The Professor wakes on his couch at midnight, covered with blankets. Augusta is reading in the corner and it appears she saved his life.
Augusta received Lillian’s letter about cleaning the new house and came over to the old house to get the keys from the Professor. She heard a fall in the work-room and came in to find the Professor lying on the floor, apparently overcome by the gas after having tried to reach the door and save himself. She telephoned Dr. Dudley after she pulled him into the hall.
He asks her to sit up with him for the rest of the night, and she resumes her reading. The Professor reflects that Augusta has always been a good influence on him because she is principled, solemn, and practical. In particular, her reports of various deaths in her family over the years have been of comfort to the Professor because of her matter-of-fact way of viewing death. He thinks that he has some obligation to Augusta that he doesn’t feel toward his daughters or his wife.
St. Peter also reflects that he never learned to live without delight; this is the great mistake that has lately made his mundane existence seem so tedious to him. He realizes that he will now have to live his life without passionate emotional highs and lows, without joy, like many people do.
He protests to himself that he had never contemplated suicide, that he had always thought of it as a social crime. He hadn’t felt any desire to resist when he felt death upon him in the form of the gas, however. He remembered a crisis, but not a desire to live.
He resolves from then on that he will be apathetic and emotionless, even more so than he was before, and that this will probably hurt his family. It will enable him, however, to face the future.
St. Peter’s reflective musings on Augusta, and on how Augusta has always been a solid, good, but uninspiring influence on his life, can be traced back to Cather’s feelings about organized religion. Religion, as has been mentioned earlier in the novel, is commandeered by Cather as the last refuge of art from mass culture, which is a destructive influence, according to her. Critics have pointed out that Cather, though not religious in terms of belief, found comfort in the “pomp and circumstance” of the Episcopal and Catholic faiths, revering their elaborate services and the structure they gave to religious expression.
The Professor’s musings on Augusta in this section can be seen as a reflection of Cather’s own feelings on the subject of Catholicism. Augusta, a devout Catholic, is able to face death and other calamities with stoicism, conviction and confidence because her religion gives her a procedure to follow, a structural way of dealing with tragedy. It is this stoicism, built on the tradition and ceremony that has been passed down for centuries, that Cather, and in turn the Professor, admires.
Critics have asserted that St. Peter’s decline in this last section of the book represents Cather’s belief that civilization declines after it reaches a certain point. After people become obsessed with money, status, and scientific advantages to the exclusion of history, art, and nature, civilization is on a downward trajectory.
The Professor observes all of these characteristics in his world: his family is wealthy, obsessed with money, and embracing all the conveniences of their new house. As a member of this brave new materialistic world, and notwithstanding his personal antipathy to materialism, the Professor is declining, living merely until the next opportunity for suicide presents itself - much like his civilization is declining, according to Cather.
In terms of the Professor’s final resolution of his dilemma, he determines to live without delight. The emotional highs and lows he experienced as a result primarily of intellectual pursuits and secondarily of human relationships have ceased in his life, for some reason, and he is doomed to an existence characterized by dullness. Is it merely the advancement of the Professor’s age that is responsible for this change? Age is no doubt part of it. The other part seems to be the fact that the Professor has finished his magnum opus, completing his intellectual endeavors, and he has raised his daughters and seen them married and out of his house, completing his familial, relational endeavors. Perhaps he feels that there is nothing left to accomplish.
The one person left out of this explanation is Lillian. He may have fulfilled his obligations toward his daughters as a father and as an intellectual toward himself, but Lillian is still reproaching him to improve his behavior and become more relational; she still obviously believes he has some obligations. These, now that his daughters are no longer living with him, must be to her. Lillian is still trying to reach him, but he has either become unable to respond, or has resolved not to respond. For this reason, the couple’s future promises to be dull and truly without delight.