Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly's Reviews > The Professor's House

The Professor's House by Willa Cather
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Aug 13, 2011

it was amazing
Read in August, 2011

I would say that this is a very "clean" novel. The characters are respectful, their dialogues are polished, and there's not a hint of any major mischief in the plot. Professor Godfrey St. Peter is fifty-two. He has two married daughters and a wife (Lillian) of many years. He teaches and writes history books. His family is financially secure, one of his daughters is even rich, having been the beneficiary of his (St.Peter's) former student's posthumous wealth from a gas-related invention. this former student, Tom Outland, died very young during the first world war.

There are some minor tensions in several places mainly brought about by this gas money. But one can see for himself that these can't possibly be unsolvable problems or things one can base a tragic novel on. You would have preferred to see these come to some sort of a resolution, but Willa Cather probably fell asleep going towards the ending, woke up still lethargic, then decided to just let everything hang.

Why do I like this novel very much? Because I fortunately read it at the proper time. A couple of years more and I may see all of my children married too and no longer asking me for money. They will have their own homes and one day, like Professor St. Peter and his wife Lillian, me and my wife would be watching something (here, the professor and his wife are watching a play) and we'll also have an introspective moment like this:

"When the curtain fell on the first act, St. Peter turned to his wife. 'A fine cast, don't you think? And the harps are very good. Except for the wood-winds, I should say it was as good as any performance I ever heard at the Comique.'

"'How it does make one think of Paris, and of so many half-forgotten things!' his wife murmured. It had been long since he had seen her face so relaxed and reflective and undetermined.

"Through the next act he often glanced at her. Curious, how a young mood could return and soften a face. More than once he saw a starry moisture shine in her eyes. If she only knew how much more lovely she was when she wasn't doing her duty!

"'My dear, ' he sighed when the lights were turned on and they both looked older, 'it's been a mistake, our having a family and writing histories and getting middle-aged. We should have been picturesquely shipwrecked together when we were young.'

"'How often I've thought that!' she replied with a faint, melancholy smile.

"'You? But you're so occupied with the future, you adapt yourself so readily,' he murmured in astonishment.

"'One must go on living, Godfrey. But it wasn't the children who came between us.' There was something lonely and forgiving in her voice, something that spoke of an old wound, healed and hardened and hopeless.

"'You, you too?' he breathed in amazement. He took up one of her gloves and began drawing it out through his fingers. She said nothing, but she saw her lip quiver, and she turned away and began looking at the house through the glasses. He likewise began to examine the audience. He wished he knew just how it seemed to her. He had been mistaken, he felt. The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one's own. Presently the melting music of the tenor's last aria brought their eyes together in a smile not altogether sad.

"That night, after he was in bed, among unaccustomed surroundings and a little wakeful, St. Peter still layed with his idea of a picturesque shipwreck, and he cast about for the particular occasion he would have chosen for such a finale. Before he went to sleep he found the very day, but his wife was not in it. Indeed, nobody was in it but himself, and a weather-dried little sea captain from the Hautes-Pyrenees, half a dozen spry seamen, and a line of gleaming snow peaks, agonizingly high and sharp, along the southern coast of Spain."

"The heart of another is a dark forest, always..."--could this be true? And will there really be a time--after you've succeeded in every aspect of your ordinary life--that all you'd want to do is to get away from everyone who had been a part of you, even from your spouse or partner, like the one I have right there on the top left hand portion of this review?-

"He (Professor St. Peter) loved his family, he would make any sacrifice for them, but just now he couldn't live with them. He must be alone. That was more necessary to him than anything had ever been, more necessary, even, than his marriage had been in his vehement youth. He could not live with his family again--not even with Lillian. Especially not with Lillian! Her nature was intense and positive; it was like a chiselled surface, a die, a stamp upon which he could not be beaten out any longer. If her character were reduced to an heraldic device, it would be a hand (a beautiful hand) holding flaming arrows--the shafts of her violent loves and hates, her clear-cut ambitions.

"'In great misfortunes,' he told himself, 'people want to be alone. They have a right to be. And the misfortunes that occur within one are the greatest. Surely the saddest thing in the world is falling out of love--if once one has ever fallen in.'

Will we, as we grow old, and as claim have been universally observed, go back to the young boys and girls we all had been? Will we meet them again and embrace them, tightly, until we are them again? Is this the common great misfortune those of us who will not die young shall suffer in the end?

"St. Peter had always laughed at people who talked about 'day-dreams,' just as he laughed at people who naively confessed that they had an 'imagination.' All his life his mind had behaved in a positive fashion. When he was not at work, or being actively amused, he went to sleep. He had no twilight stage. But now he enjoyed this half-awake loafing with his brain as if it were a new sense, arriving late, like wisdom teeth. He found he could lie on his sand-spit by the lake for hours and watch the seven motionless pines drink up the sun. In the evening, after dinner, he could sit idle and watch the stars, with the same immobility. He was cultivating a novel mental dissipation--and enjoying a new friendship. Tom Outland had not come back again through the garden door (as he had so often done in dreams!), but another boy had: the boy the Professor had long ago left behind him in Kansas, in the Solomon Valley--the original, unmodified Godfrey St. Peter.

"This boy and he had meant, back in those far-away days, to live some sort of life together and to share good and bad fortune. They had not shared together, for the reason that they were unevenly matched. The young St. Peter who went to France to try his luck, had a more active mind than the twin he left behind in the Solomon Valley. After his adoption into the Thierault household, he remembered that other boy very rarely, in moments of home-sickness. After he met Lillian Ornsley, St. Peter forgot that boy had ever lived.

"But now that the vivid consciousness of an earlier state had come back to him, the Professor felt that life with this Kansas boy, little as there had been of it, was the realest of his lives, and that all the years between had been accidental and ordered from the outside. His career, his wife, his family, were not his life at all, but a chain of events which had happened to him. All these things had nothing to do with the person he was in the beginning.

"The man he was now, the personality his friends knew, had begun to grow strong during adolescence, during the years when he was always consciously or unconsciously conjugating the verb 'to love'--in society and solitude, with people, with books, with the sky and open country, in the lonesomeness of crowded city streets. When he met Lillian, it reached its maturity. From that time to this, existence had been a catching at handholds. One thing led to another and one development brought on another, and the design of his life had been the work of this secondary social man, the lover. It had been shaped by all the penalties and responsibilities of being and having been a lover. Because there was Lillian, there must be marriage and a salary. Because there was marriage, there were children. Because there were children, and fervour in the blood and brain, books were born as well as daughters. His histories, he was convinced, had no more to do with his original ego than his daughters had; they were a result of the high pressure of young manhood.

"The Kansas boy who had come back to St. Peter this summer was not a scholar. He was a primitive. He was only interested in earth and woods and water. Wherever sun sunned and rain rained and snow snowed, wherever life sprouted and decayed, places were alike to him. He was not nearly so cultivated as Tom's old cliff-dwellers must have been--and yet he was terribly wise. He seemed to be at the root of the matter; Desire under all desires, Truth under all truths. He seemed to know, among other things, that he was solitary and must always be so; he had never married, never been a father. He was earth, and would return to earth. When white clouds blew over the lake like bellying sails, when the seven pine-trees turned red in the declining sun, he felt satisfaction and said to himself merely: 'That is right.' Coming upon a curly root that thrust itself across his path, he said: 'That is it.' When the maple-leaves along the street began to turn yellow and waxy, and were soft to the touch,--like the skin on old faces,--he said: 'That is true; it is time.' All these recognitions gave him a kind of sad pleasure.

"When he was not dumbly, deeply recognizing, he was bringing up out of himself long-forgotten, memories of his early childhood, of his mother, his father, his grandfather. His grandfather, old Napoleon Godfrey, used to go about lost in profound, continuous meditation, sometimes chuckling to himself. Occasionally, at the family dinner-table, the old man would try to rouse himself, from motives of politeness, and would ask some kindly question--nearly always absurd and often the same one he had asked yesterday. The boys used to shout with laughter and wonder what profound matters could require such deep meditation, and make a man speak so foolishly about what was going on under his very eyes. St. Peter thought he was beginning to understand what the old man had been thinking about, though he himself was but fifty-two, and Napoleon had been well on his eighties. There are only a few years, at the last, in which man can consider his estate, and he thought he might be quite as near the end of his road as his grandfather had been in those days.

"The Professor knew, of course, that adolescence grafted a new creature into the original one, and that the complexion of a man's life was largely determined by how well or ill his original self and his nature as modified by sex rubbed on together.

"What he had not known was that, at a given time, that first nature could return to a man, unchanged by all the pursuits and passions and experiences of his life; untouched even by the tastes and intellectual activities which have been strong enough to give him distinction among his fellows and to have made for him, as they say, a name in the world. Perhaps this reversion did not often occur, but he knew it had happened to him, and he suspected it had happened to his grandfather. He did not regret his life, but he was indifferent to it. It seemed to him like the life of another person.

"Along with other states of mind which attended his realization of the boy Godfrey, came a conviction (he did not see it coming, it was there before he was aware of its approach) that he was nearing the end of his life...."

Ah, let us all grow old. Then, we will know if this story is true.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Kwesi 章英狮 I think I have to reserve this book 40 to 50 years from now. Haha.

message 2: by Nenette (new)

Nenette Wow! That's the longest quote I read from your reviews :)

message 3: by Maria (new)

Maria Toscano Doesn't sound like a fun undertaking but thank you for all the wonderful quotes. I liked many of the same passages and it was nice to review them again.

Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly thank you. I don't keep books. After I finish with them, I give them away. So when I find nice quotes, I write them down in my reviews. Saves me space, haha.

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