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Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament Written by Willa Sibert Cather

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“Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament”, written by Willa Sibert Cather in 1905, was a thinly veiled story of a queer kid trying to assimilate into cis-het-normativity, and/or a proletariat trying to assimilate into the upper, bourgeois class. The themes of flowers and colors mean very different things when looked at through these two lens, and as such, we gain different contexts and different reasons and finalities of Paul’s eventual suicide. When utilizing the queer/feminist lens, it becomes apparent that Paul can no longer live in a culture of toxic masculinity where his identity is devalued and lesser; while the Marxist lens can show us that aspiring to be part of the bourgeois, rather than aspiring to tear it down, will have the bourgeois turn on you with an inevitable return to the life of the poor, subjegated proletariat.

Flowers for the Queer

The flowers stand not only for typical femininity (and thus going against the status quo as a male assigned person), but carnations also represent gay (then an inclusive term) people. The trend of carnations was started by Oscar Wilde, an American bisexual author, and by the time that “Paul’s Case” had been released, it had broadened from just a green carnation, to any carnations. There are several instance of great importance with flowers throughout the story:

When Paul is in the office, he has a red carnation tucked into his lapel, he shows defiance to the teachers yelling at him. They are a symbol of trying to force Paul into submission, into crying, into their ideal of what Paul should be (likely based on his genital configuration at birth).

When Paul arrives in the city, he orders flowers to fill his room, symbolizing his disregard for typical, toxic masculinity and straight-cis-ness once he arrives in New York. Not only did he ask about flowers, he asked another guy about flowers, a less than subtle way of a literature way of saying “ha gaaaaaay!”

When Paul kills himself he sets down a bundle of flowers beforehand, signaling his refusal to give into masculinity and mourning his own cursed femininity.

Carnations for Karl

Historically speaking, flowers have always been a symbol of wealth as not only did they take time to collect as it was customary to gather them yourself (which uses time, and as the bourgeois says, “time is money”), but flowers also fade quickly and need replaced often, so even if they were gathered by oneself, the time it took would eventually tally up to large sums of money and/or time spent. During his trip to New York, it was deep winter as, “snow lay heavy on the roadways and had drifted deep in the open fields,” so it would have been impossible for Paul to choose to spend his time to gather the flowers himself to spend only his time.

So, Paul sent for flowers often in his time in New York, as his first action was to “[ring] for the bell-boy and sent him down for flowers.” Each time his room is described, flowers accompanying the descriptions of linens and color scheme. This constant need to spend not only his own time, but also others’ time and the stolen money on frivolous things shows his deep desire to become a part of the upper, controlling class.

In part, when Paul lays down the “drooping” carnations, he mourned the ideals of becoming a bourgeois ruler and having time to spend to collect his own flowers with any amount of frequency. In this same paragraph, the flowers become a symbol for himself and any borne-proletariat who should so wish to assimilate into the oppressor. Thus did “Paul’s Case” end with a Marxist warning against wants of assimilation, “it was only one splendid breath they had, in spite of their brave mockery at the winter outside the glass, and it was a losing game in the end, it seemed, this revolt against the homilies by which the world is run.”

Queer-Colored, not Rose

Any color mentioned in the story is always very bright, and rarely is it a color associated with masculinity; pink, the masculine color pre-Hitler, is never mentioned in the story, while blue, the feminine color, is mentioned seven times, most notably in the second to last paragraph as Paul things about the wonders of the world unseen. Every color of the rainbow besides pink has been mentioned



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