The Professor's House

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

The scene opens on Sunday morning, the day after the dinner party, as the Professor expresses his dread of breakfasting with his wife as per his usual schedule. He finds his wife in the dining room and she immediately rebukes him for being silent and taciturn during the previous evening’s dinner party and for not paying Louie enough attention. He, in his turn, says that Louie is far too voluble and always monopolizes the conversation during dinner. He also says that he couldn’t stand Louie discussing Tom Outland in that familiar way and making a spectacle of his and Rosamund’s reverence for him.

The nub of the matter, the Professor says, is that some people are taciturn and conceal their deepest feelings, even if positive, about their family members, and some do not. The ones who do not he describes as “florid.” Lillian expresses dissatisfaction with this reserve and says that the silence about such things, in itself, is ostentatious. The Professor then gives up the argument and leaves the house, but not before Lillian insinuates that St. Peter is dissatisfied with his sons-in-law because they are not Tom Outland.

The Professor begins to think about the fact that, though he and Lillian were in love when they married, the obstacle that finally disrupted their relationship was his interaction with Tom Outland. He then proceeds to remember that he met Lillian when he was in Paris studying for his doctorate and that he accepted almost the first academic position offered to him in order to marry her immediately. He remembers that he depended on her, with her keen mind that responded strongly to people and to art, for mental companionship in the early years of his tenure at the University, and that Tom Outland disrupted that companionship by replacing her as the Professor’s assistant and sounding-board.

The Professor bends his steps away from his old house and toward the house of his old landlord Fred Appelhoff, to whom he promises a year’s rent in return for sporadic use of his old house. He wants to finish his new book there, he explains, and Appelhoff says he’ll see the insurance man about it. The Professor admires Appelhoff’s garden, and Appelhoff says that now that his wife is dead and he doesn’t have to work so hard on his farm to make ends meet, he has time to think.

Walking through the town, the Professor observes his old academic nemesis, Professor Horace Langtry, walking through the park. Langtry is a baby-faced dandy, and his attempt to avoid the Professor is foiled. St. Peter makes some desultory conversation about the changes in the University since they both started there as professors roughly 20 years before; the students, he says, are of an increasingly inferior quality. Langtry says he hasn’t noticed any difference and bolts off to church.

The Professor reflects on the ridiculousness of the longstanding grudge each bears against the other, which began when Langtry failed to attain popularity as a professor of American history, resulting in a university politics dispute that almost cost the Professor his position.

The Professor concludes his reminiscences about Langtry by stating that they had both been beaten and that there was no point in continuing the feud as neither professor would ever hold a better position.


The Professor’s row with his wife Lillian in this chapter indicates a growing emotional distance between the two which is scarcely ever bridged during the novel. Lillian has embraced the material rewards of the Professor’s fame, as objectified by their new house, while the Professor has not, preferring to stay in the uncomfortable, old-fashioned study at the top of his old house.

Another source of contention between the two is the Professor’s taciturnity. St. Peter believes in reserve when conducting interpersonal relations while his wife believes in a more demonstrative style. Thus far, the couple conforms to traditional gender stereotypes. The Professor’s lack of expressed content with his family members in general and his wife in particular is grating on Lillian, and she is determined to fight the problem with more words, while he is determined to counter her with more silence.

The Professor’s musings on his foundering relationship with his wife recall the fact that she was jealous of Tom Outland; she provided mental companionship for the Professor in his early days at the University while Outland provided that companionship as the Professor became middle-aged. It was not the children, nor economic hardship that came between them, but another man, and the reason that man was able to disrupt the marriage was that the Professor, as indicated earlier in the text, is more wrapped up in his work than in his family. Outland was an academic sounding-board, a source of literary and historical inspiration for the Professor, and for a man entirely wedded to his work, Outland’s company was too attractive to resist.

The Professor’s rivalry with Langtry, recounted in this section, is some of the first hints at Cather’s overall themes in The Professor’s House. In the professors’ feud, St. Peter stands for old-fashioned intellectual scholarship while Langtry is allied with the commercial interests that are attempting to water down the academic standards of the University. Langtry is a creature of appearance and manners while St. Peter imagines himself to be an academic of substance. The Professor is popular by virtue of his academic merit while Langtry is popular simply because he dresses like a dandy and has advantageous family connections.

Academic integrity, a reverence for history, and a horror of commercialism are themes that Cather will keep returning to throughout the novel. Whether these interests will triumph in the end is another story, but their recurrence is foreshadowed in this chapter.