The scene opens in the Professor’s new house as he and his wife Lillian dress for a dinner party which their two daughters, their two sons-in-law, and an English academic will be attending. Lillian points out the advantages of the Professor’s having a bedroom and bathroom all to himself, and he agrees with her. She then tells him he is growing more intolerant as he ages, and the comment irks him because he believes it is she who is growing more intolerant. She says he is too intolerant toward his sons-in-law while he believes that she is too indulgent toward them.
Presently, the guests arrive, including the St. Peters’ daughters Kathleen and Rosamund and their husbands Scott McGregor and Louie Marsellus, respectively, and Sir Edgar Spilling, an English academic in the Professor’s own field of Spanish history.
The elder daughter Rosamund is universally considered a beauty with dark hair and eyes, though her father considers her a trifle awkward. The younger daughter Kathleen has a boyish, jaunty figure and is pale in feature.
The party sits down to dinner, and Lillian shows her partiality for the socially well-connected and obviously pretentious Louie. Louie invites Spilling to see the grand, ostentatious house he and his wife are building on the lakefront and is accepted. It turns out that Scott and his wife are also building a house, though on a much smaller scale, and Louie’s bragging grates on the party. Compounding his insensitivity, Louie reveals to the party that he is planning to call the new house “Outland.”
This announcement floors the Professor, and Louie goes on to explain the reason behind the name to Spilling. Tom Outland, a former student of the Professor’s, invented the Outland vacuum, which revolutionized aviation during World War I, and left the rights to the discovery to Rosamund, his fiancée, when he was killed fighting in Flanders. Louie and Rosamund have made a good deal of money from the commercial exploitation of the vacuum and, Louie says, are ever sensible of Outland’s kindness toward them, hence their endowment of various scholarships at the University and the name of their new house. Louie also says he is planning to move all of Outland’s old tools to the house for the benefit of fellow academics who visit the university to pay tribute to Outland. Spilling is fascinated by the technicalities of Outland’s invention while Scott is incensed by the discussion; he was Outland’s classmate and friend while Louie never met him.
This section introduces the Professor’s family members, with whom the reader will grow increasingly familiar as the novel progresses. Their characterizations, as presented in this section, are highly accurate indications of the characters that will emerge later on.
Lillian St. Peter is socially-conscious, materialistic, slightly selfish, and coquettish. Her daughter Rosamund is perhaps the most materialistic of her family, with a spoiled, pouty disposition and pretensions to social prominence. Kathleen is resentful of Rosamund, though she attempts to conceal it. Scott is resentful of Rosamund and Louie and is less careful to conceal it. Louie is the oblivious, generous, sometimes clueless entrepreneur who is ostentatious but at the same time conciliatory toward everyone; indeed, it is difficult to hate him, in spite of his wealth.
Another character who is absolutely crucial to the novel but who never appears as himself, always as the shadow of someone else’s memory, is Tom Outland. One of the Professor’s old students, he not only ends up revitalizing the Professor’s sagging intellectual life but leaves the Professor’s daughter the proceeds of his revolutionary vacuum, which has made a fortune for Rosamund and her husband. Outland appears in this section as he appears in the rest of the novel: a mysterious, almost godlike figure who entered the characters’ lives to work his magic and then disappeared again, a martyr.
Outland’s invention, a type of vacuum or gas that was used in airplane engines and revolutionized aviation around World War I, actually has a historical basis in fact, Cather scholars have pointed out. These scholars point to numerous unimportant details in Cather’s description of Outland’s invention that tally with the history of the Liberty airplane engine, conceived and produced for the first time in 1917.
The Liberty engine was one of the most-touted American technological innovations during the wartime years. It was invented by two engineers brought together by the U.S. government for the express purpose of inventing a new aircraft engine. There was debate about whether the engine was actually an improvement on existing technology, and that is why it is a little-known footnote to the American experience in World War I.