The Professor's House

The Professor's House Summary and Analysis of Chapter 5, Section 1: "The Family"

Scott McGregor runs into Lillian St. Peter on the University campus one afternoon that same September. They are both going to see the Professor and walk together to his office where he is entertaining questions from his seniors.

Listening at the door, they overhear one of his replies. The Professor denigrates scientific and technological advances as true human achievements, claiming instead that the human mind is better and more interestingly employed puzzling over old questions and problems, even if insoluble. His animosity toward science appears to be rooted in the belief that as science advances, art and religion retreat; people are better occupied and happier, he claims, if they are surrounded by the mystery, pomp and circumstance that art and religion provide.

The students leave the office, and Lillian and Scott go in. Lillian encourages the Professor to go to the lake with Scott instead of to the electrician’s with her, and complains that he cheapens himself by rambling on to slow-witted students. The Professor counters that one of his students is far from dull and that the student’s interest draws the Professor out. When Lillian presses the point, the Professor silences her with sarcasm.

He goes with Scott to his purchased stretch of beach on the lake and begins swimming while Scott tinkers with the car. When they are both done swimming, they lie on the sand and talk. Scott tries to draw the Professor out about his obvious opposition to the fact that Louie and Rosamund want to call their new house “Outland.” The Professor says he can’t explain his preferences either to Louie or to Scott, and Scott says Louie’s behavior always annoys him, try as he might to conceal it.

The Professor reflects on the blond, attractive Scott, who he says is too good for his work. Scott writes his uplifting editorials and jingles to make a living, but has always wanted to be a serious writer.

The Professor then recalls a tableau he created at the behest of his students to commemorate the adventures of a French explorer in the area. He posed Louie and Scott as the Saladin and Richard Plantagenet before the walls of Jerusalem in a picture that had nothing to do with original celebration. Louie, seated, appealed patiently and reasonably to Scott, standing, stubborn, arrogant and motionless. The Professor states that this did full justice to both men.


The most notable feature of this chapter is St. Peter’s lecture to his students that Lillian and Scott overhear. It is in this passage that St. Peter’s philosophy of life, art and civilization is presented.

The Professor evidently believes that art is synonymous with religion and that, in terms of what it is useful for humans to contemplate; both are far superior to technology and science. In this way, Cather portrays the Professor as an aesthete, humanist and historian; there is a distinct note of nostalgia in the way he decries the onward march of science and technology and their increasingly established takeover of human affairs to the exclusion of art and religion.

While most critics accept the Professor’s expressed philosophy as Cather’s, other critics have pointed out that this may be a mistake. Throughout the novel, it has been argued, art, science, religion and technology all work together to create beauty, to create structures, tableaux and other valuable items that are worthy of human contemplation.

On the other hand, the majority of the novel’s sympathetic characters, most notably the Professor and Tom Outland, believe in Cather’s idea that art, religion and history are inherently superior to science, technology and materialism. Indeed, it is generally understood that Cather decried the ascendancy of science and materialism over art in the modern world and believed that civilization would meet its ultimate doom through this process.

The relationships between these competing forces is, however, the central theme of the book, and it is necessary to read further to come to any conclusions about how these relationships are resolved.