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The Professor?s House:

A Loss of Identity

In Willa Cather?s The Professor?s House, we see a changing persona in Godfrey St. Peter. Early in the story, St. Peter is a man continually looking and preparing for his future, a man who holds dear to his principles and ideals. The story concludes with an almost frail St. Peter, withdrawn from everything he deems important in his life. He abandons everything that has made him who he is and lives in the memory of his lost and ?primitive? (Cather 241) youth. He longs for his Kansas boyhood when he truly lived as a boy more aware of the important things in life. It?s an insight with reference to the intense memory of his fallen friend Tom Outland, who has become a symbol of St. Peter?s lost youth. His growing distaste for society and how his family is caught up in its materialism makes him long for that world he believed to be pure and whole as a young Kansas boy (Hilgart 388). These intense emotions bring him to an indifference to life so great he is willing to accept death.

Throughout the entire story, we see St. Peter growing more and more detached from his family. His manner at family dinner parties is mute and passive. Lillian, the professor?s wife, has an acute awareness of St. Peter?s changing manner yet cannot place it?s cause. She lectures him and he gives her the excuse he is merely tired for never ?slight [ing] anything? (Cather 143) in his life. St. Peter at this point knows this is a disguise for what he is truly feeling. His problem is the change he sees in his family. This change is mainly due to the introduction of his daughters? husbands, most notably Marsellus. Marsellus, Rosamond?s husband, is perhaps the main culprit to this change. His money causes vanity in Rosamond, which in turn evokes jealousy in Kathleen, St. Peter?s other daughter. We see the professor?s perplexity at Lillian?s change in attitude around Marsellus. She becomes caught up in his glitter and excess. Lillian is attracted to his vivacity and eagerness which is an almost an exact contradiction to St. Peter’s somber attitude. He remembers his daughters as innocent girls, untainted by the world, and a wife who responded to his youthful exhilaration as she does now to Marsellus. To St. Peter, an unfamiliar family is formed by this change and he, constrained by his values, does not change with them. His uncertainty of them is seen when he tells Lillian the story of Euripides going to live alone in a cave by the sea because his house had not agreed with him. St. Peter says to this, ?I wonder whether it was because he (Euripides) had observed women so closely all his life? (Cather 136).

The change in St. Peter?s family is disappointing to him. He is a man with high expectations, morals, and a sense of what is good in people. We see his family betraying all these traits with their fondness for society?s empty glamour. St. Peter remembers, with pleasure, his innocent girls wildly in love with Tom Outland and his stories of the Southwest. These memories bring an intense emotion of nostalgia for pure and wholesome days. Again, the professor?s disappointment is seen over the sparring over the patent money. It is this money that has been the root of change St. Peter has begun to abhor. In addition, Tom Outland?s memory has been tainted by this money. The professor believes the money is a smear on the pure and spotless story of Outland. He rejects this wealth because he will not participate in allowing his memory of Tom to be ?translated into the vulgar tongue? (Cather 50).

Cather portrays St. Peter as an individual set in his ways and not willing to change. It is this stubbornness which refuses to allow him to become like his family. He sees them as wrong because of their new attitude. St. Peter depicts his family?s imperfection as being cause for his solitude. But it is St. Peter unwillingness to change and adapt that is the root of his problems. Lillian tells him this when she says, ?One must go on living, Godfrey. But it wasn?t the children who came between us? (Cather 78). We see St. Peter is truly the cause of their fading relationship. Unlike St. Peter, Lillian sees the imperfections and disappointments in life, but she adapts to these as evidenced by her active involvement with her new family. Fritz Oehlschlaeger explains Lillian?s view on life compared to St. Peter: ?First, Lillian is not nearly as limited as St. Peter tends to suggest. She has retained an interest in life that he has lost, delights in furthering the designs of her daughters and sons-in-law and is able to move into the future, the new house, in a way that St. Peter cannot? (78). This new house has become a symbol of the change of which St. Peter is so fearful. His refusal to move into the new home further illustrates his set ways and inability to let the past go. St. Peter seems to set himself on a pedestal above his family, supported by his own perfect principles and ideals. He cannot be faulted for his devotion to his principles, but we cannot forget his stubbornness that has truly caused a rift in his relationship with his family. He has become an onlooker, not a participant with them, because of his unwillingness to change.

In St. Peter?s newfound isolation, we see him comparing Tom Outland?s goodness to his family and everything he finds wrong in his world. Godfrey cherishes his memory of Outland as being a faultless and passionate man. With this mindset, he sets up a dichotomy between what is virtuous in a person and what is corrupt. Outland becomes everything good St. Peter sees in men and he views his family as the opposite, a product of an avaricious society. Tom becomes a reflection of the pure and uncorrupted St. Peter of Kansas that will temporarily overcome the adult St. Peter.

In the third book, we see a revelation in St. Peter who becomes immured in the memory of his childhood on the Kansas prairie. He finds himself in a ?half-awake loafing with his brain as if it were a new sense, arriving late, like wisdom teeth? (239). This new sense is the primordial St. Peter, seeing the world in a revived and fresh perspective. St. Peter calls it his ?original? (239) self, not tainted by the blemishes of the rejected world that formed his adult life. Lisa Lucenti illustrates the professor?s attraction toward this original St. Peter when she says, ?Nostalgia seduces through its promise of a return to a better, less mediated, more substantial moment in time, a moment when the self was integrated, whole, and self-coherent? (241). In this state of meditation, St. Peter reveals that his life has become nothing but a series of circumstances, empty and ?ordered from the outside? (Cather 240) by his ?secondary social man? (Cather 240). He realizes that this adult life is wrong because it was not built upon this unblemished boyhood but by something entirely not himself. We see how St. Peter believes a proper life should be formed when he says, ?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? (Cather 242). Obviously, St. Peter?s original self and the life he has built did not ?rub well together? thereby imparting him an adult life he perceives to be wrong. One reason St. Peter has such delight in Tom Outland, is because of this young ?Kansas boy? he saw in Tom. Outland lifted St. Peter from his ?commonplace? (Cather 50) life and refreshed it with a vitality and spirit only equal to St. Peter?s ?Kansas? years. In St. Peter?s eyes, Outland was untouched by the snares of society that had tainted the professor?s family.

Finally, we see in the professor a complete fall-out from the personality his family and friends knew. He learns of his family?s prompt return and becomes disturbed and almost fearful of them. His homeward bound family has become a symbol and reminder of what he dislikes in his life. They are a contradiction to the perfect world he has rediscovered and threaten to invade it. St. Peter?s family accepts his detested world and become a part of it. They are the exact opposite of what he now realizes he is, a man without ambitions, dreams, and future plans in life. He is now seeing through eyes of the Kansas boy; aware of what?s important and pure in life. St. Peter has become an out of place orphan of society, not belonging and with no one to go to. It is in this incredible loneliness we see him accept death. Then one evening, the attic stove nearly asphyxiates him in his study; a tomb he has already created by shutting himself off from the family below and the world outside. He lets the stove take him, passively accepting death as a friend who will take him from a world he doesn?t accept.

Finally, as the story ends, a positive discovery is impressed upon St. Peter, through Augusta, who saves St. Peter from his passive suicide. Cather portrays her as a savior to the professor, someone who has shed new light on him and revealed his ?mistake? (Cather 257). He is reminded of her ?seasoned and sound and on the solid earth?? (Cather 256) personality and finds hope and respect in this. He comes to the conclusion that he can live life ?without delight? (Cather 257) but with an awareness he will be ?without joy, without passionate griefs? (Cather 257). These joys and passions are saved and remembered in memories of his Kansas boyhood and of Tom Outland. Michael Leddy believes St. Peter must now ?live in a world pervaded by a sense of loss-the loss of intimacy with Lillian, of familial harmony?of Tom Outland?s life? (448).

Cather, Willa. The Professor?s House. New York: Vintage Classics, 1925.

Hilgart, John. ?Death Comes for the Aesthete: Commodity Culture and the Artifact in Cather?s The Professor?s House.? Studies in the Novel 30 (1998): 376-400.

Leddy, Michael. ?The Professor?s House: The Sense of and Ending.? Studies in the Novel 23 (1991): 443-449.

Lucenti, Lisa Marie. ?Willa Cather?s The Professor?s house: Sleeping with the dead.? Texas Studies in Literature and Language 41 (1999): 236-258.

Oehlschlaeger, Fritz. ?Indisponibilite and the Anxiety of Authorship in The Professor?s House.? American Literature 62 (1990): 74-86.

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