The Professor's House

The Professor's House Summary and Analysis of Chapter 1, Section 3: "The Professor"

In a reverie not immediately located by Cather in any particular time or space, the Professor muses that all the important aspects of his life have been dictated by chance.

Lillian inherited an income from her father when they were starting out in married life that saved the couple from a lifetime of domestic drudgery, penny-pinching and unhappiness. Tom Outland coming to the Professor’s attention, inventing something valuable and amassing a fortune for people he didn’t even know was fantastic.

In general, the Professor realizes that he has been extremely lucky, both in his financial circumstances and in the people he has known.

Outland, he reflects, brought him a kind of second intellectual youth that revitalized even his work on the Spanish adventurers. Since Outland had grown up in the Southwest, he was able to show the Professor all the landmarks the Professor had read about during his research and retrace the steps of the Spanish explorers. This was exactly what master and pupil did during one summer trip to the Southwest and another to Mexico. A third summer was planned for Paris, but it never came off.

In 1914, Outland received a visit from Father Duchene who was going home to Belgium to serve during the war, and Outland sailed with him for Europe. The Professor wonders, in his reverie, what would have become of Outland once his patent had begun to make money.

He concludes that Outland would perhaps have grown unhappy and impatient with the demands fame and money would have brought. He concludes that it is better that Outland left the spending of the money, the reaping of the rewards that sprang from his intellectual triumph, to others of a more mundane and worldly cast of mind.


During his discussion of his trips with Outland to various sites in the Southwest, the Professor mentions that he and Outland take a translation of one explorer’s diary with them and Outland is able to point out to him the exact sites mentioned there.

The explorer is Fray Garces, a Spanish Franciscan missionary who was spreading Catholicism when he was killed by the Yuma Native American tribe on the banks of the Colorado River. Critics have drawn a parallel between this sacrifice and the sacrifice of Tom Outland, who was also an explorer and a proponent of his own brand of religion (fervor for the excavation of the Blue Mesa), and who was killed in World War I.

The Professor’s musings on his luck in running into Outland, who was so instrumental in inspiring him to finish his magnum opus, lead to a theme that has been popping up throughout the novel. First introduced by Scott McGregor, this theme is the romanticization or idealization of Tom Outland; the man is now more myth than reality, and the lives he touched, emotionally, academically, romantically, and materially, were transformed, it seems, more by contact with a god than with a mere mortal man. This sense of Outland’s otherworldliness is compounded for the reader by the fact that Outland himself never appears in the novel; he is always reflected in others’ eyes and remembrances. Outland, it seems, was everyone’s savior but his own.

On this note, it seems odd that Outland should suddenly up and leave for the front simply on the strength of a visit from Father Duchene. St. Peter’s account of Outland’s decision is quite sketchy, and the reader is left to conclude that it is Outland’s native sense of duty, and the example of his old teacher, that motivate him to risk, and lose, his life in the war.

The Professor’s final thoughts in this section seem to cast Outland’s early death as a blessed release; Outland was thus spared the disillusionment, fatigue, and intellectual decline that the Professor himself is now experiencing. In this moment, more clearly than ever, Cather draws a connection between Outland and the Professor; one is the youth, and one the middle-aged man, but both are the quintessential scholar.

The disillusionment the Professor foresees for Outland had he lived stems mostly from, unsurprisingly, the money that would have flowed from his discovery. Money is portrayed, once again, as the worst and most destructive force in the entire novel.