The Professor's House

The Professor's House Summary and Analysis of Chapter 9, Section 1: "The Family"

Chapter 9 begins on Christmas day as the Professor looks forward to a day at the old house before family dinner in the evening. He has equipped himself with sandwiches and sherry so he can spend the whole day working.

He runs into Augusta in the park as she walks from church. There is some bantering about St. Peter’s lack of reverence toward the Church, and St. Peter asks Augusta a doctrinal question about the Magnificat. He excuses his ignorance by explaining his mother was a Methodist and his father had no religion, and Augusta explains the Magnificat was written by the Virgin Mary right after she was told she would give birth to Jesus.

As the Professor sits down to work in his study, he realizes he misses both the signs of Augusta’s presence and the sense of holiday that used to complement his work on his magnum opus. The Professor’s sense of history and work is intertwined with personal memories of holidays and other family dramas. As he breaks for lunch, he remembers his holidays in Paris and one All Souls’ Day in particular when he bought a bunch of pink dahlias from a country couple and tried and failed to give them to a pretty girl from a charity school.

The Professor then remembers his student days living with the Thieraults, his French host family, in Versailles. Mme. Thierault was severe but dependable and the three Thierault sons, Pierre, Gaston and Charles, were his very close friends and remained so during his married life.

The Thieraults, and Charles Thierault in particular, helped the Professor when he had the idea to write a book about the early Spanish explorers. Charles owned a cork business and had interests in Spain, and it was on Charles’s ship that the Professor sailed around Spain and formed the idea for the structure of his book.

The Professor returns happily to the new house on Christmas day undaunted by the prospect of a family dinner. The Marselluses and McGregors arrive at the same time, and Kathleen is impressed by Rosamund’s new emerald necklace. Louie praises it and then goes on to express appreciation of a turquoise-and-silver bracelet he saw Rosamund wearing the night he met her. Louie and Scott argue over prohibition, and Louie forms a plan to carry Rosamund and the St. Peters off to France for the summer to drink wine. When Lillian expresses a fear that Louie won’t like the dinner because it has been tailored to Scott, he protests, saying that he likes the things Scott likes but that Scott is intolerant toward him.

As Scott drives Kathleen home, he remarks on the fact that the turquoise bracelet was something Outland gave to Rosamund.


One cannot help but compare the Professor’s epiphany when sailing around Spain in Charles Thierault’s boat to Cather’s own epiphany in conceiving the unusual structure of The Professor’s House. St. Peter describes the way his book on the Spanish explorers unfolds before him in the presence of the beautiful Spanish mountains: “the design of his book unfolded in the air above him, just as definitely as the mountain ranges themselves. And the design was sound. He had accepted it as inevitable, had never meddled with it, and it had seen him through.”

Given the fact that the unusual structure of The Professor’s House caused much comment among critics when it first came out, with “Tom Outland’s Story” bifurcating the novel in a somewhat illogical fashion, it is hard to read this passage without reading into it a preemptive defense of Cather’s decision about the novel’s structure. Though critics initially decried the insertion of Outland’s story in the middle of St. Peter’s story, opinion is gradually shifting back and Outland’s section of the novel is seen as the jewel in the crown of The Professor’s House.

Critics have drawn a parallel between this passage describing St. Peter’s realization of his life’s work during a trip to the locus in quo and Cather’s decision to include the American Southwest in so many of her novels based on her many trips to the region, beginning in 1912. Just as St. Peter resolves to write about Spaniards, Cather must have resolved to write about the Hispanic, American and Native American residents of the Southwest in her various novels.

It is not merely that each author was interested in the region they visited as the setting of future literary endeavors; both St. Peter and Cather experience an intense emotional connection to the landscapes that are to serve as the settings for their works. In what critics recognize as a quintessentially Catherian process, the very mountains of Spain become imbued with inspirational feelings for the Professor, as the very canyons of the Southwest became imbued with meaning for Cather.

In Cather’s work, critics have recognized, objects take on meaning and emotion in a synthetic process that creates a new reality. Thus, as Cather describes the Professor looking at the mountains, she is describing not only mountains, but emotions and meanings that are specific to his perspective and that are inextricably wrapped up in the gold and topaz of the peaks and the snow on their summits and the rose of dawn that he sees.