “A real subjection is born mechanically from a
fictitious relation” (202). Paul, for example, is subjected to certain unwritten norms about masculinity and normalcy. The enforcement of
these norms, however, is primarily carried out by Paul himself. When
external authorities try to enforce the norms, they are ineffective, as
with the frustrated teachers at the trial. Wilchins relates the Panopticon to gender conformity, writing, “Gender conformity is made possible through a sense of permanent visibility, a strong consciousness of
shame before others, a rock-solid belief in what our bodies mean and
that meaning’s utter transparency, and the continuous dance of gen-
der that attaches binary meaning to every facet of our waking lives”
(69). To make Paul internalize the gender binary, the dominant culture
doesn’t actually need to constantly watch Paul and punish him for his
deviancy. It only needs to make Paul feel that he is constantly being
watched, as if imprisoned within the Panopticon.
In this, the dominant culture is remarkably successful. In one of
the first descriptions we read of Paul, Cather writes, “Paul was always
smiling, always glancing about him, seeming to feel that people might
be watching him and trying to detect something” (94). It doesn’t matter
whether or not people actually are scrutinizing him. The very threat is
enough to induce paranoia and, therefore, either conformity or shame.
Paul feels respite from the Panopticon for the first time when he runs
away to New York City:
Until now, he could not remember the time when he had not been dreading something. Even when he was a little boy, it was always there—behind him, or before, or on either side. There had always been the shadowed corner, the dark place into which he dared not look, but from which
something seemed always to be watching him—and Paul had done things
that were not pretty to watch, he knew. (Cather 105)
Whether we interpret “things that were not pretty to watch” as past
homosexual encounters or as any other acts of deviancy, we see how
Paul’s dread of being watched has developed into what Wilchins refers
to as a “strong consciousness of shame before others.” Michael Dorais,
in his study of gay adolescent suicide in Quebec, finds the same sort of
self-loathing in modern LGBTQ youth. Dorais writes, “Even though
the presence of the ‘normal ones’ highlights and accentuates their ‘difference,’ stigmatized individuals can hate themselves in front of their
own mirrors” (18). It is this dread, shame, and self-hatred, far more
than any authoritarian lectures from his teachers, that eventually drives
Paul to the ultimate act of self-punishment.
Just as the language of the trial criminalizes Paul by characterizing
his physical mannerisms as crimes, the language foreshadowing Paul’s
death criminalizes Paul by characterizing his suicide as an execution.
The first and most puzzling passage foreshadowing Paul’s death occurs
several days before the suicide, when Cather writes, “[Paul] burnt like
a faggot in a tempest” (107). Context does not help much in deciphering this line: Paul stands outside in the snow before dinner, the snow108
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flakes whirling around him. The Oxford English Dictionary lists three
definitions for the word “faggot,” only one of which seems relevant
here. The first, dating from 1300, is “A bundle of sticks, twigs, or small
branches of trees bound together for use as fuel.” The second, related,
definition dates from 1555: “With special reference to the practice of
burning heretics alive, esp. in phrase fire and faggot; †to fry a faggot, to
be burnt alive; also, to bear a faggot, to carry a faggot, as those did who
renounced heresy. Hence fig. the punishment itself.” The third definition, “A (male) homosexual. slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.),” would
seem pertinent to our analysis, but the OED places its first usage in
1914, nine years after the publication of “Paul’s Case.” “He burnt like a
faggot in a tempest” is thus most likely a reference to the public immolation of a heretic. We are reminded of Cather’s earlier description of
the trial as a “baptism of fire” (94). On the morning of his suicide, Paul
awakes with “a painful throbbing in his head and feet. . . . His limbs
and hands were lead heavy, and his tongue and throat were parched and
burnt” (110). Already, Paul burns for his heresy, a crime defined precisely by deviance from orthodoxy. By foreshadowing Paul’s suicide
with the imagery of execution, Cather primes the reader to interpret
the suicide as a function of Paul’s criminality, not merely of some inner turmoil. Paul’s suicide is thus a social, rather than purely personal,
event, a function of Paul’s relationship to the dominant culture.
The method of suicide finally chosen by Paul underlines the role
of the execution as a public spectacle and demonstration of society’s
power over the individual. At first, Paul is determined to shoot himself
in his hotel room, but after staring at the revolver for half an hour, he
decides “that was not the way” (Cather 110). Instead, he goes out onto
the train tracks and waits to jump in front of a train. He falls asleep
waiting for the train, and when the sound of the train wakes him, “he
started to his feet, remembering only his resolution, and afraid lest he
should be too late . . . once or twice he glanced nervously sidewise,
as though he were being watched” (111). At the moment before suicide, Paul is more afraid of being late than of death. We could read
his nervous glances as one last fearful recognition of the Panopticon,
but given the context, I am more inclined to interpret them as a sort of
stage fright. This suicide is a performance, a spectacle, public in a way
which shooting himself in his hotel room would not have been. Shooting himself in his room also would have lacked the imagery of being
obliterated by an overwhelming force, an image which is so central to
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the spectacle of the public execution. As Foucault writes of the public
execution, “the punishment is carried out in such a way as to give a
spectacle not of measure, but of imbalance and excess; in this liturgy
of punishment, there must be an emphatic affirmation of power and
of its intrinsic superiority. The public execution did not re-establish
justice; it reactivated power” (49). Few methods of suicide could so
convey the imbalance and excess of the force society brings to bear
on Paul as obliteration by a moving train. Paul fully experiences his
smallness before an overpowering world when he thinks, just before
his suicide/execution, “it was a losing game in the end, it seemed, this
revolt against the homilies by which the world is run” (111). Paul’s
suicide, like the public executions Foucault describes, has more to do
with power than with justice.
Understanding the public execution as a demonstration of power,
rather than of justice, helps us understand how “Paul’s Case” fits into
Cather’s larger critique of American heteronormativity. By having Paul
kill himself at the end of the story, Cather does not condone the social
forces that so overpower Paul. She merely illustrates their immensity,
the incredible imbalance of power between the “deviant” and the society which labels him as such. As Marilee Lindemann writes, “Paul may
find rebellion ‘a losing game’ and the story may seem deeply divided
in its attitude toward him, but his ‘case’ exposes the unfair nature of a
game rigged to destroy children who don’t know how to play it” (7).
Lindemann’s elaboration of Cather’s game imagery is instructive in
the way that it complicates Paul’s role as a victim. As a participant
in society, Paul has no choice but to play the game: to operate within
the net of discursive power, to show up at his own trial, to enforce
society’s norms, and ultimately to enact society’s immense destructive
force, upon himself. The train represents this force, but the real tragedy
is that Paul voluntarily throws himself in front of that train, that Paul
is an active agent in his own persecution. Ultimately, of course, the
game metaphor comes up short, because games generally do not end
in execution. Paul is never a child, playing a game. From the outset,
he is made a criminal, marching himself through the criminal “justice”
system under the watchful eye of the Panopticon. The game is rigged,
as Lindemann puts it, because it is predicated on Paul’s inherent criminality. By throwing himself in front of the train, by enacting his own
execution, Paul deals with himself as a criminal. Suicide is thus the ultimate manifestation of what Foucault would call “the automatic func-
tioning of power.” Through a lifetime of stigmatization, Paul has been
trained to act as his own judge, jailer, and executioner.
Works Cited
Cather, Willa. “Paul’s Case.” 40 Short Stories: A Portable Anthology.
3rd ed. Ed. Beverly Lawn. Boston, Bedford, 2009. 93–111.
Dorais, Michel, with Simon L. Lajeunesse. Dead Boys Can’t Dance:
Sexual Orientation, Masculinity, and Suicide. Ithaca: McGillQueen’s UP, 2004.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New
York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Lindemann, Marilee. Willa Cather: Queering America. New York:
Columbia UP, 1999.
Nardin, Jane. “Homosexual Identities in Willa Cather’s ‘Paul’s Case. ’”
Literature & History 17.2 (2008): 31–46.
Wilchins, Riki. Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer. Los
Angeles: Alyson Books, 2004.
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