The Professor's House

The Professor's House Themes


Art, artistic impression and artistic appreciation are much discussed and revered in The Professor’s House. Throughout the novel, Cather’s protagonists Godfrey St. Peter and Tom Outland exclaim over artistic displays of autumn foliage in drawing-rooms and ancient monuments of stone rising artistically in the depths of cliff cities in the Southwest, respectively. St. Peter also formalizes Cather’s reverence for art during a lecture to his students at the University; according to his and Cather’s philosophy, civilization is at its best when it reveres art, religion and history, and at its worst when it reveres material wealth and science. Art and religion, St. Peter claims, are really one and the same; they both engage people’s minds in more worthwhile ways than materialistic and technical concerns do. Art uplifts the human spirit, the Professor claims.


Throughout the novel, Cather shows that science = that is, scientific and technological pursuits and achievements - make life more comfortable without making it better. Scientific improvements are far inferior to other considerations like art and history, in Cather’s civilizational hierarchy. Tom Outland, one of Cather’s protagonists, is, granted, a brilliant scientist, but he also has a keen appreciation of art and history. Also, his invention, the Outland vacuum, has brought money to some of the novel’s characters but has ultimately served to break up the St. Peter family. Science, Cather makes clear, does not often uplift the human spirit.


Cather’s take on nature in the novel is that nature definitely has the power to uplift the human spirit, but that it needs the artistic hand of man to reach its full potential. St. Peter demonstrates this when he observes an artistic display of autumn flora in his drawing room; the plants are beautiful, but they reach their full glory when picked from nature and displayed in contrast to the deeply-colored furniture in the room; it is man that has given nature full scope to inspire awe. Also, Cather makes clear that the cliff-dwellers, who lived in harmony with their natural surroundings, namely the caves and shelves of rock in the Blue Mesa, reached a high level of cultural achievement, and that their accommodation and appreciation of nature made this achievement possible.


Professor St. Peter’s take on religion, which is widely assumed to be Cather’s as well, posits that religion is one of the higher preoccupations of modern human society. Religion has the capacity to encourage people to focus on the great, unsolvable mysteries of life rather than mundane details like money or creature comfort. Religion’s power to elevate human intellectual activity is why it should be revered in modern civilization. Closely related to this point of view is Cather’s embrace of Episcopalianism and Catholicism; though she was not religious in terms of belief, she respected the “pomp and circumstance” that filled Catholic and Episcopal services as a natural outgrowth of other positive societal influences, namely art and history.


History is one of Cather’s anointed trio of worthwhile human values. Historical study and appreciation elevate the mind, St. Peter states in his lecture, and this is widely accepted as Cather’s assertion as well. Cather’s heroes, St. Peter and Outland, are both historians, St. Peter as a formal profession and Outland after an amateur, but nonetheless sincere, fashion. Outland demonstrates a deep reverence for the cliff-dwellers’ ruins, and St. Peter demonstrates not only this reverence, but a deep esteem for the Spanish explorers who came upon them and other landscapes of early America.

Principally through her portrayal of St. Peter, Cather demonstrates that the study of history is so intellectually stimulating and uplifting that it can sustain an entire life. St. Peter is repeatedly shown to be more interested in his work, his pursuit of the study of history, than in his family or in the human race in general. If history fails him in the end, it is only because he feels he has finally done justice to so great a subject.


Throughout The Professor’s House, Cather, St. Peter and Outland decry materialism; nearly every negative development in the novel can be traced back to the destructive influence of money. As has been noted, Cather’s project in the novel was to show the tug-of-war occurring in human civilization between the old values of art, history and religion on the one hand, and materialism, technology and scientific advancement on the other. Money, and its attendant religion, materialism, were Cather’s constant targets throughout the novel.

First of all, the money flowing from Tom Outland’s patent is shown to destroy the St. Peter family. The McGregors and the Marselluses hate each other because of it, Professor Crane is “corrupted” for lack of it, and the Professor is deeply offended by Rosaumnd’s offer of it. Second of all, the monetary success of St. Peter’s magnum opus makes possible the building of a house with modern conveniences that the Professor stubbornly rejects. Third of all, Rodney Blake’s monetization of the treasures of the Blue Mesa horrifies Tom Outland, who claims that bits of history are not to be sold off like a lot of souvenirs. This monetary acquisition breaks up the once-strong Blake-Outland friendship.

Money, Cather dramatically demonstrates, is responsible for most of the ills of the characters of The Professor’s House. Using these characters, their trials and their philosophies, Cather articulated her belief that civilization is declining not least because of materialism.


As critics have noted, one of Cather’s most cherished and often-used literary techniques is juxtaposition, the side-by-side presentation of two contrasting entities that creates meaning for the reader. In this novel, she juxtaposes Tom Outland’s Story with the Professor’s, the dull silver with the turquoise of Rosamund’s bracelet, the Blue Mesa with Hamilton, youth with age, nostalgia with modernism, art with science, and any number of other concrete items and abstract concepts with their contrasting partners in an effort to create meaning, to hold one item up as desirable and valuable and to show the other as worthless.

The central question of the novel, for Cather, is whether the civilizing forces of art and religion stand up against the encroaching forces of science and materialism in the modern world. St. Peter and his student, Tom Outland, stand for the old world, the old values of art, beauty, religion, pomp and circumstance, in spite of the fact that Outland is an inventor. Nearly every other character in the novel stands for the encroaching forces of science, technology and materialism. As Outland is killed and St. Peter resigned to a life without delight, it appears that Cather believes art cannot fight materialism and win, but that its defeat is no less tragic for all of that.