The Professor's House

The Professor's House Summary and Analysis of Chapter 4, Section 3: "The Professor"

The fall term opens at the University and the Professor goes through the motions of work, though he still doesn’t believe he’ll be alive for very long.

The McGregors have been on vacation in Oregon, and when they return home, Scott asks the Professor what he’ll do about the fact that he’s still living at the old house. The Professor says he cannot leave his work-room.

The Professor, resting on the couch in his work-room, remembers a translated poem he read as a child to the effect that everyone’s house is made and mold is cast before they are born. He also begins to reflect on death; eternal solitude seems pleasant to him as one has no obligations or responsibilities in death.

Soon after this reverie, the Professor receives two letters, one from his wife and one from Louie, announcing that the party is returning in five days as Rosamund is pregnant. Augusta, Lillian writes, is to have charge of preparing and cleaning the new house.

The Professor feels vehemently that he cannot live with his family again in his present mental state; he must live alone. He cannot conform to the niceties of social interaction, even with his wife. He concludes that he has fallen out of love, not only with Lillian, but with humanity. He reflects, finally, that he must have made a great mistake somewhere in his life that now makes him want to retreat from everything he thought was important to him.

The Professor stays in his work-room that night as a storm rages outside. He lights the stove and opens the window. Dimly aware that he heard a slamming sound, the Professor falls asleep.

When he wakes, he feels sick and realizes the window has shut and the room is full of gas. He wonders if he is “required” to save his own life.


The Professor’s illness has reached pathological proportions. He has a completely unfounded yet unshakeable belief that his death is imminent. Cather does not so much describe it as a premonition than as a dogged and all-consuming conviction that appears odd to an outside observer, to say the least.

The Professor’s mental stubbornness is also exhibited in his conversation with Scott, who remarks on the fact that the Professor is still living at the old house and will have to move home when Lillian returns. The Professor says, with an assurance that is quite unshakeable, that he cannot leave his old work-room. He is not doing any work there, from what the reader can tell, but he is convinced that that work-room is essential to his life.

The Professor begins to muse on death at this point; he actually is looking forward to not having any responsibilities to anyone else. And then the crisis arrives; the Professor finds himself absolutely unable to face his family, going in fear from one room of his old house to the next lest he glimpse or have to speak to another human being. The Professor cannot find any meaning in his own life; everything that he felt was important to him is no longer.

The oddest part of this sequence of events is the fact that there is little explanation for many of the Professor’s illogical antipathies and convictions. Why is he unable to face another human being? Why does he believe he will die soon? The reader is left to conclude that the Professor is simply, to a greater or lesser degree, insane. His mind, his most prized possession, has let him down at last.

The chapter concludes with the Professor’s highly ambiguous reflection on whether one is required to prevent one’s own suicide as his life is ebbing; at the last, he is occupied with moral musings on the societal faux-pas of suicide.