Paul’s Case

Paul’s Case Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Willa Cather's Paul’s Case. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Willa Cather

Though born in Virginia, Willa Cather has come to be associated with the plains of Nebraska, where she and her family moved when she was ten years old. She initially dreamed of becoming a doctor, but after publishing a literary essay in a newspaper while a student at the University of Nebraska, she decided to become a writer. After college, she became the managing editor of a women’s magazine. She later worked for the successful McClure’s Magazine in New York, and wrote arts reviews for other newspapers as well. “Paul’s Case” was fist published in McClure’s, along with a number of her other short stories. In 1911, Cather left the magazine editing world and began writing fiction full-time, publishing a series of novels in the next years, including O Pioneers (1913), My Antonia (1918) (probably her best-known and most-praised novel), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), which solidified her reputation as one of the great female writers of the early 20th century. By the 1930s, she had become nationally famous, but also came under fire by certain critics who claimed that she was increasingly out of touch with the changing issues of contemporary America. In 1947, she died in New York City, where she had been living for almost forty years, many of them in domestic partnership with the editor Edith Lewis. 
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Historical Context of Paul’s Case

The turn of the 20th century saw the continued rise of industrialization in America. Pittsburgh, a major steel industry center, is described in the story as a “smoke-palled city.” But the turn of the century was also the peak of the Gilded Age, an era defined by increasing wealth and extravagance but also corruption and extreme income inequality. In some ways, the Cordelia Street milieu in “Paul’s Case” seems to have imbibed the Gilded Age values of upward mobility without limit, assuming that life’s main purpose consists of making money and that success in business is the greatest good to which one should aspire. But in other ways it is Paul who yearns after the greatest excesses of the Gilded Age as represented by the wealth and splendor of New York City. It’s also important to note, given the heavy implication in “Paul’s Case” that Paul is gay, that sodomy (sexual acts between men) was a crime in every American state during this time, and would continue to be for many more decades. Apart from the illegality of homosexual acts, homosexuality was highly stigmatized socially. New York emerged as America’s greatest haven for homosexuals. In the words of historian George Chauncey, “In the half-century between 1890 and the beginning of the Second World War, a highly visible, remarkably complex, and continually changing gay male world took shape in New York City.” It is likely for this reason, in part, that Paul dreams of escaping to New York—and it is against the far more socially liberal backdrop of New York that the second half of “Paul’s Case” plays out.

Other Books Related to Paul’s Case

“Paul’s Case” was written in the context of a number of literary movements at the turn of the twentieth century, but naturalism—which sought to portray everyday life realistically while also study the effect of environment on individual characters—was particularly thriving. Writers like Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser attempted to examine social issues like gender inequality, the negative effects of industrialization, and the uglier aspects of the American Dream. At the same time, “Paul’s Case” can be set within a longer lineage of literary representations of suicide, from the German writer Goethe’s sentimentalist The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877). What was perhaps slightly different in the early 1900s was the relatively newly available psychological language of the “case” that is used in this title’s story: Sigmund Freud’s famous study, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, was published in 1905 as well.
Key Facts about Paul’s Case
  • Full Title: “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament”
  • When Written: 1905
  • Where Written: Pittsburgh
  • When Published: 1905 in the collection The Troll Garden; republished that year in McClure’s Magazine
  • Literary Period: Naturalism
  • Genre: Short story; Naturalism
  • Antagonist: Paul’s father and teachers; normalcy; heteronormativity
  • Point of View: Third person limited

Extra Credit for Paul’s Case

Burn After Reading Before her death, Willa Cather tried to burn her entire archive of correspondences, preventing anyone from reading her private letters—although many letters survived. The attempt to destroy her letters was likely motivated by a fear that her lesbianism, if widely publicized, would ruin her legacy.

Eyes on the Prize  My Antonia was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize the first year the prize existed, though it didn’t win. She would go on to win the prize for her now lesser-known 1923 book, One of Ours.