The Professor, Dr. Godfrey St. Peter, has had a new home built for him and his wife just a bit farther from the campus where he teaches. His two daughters are grown and married and in homes of their own, still in town, so they see each other often. It seems, however, that the act of moving to the new house is too much for the professor. It is bringing up thoughts and memories from his past, and how is he expected to keep working if he is no longer in his attic study? This story takes a look at the emotional process of moving on, and how hard it can be. It is also a study in looking back in your life and realizing all the things that happened to make you who you are, and all the what ifs that go along with that.
I just love Willa Cather, and this fall just seemed like the perfect time to pick up another one of her novels. She writes with such beauty and thoughtfulness, and I fall right into her beautiful descriptions of the Midwestern landscape. This novel also spends a section in the Southwest, on an amateur archaeological exploration that I didn’t expect but brought me right back to my undergrad days, studying archaeology. That entire section is a work of beauty and love.
The characters of this story are quite intricate as well even though they seem so simple on the surface. St. Peter has two daughters. The eldest, Rosamond, was engaged to his former student Outland, who had died in the war before realizing the fortune found in the patent he registered. She inherited the patent and the man she eventually married developed the fortune. The youngest daughter, Kathleen, is both jealous of the elder’s fortune and also upset that Outland’s memory is not truly being preserved by her sister. The once close sisters are becoming more and more estranged as time goes on. St. Peter’s wife is kind of doing what she can to keep them together, but she is blinded by her own vanity and enjoyment of the daughter’s fortune. The novel shows how they have all changed through their own experiences and have led them all – the professor primarily- to this place of self-reflection.
I started out thinking that the professor was just a stubborn old man, refusing to fully move into the new home with his wife, instead keeping on the old house just to use the attic for his study. But now I see that this was a sign of his unhappiness of where he is currently in life – where he ended up even though it was due to the success of the books he’d written and the career he has enjoyed. I am glad he didn’t give up on it all, and finished the book with hope that the next big event in the family might revive his interest in life.
The Professor’s House
by Willa Cather
Vintage Classics, 1990. First published 1925.