Compared to the LifWrite what you know. These are words that Willa Cather lived by. In the novel, The Professors House, Cathers life is directly parallel to the life of the main character, Professor Godfrey St. Peter. Through St. Peter, the reader is able to observe the struggles as well as triumphs that occurred at that point in Willa Cathers life. Her struggle with materialism versus idealism, discovery of religion, and her own mid-life crisis are all shown through the character of Godfrey St. Peter.
In 1922, Cather became increasingly distressed with the growing mechanization and mass-produced quality of American society (Norton). This was the time her writing took a new direction and became more concerned with finding alternative values to the materialistic life she increasingly felt around her. This is shown through St. Peters character in many instances. St. Peter was extremely idealistic and generally avoided anything that even remotely seemed materialistic. In Book 3 of The Professors House, St. Peter reflects on Tom Outlands untimely death. He
describes how the only way to remain idealistic in todays society is to die. A hand like that, had he lived, must have been put to other uses, His fellow scientists, his wife, the town and State, would have required many duties of it.he had escaped all that. He had made something new in the world-and the rewards, the meaningless conventional gestures, he had left to others (237). St. Peter believes that Tom was only able to retain his idealism through his death, leaving all the materialistic matters behind for others to handle.
One of the more subtle ways that St. Peter demonstrates his idealism is through his new house. He couldnt make himself believe that he was ever going to live in the new house again. He didnt belong there (247). St. Peter did not want to succumb to the materialism that he was increasingly seeing in his family. He seemed to be unsure as to which situation was worse: his moving to the new house or his keeping both houses to make everyone, including himself, happy. St. Peter also reflects that his younger self was more what he aspired to be than the man he had become. He observes that life with this Kansas boy, little as there had been of it, was the realest of his lives (240). St. Peter seems to appreciate his young self more because he was primitive and seemingly above material things.
St. Peter fights a never-ending battle with his wife, Lillian: her materialism versus his idealism. They had been young people with good qualities.but they could not have been happy if Lillian had not inherited a small income from her father.it had made all the difference in the world (233). St. Peter hints that whereas he would have been happy with what they had between them, Lillian would not have been happy without her servants, doing housework and things as the wives of his colleagues did.
Another demonstration of St. Peters idealism is his firm belief in fate. He thought he had fared well with fate. He wouldnt choose to live his life over-he might not have such good luck again (234). St. Peter claims that he had had two romances: one of the heart, which had filled his life for many years, and a second of the mind-of the imagination (234). Through his two romances, he was able to experience again the fascination of things that he had previously taken for granted. This fed his idealistic mind and brought a bright spot to his otherwise ordinary existence.
Cather herself was a Protestant. She came from a strongly religious family and, in her search for spirituality, joined the Episcopal church in 1922 (Norton). Cather was concerned with the decline of spirituality in what she
considered an increasingly materialistic American society (Norton). This concern led her to explore the nature of faith, religion, and spirituality through the character of Godfrey St. Peter.
Cathers discovery of religion is shown mainly throughout Tom Outlands story, though it is first seen in the beginning of the novel. St. Peter goes swimming with his son-in-law, Scott, and there are subtle inferences into Cathers search for spirituality. He drew up at the bit of beach St. Peter had bought for himself years before; a little triangle of sand running out into the water, with a bath-house and seven shaggy pine trees on it (57). The triangle of sand represents the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The water represents baptism, or a cleansing of sins, while the seven pine trees are a reference to the seven deadly sins.
Throughout Tom Outlands story, there are many biblical references. Tom Outland, relating his story to St. Peter, describes the time when he first discovered the cliff city. I wish I could tell you what I saw there, just as I saw it, on that first morning, through a veil of lightly falling snow (179). The actual discovery of the cliff city occurred on Christmas day, which is an obvious biblical reference. The snow falling represents purity, while the canyon looking down is seemingly God-like.
Another religious parallel is seen when Tom and his crew discover the female mummy. Henry named her Mother Eve, and we called her that (192). Father Duchene hints that she was probably murdered for some sort of indiscretion, which would make her the symbolic fallen woman. This proves to be literally true later in the novel when Mother Eve falls off of the mule and over the side of the cliff.
Two more parallels can be traced back to the biblical times of Adam and Eve. He was standing on my back, his head just above the floor of the cavern, groping for something to hoist himself by, when a snake struck him from the ledge-struck him square in the forehead (194). Henry dies from the snakebite, which can be considered as a parallel to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve, in their greed, ate the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Henry, attempting to get to the higher ruins, gets bitten by the snake and ultimately ends up with the same punishment as Adam and Eve, eventual death. The other parallel seen here is that the cliff city was destroyed out of envy and greed, two of the seven deadly sins. This is the same case as with Adam and Eve in that they were cast out of Eden as punishment for their greed.
A theme of disillusionment runs through The Professors House. St. Peter, reaching success at middle age, finds himself dispirited, withdrawn, and emotionally estranged from his wife and daughters. This reflects Cathers own sense of alienation within the modern world. Both Cather and St. Peter went through a mid-life crisis, and both felt a sense of rebirth during that time in their lives.
Outland had not come back again through the garden door.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 (239). St. Peter reflects on how Tom Outlands appearance in his life brought him a kind of second youth and, with the loss of Tom, there came a loss of the Professors young self. 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 hima name in the world (247). St. Peter experiences a sense of rebirth and again manages to shift the blame for his situation away from himself and on to fate.
Along with other states of mind which attended his realization of the boy Godfrey, came a conviction.that he was nearing the end of his life (243). During the time she wrote this novel, Cather herself was suffering from ever worsening health. She poured all of her feelings and convictions about her impending death and her feelings on the death of her parents into the character of Godrey St. Peter. But now he thought of eternal solitude with gratefulness; as a release from every obligation, from every form of effort. It was the Truth (248).
St. Peters near death experience was caused by asphyxiation. This is a direct parallel to his own life. He felt suffocated by his life, family and his friends and only wanted to be left alone. St. Peter says, In great misfortunes, people want to be alone. They have a right to be. And the misfortunes that occur within one are the greatest (250). This also displays Cathers growing feelings of alienation from the modern world and her own sense of suffocation from the materialism she observed in the world around her. This also gives the reader clues as to Cathers own emotions. In grieving for her parents, she only wanted to be left alone.
St. Peter never considered suicide, but it occurs to him that confronted by accidental extinction, he had felt no will to resist, but had let chance take its way. (258). This is perhaps why he feels that he is going to die soon. He really does not care about anything anymore and there is nothing in his life that is strong enough to hold him back from death. Even his family seems to no longer have need of him, since his daughters were grown and his wife had already had the best years of his life. Theoretically he knew that life is possible, may even be pleasant, without joy, without passionate griefs. But it had never occurred to him that he might have to live like that (257). It almost seems as if St. Peter longed for death, for a release from a life without delight and joy.
His temporary release from consciousness seemed to have been beneficial. He had let something go- and it was gone: something very precious, that he could not consciously have relinquished, probably (258). At the end of the novel, St. Peter seems to have come full circle, and gained a new respect for life. He lets go of the boy he once was and sets about regaining that same lust for life that he had as a child, only now incorporating it into his adult self. He realizes that he does not have to live
without delight. He only has to find that delight in the things he previously took for granted, instead of just expecting it to be handed to him.
The Professors House was written at a very dynamic point in Willa Cathers life. Every thought and emotion she experienced was poured into, and made a part of, the character of Godfrey St. Peter. Through St. Peter, we can observe the many trials and myriad emotions that Cather was experiencing at this point in her life. Though by nature Cather was a quiet, reserved person, in her novels she leaves all her feelings and thoughts out in the open. She invites the reader to share in both the joys and the sorrows of the characters, thereby sharing them with her.
Cather, Willa. The Professors House. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.,
Norton Anthology of American Literature, 4th ed., vol. 2. Biography of Willa
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