Many readers believe that Willa Cather, in her short story “Paul’s Case,” suggests that Paul may have homosexual inclinations. However, if Cather wanted Paul to be seen as gay, why didn’t she make that possible meaning more obvious? Among the reasons that Cather may have chosen to use implication rather than overt statement in dealing with this issue are the following:
- She may have assumed that most of her readers would have been unsympathetic to any openly gay protagonist.
- She may have assumed that if readers focused too much on Paul’s possible sexuality, they would have ignored the other important issues the story raises.
- She may have assumed that a story with an openly gay protagonist would be publicly condemned, and that she herself, as the author of such a story, would be censured.
- She may have assumed that a story with an openly gay protagonist would have been difficult to publish.
- She may have wanted to publish a story that seemed a bit daring but not too provocative and controversial.
Paul’s concern about his clothing, his sensitivity about his narrow chest, and his teasing of the other young male ushers at Carnegie Hall (whom he teases so much that they manhandle him) are just a few of the details that might have led some of Cather’s initial readers to assume that she was describing a person who fit various homosexual stereotypes of the time.
Perhaps the passage that might have most suggested a possible homosexual orientation on Paul’s part is the one describing some of Paul’s behavior in New York:
in the afternoon he fell in with a wild San Francisco boy, a freshman at Yale, who said he had run down for a "little flyer" over Sunday. The young man offered to show Paul the night side of the town, and the two boys went out together after dinner, not returning to the hotel until seven o’clock the next morning. They had started out in the confiding warmth of a champagne friendship, but their parting in the elevator was singularly cool.
This passage can be read as implying a homosexual encounter, but it could also be read – and would have been read by many people of Cather’s time – as suggesting no real sexual overtones. Perhaps that is precisely how Cather intended such passages to be read: one way by one set of readers, another way by another set.