"The Professor's House"

The Professor's House by Willa Cather

I could read Willa Cather forever the writing is so good and such a pleasure to read. I have a love/hate relationship with her books though. I put off reading them till I can't make myself wait any longer. I love reading them, then I hate that there's one less left to read. Sure I can re-read them but it's never quite the same as the first time.

This story is about Professor Godfrey St. Peter, a quiet man in a mid-western university town who has spent his life teaching and writing his multi-volume "Spanish Adventurers in North America". He has been a devoted husband to his wife Lillian and father to his two now grown and married daughters, Rosamund and Kathleen. He has achieved academic and financial success and it has brought him to where he is now, moving into a bigger and better house - a house he doesn't want.

He has been content for years working in his study in the old house and has spent countless hours perfecting his garden there. In spite of the rundown condition of the place, it is what he wants and it is what, he decides, he will have. So he lives out of the new house and continues to pay rent on the old house so he can use his study.

This bit of uncharacteristic rebellion opens a door of self-examination through which he walks to meet his first, and what he considers his real, self, the boy he was in the beginning. He is surprised to realize that what he wanted from life then and what he has actually chosen are far different things.

These insights come to him as another story unfolds.  A student of his - now a casualty of war - left behind some research that turned out to have a lucrative practical application. He - his name was Tom - made a will before he went to war leaving everything to his girlfriend, the Professor's daughter, Rosamund. Rosamund and her husband, Louis, are living the high life on that money.

There are problems between the sisters, mostly because Rosamund flaunts her money and rubs it in that she has more than Kathleen. Rosamund is one of those people you love to hate, a real pain in the anywhere you like. A further complication arises when a professor who worked with Tom on the research wants a piece of the pie and expects Professor St. Peter to get it for him.  

I loved the story but wasn't completely satisfied with the ending; for me it raised more questions than it answered. I think a man in his fifties should take some responsibility for his own choices. He comes off sounding a bit immature when it says things like "...all the most important things in his life, St. Peter reflected, had been determined by chance." and "His career, his wife, his family were not his life at all, but a chain of events which had happened to him." He made the choice to marry and have a family, to teach and to write and he says his marriage was "happy" and "joyous" and that he loved raising his daughters. Now though he begins to blame them for his not becoming who he thought he would be. He seems confused about what he believes happiness to be. At one point he says "...that's what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives". Later he decides "Art and religion...have given man the only happiness he has ever had."

I'm going to refer a bit to the end of the book so stop here if you don't want to know. The Professor says "he'll have to learn to live without delight" but doesn't explain what that means or how it will change his circumstances. He says his family probably won't notice any difference in him; to me that just means he lacks the courage to make any real change. It seems the only result of his re-awakening will be that he will be unhappier from now on. I'm not sure what the point is but I'd like to hear from anyone who sees something more in it. Do you think life has "hurt" him or has he simply made the wrong choices?

All in all...

       a good story + good writing + lots to think about = a great reading experience

...and now, on to Marianna by Monica Dickens.


Bethany said...

I haven't heard of this one by Willa Cather before, and I'm glad that I have now. Sounds really interesting, so I'm adding this to my TBR! Thanks for the review.

Ordinary Reader said...

Hi Bethany. I've been reading some of your reviews and I do think you'll like this book of Willa Cather's. I was happy to see you had a review of "If On a Winter's Night a Traveler". I've had that on my list for quite a while but you've gotten me quite interested in it now so I'm moving it up. Thanks for stopping by.

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