“On this September morning, however, St. Peter knew that he could not evade the unpleasant effects of change by tarrying among his autumn flowers. He must plunge in like a man, and get used to the feeling that under his work-room there was a dead, empty house.”
Note: Page numbers in this section are taken from The Professor's House: Willa Cather Scholarly Edition, Ed. James Leslie Woodress, Kari Ronning, and Frederick M. Link. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
This quotation develops an extended metaphor; St. Peter’s his “ardor” has diminished, his zest for life has decreased, and now that he has finished his life’s work, which has been the most important task of his life, he is feeling empty and directionless, just like his house. The house’s function was to support his “work-room,” just like his life’s function was to support his academic career and its crowning glory, his book, and now that his book is finished he is left simply with his family; he feels a life filled only with family is empty. His family and the rest of his life has been an annoyance, something that has inconveniently intruded on his academic work. This perception will doom his relationships.
“It struck him that the seasons sometimes gain by being brought into the house, just as they gain by being brought into painting, and into poetry. The hand, fastidious and bold, which selected and placed – it was that which made the difference. In Nature there is no selection.”
This quotation expresses the Professor's thoughts on art, nature and the relative values of these concepts. Nature reaches its full glory only by the application of human artistic sensibility. Just like the autumn foliage in the drawing-room, nature must be brought into harmony with human dwellings and activities.
Another way in which this facet of the Professor’s philosophy is demonstrated is in his favor of Kathleen over Rosamund. He favors Kathleen because she is an artist; she selects things from real life and perfects them through art. Rosamund, naturally beautiful, was unselected because her looks were made by nature, not art. It is only through art, according to the Professor, that nature can find its truly ideal state, the state in which it does man the most good. From Cather’s description, Kathleen does people more good than Rosamund.
“It was dark when the Professor got back to the old house and sat down at his writing-table. He would have an hour on his notes, he told himself, in spite of families and fortunes. And he had it. But when he looked up from his writing as the Angelus was ringing, two faces at once rose in the shadows outside the yellow circle of his lamp: the handsome face of his older daughter, surrounded by violet-dappled fur, with a cruel upper lip and scornful half-closed eyes, as she had approached her car that afternoon before she saw him; and Kathleen, her square little chin set so fiercely, her white cheeks actually becoming green under her swollen eyes. He couldn’t believe it. He rose quickly and went to his one window, opened it wider, and stood looking at the dark clump of pine-trees that told where the Physics building stood. A sharp pain clutched his heart. Was it for this the light in Outland’s laboratory used to burn so far into the night!”
This quotation expresses St. Peter’s thoughts on the effect the proceeds of Outland’s patent have had on his family. The money has set his daughters and their husbands against each other, has divided St. Peter from his sons-in-law, has strained his relationship with his wife, and has turned a once-proud colleague of his, Professor Crane, into a money-grubbing litigant.
The broken relationships evoked in this quotation are a result of Cather’s belief in the destructive power of materialism. Humankind is better occupied in contemplating artistic accomplishments or religious rites than in pursuing the almighty dollar. Indeed, Cather implies with this quotation, when all people pursue or revere is money, civilization is on a downward spiral that begins with broken such relationships.
“All day long they were skirting the south coast of Spain; from the rose of dawn to the gold of sunset the ranges of the Sierra Nevadas towered on their right, snow peak after snow peak, high beyond the flight of fancy, gleaming like crystal and topaz. St. Peter lay looking up at them from a little boat riding low in the purple water, and the design of his book unfolded in the air above him, just as definitely as the mountain ranges themselves. And the design was sound. He had accepted it as inevitable, had never meddled with it, and it had seen him through.”
Though this passage describes how the very mountains of Spain inspired St. Peter to conceive the idea for the structure of his magnum opus on the Spanish explorers, this passage reads rather like an anxious and defiant justification by Cather herself of the unusual structure of The Professor’s House, which has “Tom Outland’s Story” stuck right in the middle of a meandering narrative about Professor St. Peter. This is one of the more remarkable things about The Professor’s House, and one of the novel’s most commented-upon features. In this quotation, Cather seems to be saying that the structure came to her organically as an artistic inspiration which she never questioned and which, she assumes, is thus perfect. She defies the reader or critic to suggest otherwise.
“The world was sad to St. Peter as he looked about him; the lake-shore country flat and heavy, Hamilton small and tight and airless. The university, his new house, his old house, everything around him, seemed insupportable, as the boat on which he is imprisoned seems to a sea-sick man. Yes, it was possible that the little world, on its voyage among all the stars, might become like that; a boat on which one could travel no longer, from which one could no longer look up and confront those bright rings or revolution.”
In this reverie, the Professor displays the first signs of encroaching depression and suicidal tendencies. He is feeling his age and profound fatigue, and feels his life without his magnum opus to occupy it, is insupportable. His work has been completed, and the family that has always been secondary in his affections is the only thing he has to fill his life with; it is this condition that he finds insupportable. The Professor is already becoming antisocial and retreating from his wife, daughters and sons-in-law. With no work and no family, the Professor’s life will soon be truly empty and insupportable.
“The tower was the fine thing that held all the jumble of houses together and made them mean something. It was red in colour, even on that grey day. In sunlight it was the colour of winter oak-leaves. A fringe of cedars grew along the edge of the cavern, like a garden. They were the only living things. Such silence and stillness and repose – immortal repose. That village sat looking down into the canyon with the calmness of eternity.”
This quotation, expressing Tom Outland's feelings on first beholding the Cliff City, voices Cather’s sense of the connection between nature and art. The tower, the man-made or artistic object of the City, gives meaning to the rawness of nature, which enhances, but does not trump, human artistic endeavors and creations. Just as St. Peter tames and beautifies nature in his formal French garden, the cliff-dwellers made natural settings work for them in their Cliff City. This combination of nature and art is what Outland, and Cather, appreciate.
“How it did use to depress me to see all the hundreds of clerks come pouring out of that big building at sunset! Their lives seemed to me so petty, so slavish. The couple I lived with gave me a prejudice against that kind of life…It was like that in everything; they spent their lives trying to keep up appearances, and to make his salary do more than it could.”
This passage expresses Outland's thoughts on the Bixbys, the couple who rents Outland a room during his sojurn in Washington D.C. Outland is scornful of the couple's middle-class, urban way of life, just as Cather was. Yet this is how a good proportion of the world lives. This passage shows Cather’s disdain for modern society and economics and her accompanying romanticism of the outdoor, open-air, natural lifestyle that Outland lives. In so doing, Cather attributes nothing but corrupting materialism to the middle-class Bixbys and nothing but wholesome idealism to the young Outland. Even taking into account Cather’s strong prejudice against materialism, Outland’s view of Washington middle class life is quite harsh and almost out of keeping with Outland’s hitherto unjudgmental character.
“I didn’t for a minute believe he’d meant to sell me out, but I cursed his stupidity and presumption. I had never told him just how I felt about those things we’d dug out together, it was the kind of thing one doesn’t talk about directly. But he must have known; he couldn’t have lived with me all summer and fall without knowing. And yet, until that night, I had never known myself that I cared more about them than about anything else in the world.”
This passage expresses Outland's outraged feelings on learning that Blake has sold the Mesa artifacts. This revelation of Outland’s deep feelings of esteem for the artifacts demonstrate that he is a misanthropic scholar after the Professor’s own heart. This goes a long way toward explaining why the two men get along together so well; they have a similar cast of mind that focuses on work to the exclusion of all else, especially to the exclusion of human relationships. They both are reticent about expressing their feelings to others and that ultimately does them harm in their relationships, principally in Outland’s with Blake and with St. Peter’s with Lillian.
“He had escaped all that. He had made something new in the world – and the rewards, the meaningless conventional gestures, he had left to others.”
The Professor, in this quotation, expresses a type of perverse relief that Outland died so young, never having enjoyed the economic rewards of his academic labors. The way the Professor sees it, Outland had a lucky escape from commercial success, which would no doubt have disillusioned him perhaps turned him into one of the money-grubbing people the Professor and Cather have such disdain for. Others, the Professor argues, of more mundane intellect than Outland, were left to spend his money.
“All the afternoon he had sat there at the table where now Augusta was reading, thinking over his life, trying to see where he had made his mistake. Perhaps the mistake was merely in an attitude of mind. He had never learned to live without delight. And he would have to learn to, just as, in a Prohibition country, he supposed he would have to learn to live without sherry. Theoretically he knew that life is possible, may be even pleasant, without joy, without passionate griefs. But it had never occurred to him that he might have to live like that.”
In this passage, St. Peter expresses his resignation to settling down to a mundane existence, a life without emotional highs and lows. Though the exact reasons the Professor will have to learn to live his life without delight are never explicitly stated, it is implied throughout the novel that, once the Professor’s magnum opus was completed, he felt not only at a loose end, but without purpose in his life. His work has formed the basis of his ambition, his endeavors and very will to live for decades. His family has always been secondary to him, and now that he is left with nothing but his family, he is struggling to convince himself that life is worth living. This task is compounded by the fact that his family is full of internal fractures, ill-will and animosity.
The Professor’s House Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Professor’s House is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.