The Professor's House

The Professor's House Summary and Analysis of Chapter 2, Section 3: "The Professor"

Back in the present, during the summer Lillian is spending in France with the Marselluses, the Professor fritters away two months in daydreaming while he should have been annotating Outland’s diary.

The diary he describes as beautiful because of the scientific precision of Outland’s accounts of each archaeological find and the emotions the austerity of the writing conceals.

The main business of the Professor’s summer, Cather says, has been daydreaming about his own childhood and the kind of person he himself was as a boy. This is something the Professor has never been able to do, the reader is told. He feels as if he left his essential self in Kansas where he grew up, and that the self he became during adolescence began to be divorced from his essential self. Once he married Lillian, he broke from his essential self altogether.

The Professor describes his later self, his social self, the self he is currently, as “the lover.” Everything he did, from his University appointment to his children, stemmed from the fact that he married Lillian.

St. Peter says his essential Kansas self is a creature of earth, wind and water and is concerned only with nature. While he is dreaming St. Peter believes that he has reverted to this essential self and that the same process had happened to his grandfather, who lived with the family in Kansas when St. Peter was a boy.

Gradually, the Professor begins to believe that he, though only 52, is at the end of his life and that he won’t survive until the fall term. It is at this point that he thinks he ought to see a doctor.


The Professor’s description, in this section, of Outland’s diary, its spare language yet underlying emotion, exemplifies Cather’s own philosophy of writing.

Objects, Cather believed, should exist in the text only because they are tied up with the characters’ emotions; emotion should invest each object until the two are inseparable, creating one grand mass of Art with a capital “A.” This appears to be what Outland did in his diary; his words on the page indicate the emotions with which he endowed each artifact he found, from Mother Eve to each pot, and it is this synthesis of object and emotion that the Professor finds fascinating.

In addition, Cather believed that such a synthetic reality of object and emotion cannot be boiled down to essentials and splattered down on the page; it must be at least partially inferred and suggested to the reader, who is left to draw his or her own mental picture of the action taking place in the novel.

In this way, Cather’s philosophy of writing is like that of Ernest Hemingway, who is famous for saying that his writing is understated because it leaves the vast majority of its meaning underneath the surface for the reader to discover, like an iceberg. Both writers were reticent about describing naked emotion; emotions are best left as inferences, as little gremlins peeking out from between the lines of writing. The telling of strong emotions, both seemed to believe, cheapens them, and so the reader is left to ferret them out for him or herself.

In the world of the novel, it is this very taciturnity that Lillian and others dislike in the Professor and in Outland. While understanding of this point of view, Cather seems to reject this criticism in the very way she elevates Outland and the Professor above the other characters in the novel.