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0692 | The Professor’s House | Willa Cather

0692 | The Professor’s House | Willa Cather post image

Context: Bought myself one of my dream plants while reading this: a Japanese maple.

This is the moving story of a man reaching the end of himself. In many ways, it reminded me of Rosshalde. We have a man who has achieved much yet finds that the fruit of his labours does not bring him the deep satsifaction he feels his soul longing for.

Professor, like Rosshalde, ends inconclusively with both men left with choices about how to face their families and their futures. While Rosshalde is laced with tragedy, Professor has a more subtle pathos. It nevertheless deals with the loss of a friend and the longings of a life lived beyond societal trappings.

The book is most notable for its unusual structure. Split into three sections, the first sets up the relationships of the Professor and his young adult family as he leaves the family home for a new house.

While the purpose-built, newly-completed dwelling typifies an ideal, there’s too much reality in the old idiosyncratic house and the interpersonal relationships the family are taking with them.

Stresses are quickly apparent between the Professor and pretty much everyone else. The only relationship that is encased in amber is that of the Professor and Tom, a virtual vagrant who turns out to be an engineering genius and is then killed fighting WW1.

Tom’s story is told in the middle section, a lucid account of herding cattle in New Mexico and discoveries there which create iconic visions of the nation.

The book concludes in a short section with the Professor isolated in the study he keeps in the now otherwise abandoned old home while the rest of the family holiday in Europe. A crisis precipitates a necessity to face his advancing years and choices that he is left with.

This structure is thought by some to be clumsy. I thought it absolutely perfect. It enables you to read the Professor’s life in two very different ways and creates a deeper understanding of his inner tensions than you would have if the novel were chronological.

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