Building The Professor’s House: Structures and Systems that Strengthen a Community

Charlie Havenick
9 min readJan 28, 2021

The circulation of semiological systems in fictional communities is perhaps the backbone of literary cultural anthropology. Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House provides a boldly elusive ontological framework of relationships that result in the formation of social codes, messaging, and gestures. Using anthropological scaffolding laid out by Clifford Geertz’s semiotic webs, we can uncover the deeper meanings of character development in the text as a study on Cather’s time. These webs in the novel are created, enhanced, and signified by overarching experiences with family, masculinity, mourning, queer desire, academic ambitions, cultural preservation, and tonal associations of post-war America. The greatest phenotypic result of these experiential themes is a shapeshifting, interfamilial envy and the fluctuating function of domesticity. A distanced and ethnographic analysis of this text illuminates Cather’s meta character development and the ways that envy and domesticity present themselves as a signifying system, giving deeper insight to the cultural marcations and parameters of art during the 1920s.

Geertz writes that man’s ability to signify and designate meanings and values to the signified creates webs, which in turn become culture. In short, we know ourselves through the signified, from which we derive and collect personal meaning, but that’s also how we perceive others. Using the concepts of signification identified in The Interpretation of Cultures as a meter for Cather’s creation of kinship structures showcases the undeniable symbiosis between culture on a micro level- within small communities- and fiction. In an ethnographic reading, Geertz writes, “the ethnographer is… faced with… a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit”. Geertz then posits that “symbol complexes” are neither predictive nor can they survive in a vacuum. Instead, they offer sporadic and instantaneous insight to a world view and perception.

This means that the cultural margins of a time can dictate much of the codes and systems within fictional relationships. The idea of culture for the literary ethnographer is that culture is part of a larger public domain; the mastery of cultures other than their own simply expands our ideas of civilized evolution. Geertz writes “In the study of culture the signifiers are not symptoms or clusters of symptoms, but symbolic acts or clusters of symbolic acts, and the aim is not therapy but the analysis of social discourse” (Geertz, 10). In reading a piece like The Professor’s House, these complexes present themselves as tacit, non-verbal agreements between characters. This is how St. Peter and Langtry live in competition or how Kathleen sustains her quiet petty jealousy. Geertz’s comparison to the world of Shakespeare would be applicable to the Western reader. We accept that characters speak in malapropisms and hyperbole, but the ethnographer postulates something different; that publication is a curated exhibition in itself, that there is external reasoning for the internal, fictional discomfort between characters.

The language and norms of familial jealousy in the text have much to do with character development and a search for narrative truth. They allow for a certain movement and flow, giving characters breadth to later recognize and grow from the semiological habits they have fallen into. They also enrich the text with moments of somewhat confounding speaker authority. One example is the academic and undisclosed moments of awkwardness at family dinners between Rosamond, Kathleen, and their husbands. These are conversations that must actively be navigated, and not lived truthfully. The superficial, patrician conversations about the lake house or monetary affairs allow the women to stave off an explosion of tension. Of course, this only leads to Kathleen’s eruption to her father upon buying furs. Geertz’s theoretical “wink” in this case is the family’s ongoing consensus of feigned satisfaction.

During the very quotidian exposition of the text this code is most pronounced in the moments of dinner table pauses and conversational rerouting. Take for example the first family dinner when Tom Outland’s name is mentioned, before the audience is allowed any real proficiency in his story. Cather writes of Louie’s pauses and Sir Edgar’s gestures, which could have meant “a great many things; indifference, sharp interrogation, sympathetic interest, the nervousness of a modest man on hearing disclosures of a delicately personal nature”. Dinner table clumsiness is then underscored by the physical and emotional claustrophobia of the house. The ethnographer, reading with no previous understanding of this community, much like a stranger showing up to a close-knit gathering without warning, is subject to deciphering the meaning of these codes. Cather’s ability to move the text slowly, gradually revealing the meaning of these non-verbal languages, like envy, then allows for much more substantial revelations later on.

Briefly returning to the example of Godfrey’s relationship with Langtry, this is a showcase of Cather’s ability to create tone and code in a liaison that is short and habitual. Cather writes “what was the use of keeping up the feud? They had both come there young men… Couldn’t Langtry see it was a draw…?” This excerpt also encapsulates the habitual nature of non-verbal codes within a community. There is comfort in what has always been done, so they will continue to do it.

Another telling system in the family web is Lilian’s jealousy and reservations of Tom, moreover the affection that St. Peter had for Tom. Within that affection, and the lack thereof, is an unspoken estrangement and the desire for space. In “The Family” Cather creates brief moments of foolish marital quarrels. In the third chapter, Lillian tells Godfrey that Scott and Louie don’t live up to Tom’s legacy. Cather writes, “Lillian had been fiercely jealous of Tom Outland… people who are intensely in love… always meet with something which suddenly or gradually makes a difference” (Cather, 38). Throughout the “The Family” Godfrey and Lillian’s conversations are trivial with brief expressions of honesty, like the aforementioned.

In this same vein, the breaking of this code allows for necessary expansion and character development towards the end of the text. The fragmentation of the novel, though largely criticized, benefits and expands our understanding of Godfrey’s routine discomfort with Lillian. Their relationship is brutally reminiscent of a worn marriage and its interest paid only in moments that feel like memories. There are instances of temporary renewal, like Godfrey’s description of Lillian at the symphony in Chicago, but for the majority of the text and this part of Godfrey’s life, it is a relationship that’s functionality has long expired. In the final section of the novel, as the Professor wrestles with the end of his career, a love that left with Tom’s death, he comes to truthful terms with his feelings toward Lillian.

In the deterioration of functionality in the St Peters’ marriage comes new desires. This text-wide domestic fluctuation is symbolized in part by Godrey’s old home and the end of his career. In the family’s cultural circle, symbiotic domestic partnerships generally stem from practicality and ease. As those relationships develop, however, a hidden desire and yearning is uncovered.

The true breath of fresh air that is “Tom Outland’s Story”, told appropriately in his voice, is the most ardent and personal. The nature of discovery as a theme for Tom presents itself in the relationship between him and Blake, the archeological findings, as well as some partially uncovered realizations about himself. Tom is a beacon of innocent wonder and captures every sense of a mysterium tremendum, or the urgency and excitement of discovery.

The amorphous presentation of domestic code exists at the outset, when Tom and Roddy first meet. Roddy, first introduced as a drunk Rodney Blake and later adopted by this presumed affectionate pet name, is escorted home by Tom. Very quickly they fall into a pattern of unspoken reciprocity. Cather writes “we had long arguments about what we read in the papers, but we never quarreled. The only trouble I had with Blake was getting to do my share of the work. He made my health a pretext… long after I was well” (167). The mutual agreement extends to their life planning and careers on the frontier. Though there are many interpretations, the final break between Tom and Roddy could be attributed to a different understanding of the value in their archeological discovery, a potential symbolic placeholder for the romance. Roddy’s inability to understand the rarity and meaning of the artifacts can be seen as a sort of repression. Again, like Lillian or her daughters, Cather’s decisions regarding narrative authority never allow for a more dimensional view of the characters. We do not know what conflicts, instances of repression, and self-unacceptance Roddy may have faced after Tom left for Washington.

Like the other codes in the story, the expansion and development of feelings about domesticity also help Tom come to a larger revelation at the end of the section. There is something inherently loving, especially in a queer analysis, about the nature of an adventure where something is discovered, both about the world and oneself. Cather writes “I had never told [Roddy] just how I felt about those things we’d dug out together, it was the kind of thing one doesn’t talk about directly. But he must’ve known… until that night, I had never known myself that I cared more about them more than anything else in the world” (Cather, 216). It is useful in the analysis of this statement to recognize the overwhelming unconscious freedom and deep, frightening incongruence that comes with burgeoning queer yearning.

The semiological habits in Tom and Godfrey’s relationship, however, feature a delicate removal and journey away from domestic life. Tom becomes the Professor’s adventure. It is clear that community and family have different meanings for them, moreover, they’ve had opposite journeys in the search for belonging. Tom finds community in the artificial feeling of family from the archeological site, then later in the warmth of the St Peters’ household. Godfrey, even when surrounded by family, finds a way to feel lonely, for Tom was the only true community that he needed. Because of the warping of time in the novel, a present moment where Tom and St Peter are together cannot be traced. What is definite, however, is the way Godfrey is bereft and romanticizes the liminal quality of these memories and the way they feel like a brutal extension of the self.

Returning to Geertz, systems of interaction can be excellent identifiers in terms of the equally coded social limitations of the time. The text can be used as a historical foundation, for what we are experiencing is not a wholesome or unadulterated art, but something that has been edited and curated for an audience. Discussing the novel independent of its cultural meaning is useful in terms of plot, but does not provide any further introspection or allow us to make any decisions about the evolution or devolution of culture during that time. This means that asking questions about the political and artificial wrapping of the text is only appropriate. In essence Geertz’s writing leads to a conversation about literary anthropology, not a critique of a culture but rather the literature from which it stems.

In this final analysis, the work of critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin is of particular interest. Cather’s work would arrive in and be marketed to a world of politic and capital, meaning that the very exhibition of the novel is a calculated procedure. It does not inherently belong to one of Benjamin’s coined “cults” wherein the art can be traced to a sporadic human moment. The “aura”, which may point more to Cather’s relationship with academia and the women in her life, is lost in translation in a narrative that could be digested and sold at the time. Instead, Cather writes through the characters in a way that can only be detected by an audience who can relate to and clearly decipher the systems between characters. Without making firm assumptions about Cather’s life beyond what is known historically and objectively, her lifelong partner and friend, Edith Lewis’s death marked an end to much of her literary inspiration and it’s likely that she was writing in place of the Professor. This narrative placement allows her to write in a way that is truthful, but still aligns with the limitations of the 1920s for women, especially queer women.

Cather’s text is circular and elliptical and encourages both the characters and readers to question where they see themselves in the fabric of the world. They find joy and experience in the cultural artifacts of someone else’s life, in what was changed before they left them behind. All of the characters in the novel tie into their own cultural web because they are conscious beings who observe one another and make empathetic connections within individual systematic routines and practices. There are profound moments of intertextual questioning in Professor’s premonitions about the end of life or the feeling of vastness and brevity of life in Tom’s findings. Are we living in a circle of time where we are only left with material alterations of past generations without any true evolutionary gain? Do we change the world without ever truly changing ourselves? The Professor’s House can’t answer these questions, but like any good novel, it makes the questioning a little less lonesome.