As the story describes the way Paul perceives his dull, drab life in Pittsburgh—a dullness that he attempts to mitigate by constructing fantasy worlds full of wealth and art—it is in many ways sympathetic to Paul’s despair and alienation. The mundane, middle-class world of Cordelia Street and Pittsburgh High School does not know what to make of Paul—in large part, the story suggests, because he is gay. Through subtle and not-so-subtle allusions to Paul’s sexual identity and frustrations, the story explores how the need to hide one’s identity, as well as the difficulty of finding kindred or even sympathetic people, can lead to the deep feelings of alienation that lead Paul to act out, steal money, run away from home, and ultimately take his own life.
The story describes in acute detail Paul’s wild mood swings between elation and despondency, showing how what Paul calls the “grey monotony” of his life is a source of intense, even physical despair for him. At Carnegie Hall, he first dashes into the usher’s room and can’t calm down, then finally manages to listen to the show, enraptured, then immediately becomes “irritable and wretched” as he heads home. These intense mood swings stem from Paul’s whirring mind and his creative imagination, but also from his inability to find people to confide in and express what he’s truly thinking and feeling. At times it does seem that Paul might be able to find figures who can ease his feelings of alienation, especially Charley Edwards and the Yale freshman in New York. However, in describing Paul’s relationships to these young men with subtle implications of erotic attraction, the story underlines Paul’s inability to overtly address his sexuality. These relationships, though they initially suggest the possibility of finding comfort or refuge in connection, ultimately fizzle out or fade away. In general, Paul remains painfully trapped in a world that forces him to hide his homosexuality from others as well as himself.
In response, the story suggests, Paul resorts to an attitude of scorn and flamboyant self-absorption. Paul looks on his father, his teachers, and his neighbors with poorly-concealed contempt, feeling he “must convey to them that he considered it all trivial, and was there only by way of a joke, anyway.” The story calls into question the extent to which Paul is accurate in his descriptions of the monotony and tedium that characterize his life in Pittsburgh, suggesting at times that Paul’s own alienation has made him unable to sympathetically imagine his way into the minds of other people around him, just as they have been unable to empathize with or understand him. In New York, Paul’s loneliness turns into a feeling of independence: though he knows no one, “he had no especial desire to meet or know any of these people,” and his solitude becomes less troubling than in the more restricted territory of his own community, where his views of his neighbors are at times dehumanizing. New York is a refuge for Paul and a relief from his feelings of alienation in part because of its comparatively more permissive attitudes toward all types of “deviants,” homosexuals included. Thus, in this environment where he no longer feels he has to hide his identity, Paul begins to feel more at peace with himself.
Ultimately, Paul’s suicide is a testament to the tragic nature of his story—a story of a young man whose life was crushed prematurely by a world that would not accept him for who he was. Cather shows that the feelings of alienation that arise from being homosexual in an oppressively heteronormative society can make life seem unbearable. However, in the last moments of the story, as Cather shows Paul’s suicide to have been a “folly” executed with “haste,” she encourages her reader to believe that even for the most seemingly hopeless “case,” there is always hope for self-acceptance, self-realization, love, and connection—and that these things that can alleviate the most crippling feelings of alienation.
Alienation and Homosexuality ThemeTracker
Alienation and Homosexuality Quotes in Paul’s Case
It was a highly respectable street, where all the houses were exactly alike, and where business men of moderate means begot and reared large families of children, all of whom went to Sabbath-school and learned the shorter catechism, and were interested in arithmetic; all of whom were as exactly alike as their homes, and of a piece with the monotony in which they lived.
When he was shown to his sitting-room on the eighth floor, he saw at a glance that everything was as it should be; there was but one detail in his mental picture that the place did not realize, so he rang for the bell boy and sent him down for flowers.
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.
Had he ever known a place called Cordelia Street, a place where fagged looking business men boarded the early car? Mere rivets in a machine they seemed to Paul—sickening men, with combings of children’s hair always hanging to their coats, and the smell of cooking in their clothes.
He felt now that his surroundings explained him. Nobody questioned the purple; he had only to wear it passively.
It was to be worse than jail, even; the tepid waters of Cordelia Street were to close over him finally and forever […] He had the old feeling that the orchestra had suddenly stopped, the sinking sensation that the play was over.
He had not a hundred dollars left; and he knew now, more than ever, that money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted.
As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone. There flashed through his brain, clearer than ever before, the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands.