The Professor's House

The Professor's House

First edition
Author Willa Cather
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover, Paperback)

The Professor's House is a novel by American novelist Willa Cather. Published in 1925, the novel was written over the course of several years. Cather first wrote the centerpiece, “Tom Outland's Story,” and then later wrote the two framing chapters “The Family” and “The Professor.”[1]

Plot summary

When Professor Godfrey St. Peter and wife move to a new house, he becomes uncomfortable with the route his life is taking. He keeps on his dusty study in the old house in an attempt to hang on to his old life. The marriages of his two daughters have removed them from the home and added two new sons-in-law, precipitating a mid-life crisis that leaves the Professor feeling as though he has lost the will to live because he has nothing to look forward to.

The novel initially addresses the Professor's interactions with his new sons-in-law and his family, while continually alluding to the pain they all feel over the death of Tom Outland in the Great War. Outland was not only the Professor's student and friend, but the fiancé of his elder daughter, who is now living off the wealth created by the "Outland vacuum."

The novel's central section turns to Outland, and recounts in first-person the story of his exploration of an ancient cliff city in New Mexico. The section is a retrospective narrative remembered by the professor.

In the final section, the professor, left alone while his family takes an expensive European tour, narrowly escapes death due to a gas leak in his study; and finds himself strangely willing to die. He is rescued by the old family seamstress, Augusta, who has been his staunch friend throughout. He resolves to go on with his life.


Major themes

The novel explores many contrasting ideas. Indeed in many respects, the novel deals in opposites, variously conceived: Marsellus vs. Outland, Kitty vs. Rosamond, the quixotic vs. the pragmatic, the old vs. the new, the idea of the Professor as a scholar vs. his family relations, Indian tribes vs. the contemporary world of the 1920s, and the opposing social poles of the Professor vs. Lillian. Those opposites are not always clear-cut. Considering the ending, the novel can be viewed as devoid of a clear moral imperative.

Similarly, the comparisons between the modern world of sections III and I contrast with Tom Outland’s natural world in section II. Yet the confused judgments of the characters block these comparisons and obscure clear morals: Tom’s both elevates and appropriates nature, and the unsupported conclusions of Father Duchene pervert the true historical facts of the mesa culture. He assumes ‘Mother Eve’ was murdered for infidelity to her husband, but this would sharply contrast Tom’s view of the mesa as an idyllic space away from ‘the dirty devices of the world’.[10] Accordingly The Professor’s House is generally analyzed as a critique of modernity—the Marselluses are consumed by the latest fashions, Mrs. St. Peter transfers her old love for her husband to a passion for her sons-in-law, science and the modern world corrupt St. Peter’s ideals of history and nature. Yet it is a failure to embrace modernity that nearly kills the Professor and brings him to the realization of his need for change. In his own speech, the knowledgeable professor puts forth numerous contradictions. He criticizes science for only making humans comfortable in front of his lecture hall students, yet with his daughter he lauds the promise of what science can do for man (Crane), and its superior value to money: “In Hamilton the correspondence between inner and outer has been completely destroyed: the dress-forms are deceptive; Rosamond's physical beauty clothes a spiritual emptiness; Louie's loud exterior covers an inner capacity for love and generosity. In Hamilton the failure of inner and outer to cohere leads to misunderstandings and to the characters' inability to make meaningful contact with one another".[10]


The Professor's House was written in 1925, in post-war America. In a similar fashion to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Cather narrates a story about the moral decline of a money-driven society.

Tom displays an Emersonian understanding of national identity. His sense of Americanness is connected to the land and its beauty, and he believes in a collective possession of this land and all of its history for all Americans. His anger at Roddy’s sale of the Native American artifacts to the German stems from a belief that they were a piece of American history, that they were of the land, and therefore nobody had the right to sell them, much less to a non-American. Tom’s ultimate experience of connection to an American identity comes during his night on the mesa alone after his confrontation with Roddy, when he discovers “the mesa was no longer an adventure, but a religious emotion” and, “It was possession”.[11]

Louie’s sense of national identity in contrast centers on money and the economic greatness of the country. He spends liberally the income derived from Tom’s advances in engineering. Louie wears the source of his wealth proudly—the fact that his livelihood is derived from his wife’s deceased fiancé does not create tension between husband and wife nor between the couple and society. His announcement, “We have named our place for Tom Outland, a brilliant young American scientist and inventor, who was killed in Flanders, fighting with the Foreign Legion, the second year of the war, when he was barely thirty years of age,” displays his pride in and respect for his benefactor, and his recognition that Tom’s loyalty to the nation has brought Louie the monetary success he enjoys is representative of his understanding that America's economic success now takes precedence in defining the country and its people.[12]

The professor is caught between the worldviews of Tom Outland and Louie Marsellus. He is resistant to change, idealistically holding onto Tom’s memory and an Emersonian ideality that impugnes material acquisitiveness. As Outland’s good friend and mentor, St. Peter feels it is his responsibility to make sure Tom’s will is properly executed. In this endeavor, he is torn between his love for Tom and his love for his daughter Rosamond, both of whom, the professor believes, have different views on how the money should be spent. When Mrs. Crane asks for his help in obtaining compensation for her husband for the patent on which he worked intimately with Outland, the professor says, “Heaven knows I’d like to see Crane get something out of it, but how? How? I’ve thought a great deal about this matter, and I’ve blamed Tom for making that kind of will”.[13] On the one hand, he is digging his heels into the ground, resisting the shift from a love of the land to a love of its fruits, but he also has a sense of obligation which makes it difficult for him to ignore the role money, particularly Tom’s money, plays in his relationships and social life.

Cather’s endorsement of one worldview over another is debatable, as has been demonstrated by various critics. Walter Benn Michaels suggests that Cather sides with Tom Outland, in that the poetry of “the ‘picture’ of the cliff-dwellers’ tower, ‘rising strong, with calmness and courage’…marks in Cather the emergence of culture not only as an aspect of American identity but as one of its determinants”.[14] From this perspective, Outland is Cather’s voice in the novel, advocating the close ties to the landscape as an expression of national identity. Contrarily, Sarah Wilson posits that Cather is instead critical of Tom’s nostalgia. “The cliff dwellings of the Blue Mesa once belonged to a now vanished culture, and no living Native American population has an indisputable claim on them…How, the novel queries, can a nation or individuals engage the history of a culturally and temporally other people?” However, Wilson does concede “the America of which Tom Outland speaks, the nation that treasures its ancient Southwestern heritage, at least allows for unique ways of being American”.[15]

While critically neglected for the better part of the 20th century, interest in Willa Cather was aroused in the 1980s with the rise of the feminist movement. Although many of her novels have been subsequently incorporated into the canon, critics have largely ignored The Professor’s House, passing it over on account of it being “morally and psychologically unachieved”.[10] As a reason for this disparagement, critics often cite the “broken” format of the book, rebuking its structure as unnecessary. Or, they cite the ambivalent depiction of the Professor’s psyche. The reader is unsure of how to consider the Professor’s demands for solitude and his entrapment in the past. He’s a family man and a university man, but the Professor’s conflict reaches its crux when he surrenders "local community for the nostalgic national ideal".[16] A.S. Byatt calls The Professor's House Cather's "masterpiece... almost perfectly constructed, peculiarly moving, and completely original".[4]


The Professor’s House has been criticized as “fragmentary and inconclusive” because of the way the middle section, “Tom Outland’s Story,” fractures the surrounding narrative.

J. Schroeter presents the most common critical view regarding the structural meaning of the novel in his essay “Willa Cather and The Professor’s House”: "Book II is the 'turquoise' and Books I and III are the 'dull silver'. The whole novel, in other words, is constructed like the Indian bracelet. It is not hard to see that Willa Cather wants to draw an ironic contrast not only between two pieces of jewelry but between two civilizations, between two epochs, and between two men, Marcellus [sic] and Outland, who symbolize these differences".[17]

Some critics, however, have analyzed the novel’s structure in light of the sonata—equating the novel with either a complete, three-movement sonata, or a single sonata, broken up into exposition, development and recapitulation.[18] Other critics, such as Sarah Wilson, cite the Dutch painting style, which Cather references in her correspondence, as a way of explaining the novel’s theme and layout. Dutch paintings provide a sense of the context beyond the actual objects presented. They consist of crowded interiors and, in Cather’s words, “a square window, open…The feeling of the sea that one got through those square windows was remarkable, and gave me a sense of the fleets of Dutch ships that ply quietly on all the waters of the globe—to Java, etc.’’ Applied to The Professor’s House, Books I and III serve as the overstuffed Dutch interior, while “Tom Outland’s Story, with its more open setting and voice, functions as the open window.[19]

Queer readings

In recent years a Queer reading of The Professor’s House has emerged. This reading centers on the professor’s relationship with Tom, as well as Tom’s relationship with his idolized friend Roddy. Through Tom’s youthful influence, the professor achieves a sort of procreation—his work comes forth more easily and fluidly. “Tom represents the Professor’s need to live with delight.” For the professor, Tom’s loss also represents the professor’s forgoing of homoerotic desire and along with it, a life “without delight... without joy, without passionate grief”.[20] Tom and Roddy share a deeply intimate experience of discovery. Tom views Roddy’s selling of the find as a betrayal, and they experience a split with characteristics of a romantic rift.[21][22]


  1. Thacker, Robert. Willa Cather: Leading American Author 1922-1933. 2005. December 15, 2009.
  2. Cather, Willa. The Professor's House. Vintage Classics: New York, 1925. 4.
  3. Cather, 24.
  4. 1 2 Byatt, A.S. (2006). "American Pastoral". Retrieved January 2014. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  5. 1 2 Cather, 98.
  6. Cather, 8.
  7. Cather, 59.
  8. 1 2 Cather, 53.
  9. Cather, 58.
  10. 1 2 3 Hart, Clive. The Professor's House": A Shapely Story, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 67, No. 2 (Apr., 1972), pp. 271-281, Modern Humanities Research Association
  11. Cather, 226.
  12. Cather, 30.
  13. Cather, 118.
  14. Michaels, Walter Benn. "The Vanishing American." American Literary History 2.2 (1990): 220-241. Web. 16 Dec 2009.
  15. Wilson, Sarah, “Fragmentary and Inconclusive Violence: National History and Literary Form in The Professor’s House
  16. Wilson, 584.
  17. Schroeter, J., 'Willa Gather and The Professor's House', Yale Review, 54, 1965, 494-512.
  18. Giannone, Richard, Music in Willa Cather’s Fiction
  19. Wilson, 573.
  20. Cather, 282
  21. Anders, John P., Willa Cather’s Sexual Aesthetics and the Male Homosexual Literary Tradition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999)
  22. Wilson, “Canonical Relations: Willa Cather, America, and The Professor’s House”, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 47, No. 1, Spring 2005, University of Texas Press.
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