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The Professor's House

The Professor's House
First edition
Author Willa Cather
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover, Paperback)

The Professor's House is a novel by American novelist Willa Cather. Published in 1925, the novel was written over the course of several years. Cather first wrote the centerpiece, “Tom Outland's Story,” and then later wrote the two framing chapters “The Family” and “The Professor.”

When Professor Godfrey St. Peter and wife move to a new house, he becomes uncomfortable with the route his life is taking. He keeps on his dusty study in the old house in an attempt to hang on to his old life. The marriages of his two daughters have removed them from the home and added two new sons-in-law, precipitating a mid-life crisis that leaves the Professor feeling as though he has lost the will to live because he has nothing to look forward to.

The novel initially addresses the Professor's interactions with his new sons-in-law and his family, while continually alluding to the pain they all feel over the death of Tom Outland in the Great War. Outland was not only the Professor's student and friend, but the fiancé of his elder daughter, who is now living off the wealth created by the "Outland vacuum."

The novel's central section turns to Outland, and recounts in first-person the story of his exploration of an ancient cliff city in New Mexico. The section is a retrospective narrative remembered by the professor.

In the final section, the professor, left alone while his family takes an expensive European tour, narrowly escapes death due to a gas leak in his study; and finds himself strangely willing to die. He is rescued by the old family seamstress, Augusta, who has been his staunch friend throughout. He resolves to go on with his life.

The novel explores many contrasting ideas. Indeed in many respects, the novel deals in opposites, variously conceived: Marsellus vs. Outland, Kitty vs. Rosamond, the quixotic vs. the pragmatic, the old vs. the new, the idea of the Professor as a scholar vs. his family relations, Indian tribes vs. the contemporary world of the 1920s, and the opposing social poles of the Professor vs. Lillian. Those opposites are not always clear-cut. Considering the ending, the novel can be viewed as devoid of a clear moral imperative.

Similarly, the comparisons between the modern world of sections III and I contrast with Tom Outland’s natural world in section II. Yet the confused judgments of the characters block these comparisons and obscure clear morals: Tom’s both elevates and appropriates nature, and the unsupported conclusions of Father Duchene pervert the true historical facts of the mesa culture. He assumes ‘Mother Eve’ was murdered for infidelity to her husband, but this would sharply contrast Tom’s view of the mesa as an idyllic space away from ‘the dirty devices of the world’. Accordingly The Professor’s House is generally analyzed as a critique of modernity—the Marselluses are consumed by the latest fashions, Mrs. St. Peter transfers her old love for her husband to a passion for her sons-in-law, science and the modern world corrupt St. Peter’s ideals of history and nature. Yet it is a failure to embrace modernity that nearly kills the Professor and brings him to the realization of his need for change. In his own speech, the knowledgeable professor puts forth numerous contradictions. He criticizes science for only making humans comfortable in front of his lecture hall students, yet with his daughter he lauds the promise of what science can do for man (Crane), and its superior value to money: “In Hamilton the correspondence between inner and outer has been completely destroyed: the dress-forms are deceptive; Rosamond's physical beauty clothes a spiritual emptiness; Louie's loud exterior covers an inner capacity for love and generosity. In Hamilton the failure of inner and outer to cohere leads to misunderstandings and to the characters' inability to make meaningful contact with one another".