Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Review - The Professor's House

I had a hard time deciding how to review The Professor's House. The plot itself is very straightforward and easy to describe. The characters are vivid and well-defined which adds to the realism of the novel. But it seems to me that the meat of this novel is in the themes and nuances.

I have read some of Cather's short stories many years ago and only have vague memories of them other than a memory that she had exquisite attention to detail. As I read this book I found that memory to be true. The writing vibrantly presents minute details to the reader…from the shape and texture of a hand to the nature of a dress or necklace to the depiction of setting both in and out of doors.

Her characters are likewise detailed. We are held at a close third person so we don't actually get into the characters' heads, but the detailed account of appearance and action allows the reader to feel very intimate with the characters.

The layout of the book is interesting in that it consists of three "books." The first book is entitled "The Family" and follows the Professor as he works to finish his own writing while teaching and balancing the various dramas unfolding in his life and the lives of his family members. The second book is "Tom Outland's Story" and is the first person narrative of Tom, an old student of the Professor and friend of the family who is now dead (from WWI) but left behind an invention and legacy that resulted in great wealth for one of the Professor's daughters. The final book is entitled "The Professor" and is a very short wrap up of the novel which focusses on thoughts, emotions and actions of the professor after he reads and ponders Outland's story.

The overarching plot of the book is interesting if not terribly engaging. There were moments of drama and emotion that drew me in, but there were other segments that were almost boring with the mundane interactions.

As I mentioned initially, the meat of the novel though isn't the plot itself, but the themes and emotions it instills.

Looking to these themes, part of this book seems to be an exploration of emotional displacement and emotional paralysis or release. The Professor is very attached to his old house and his work and doesn't want to move into the new house with his family. Outland is almost a portrayal of a return to the past for the professor and in the end, Outland's story provides an almost existential release to the professor. The claustrophobia of the old house and the room in which the professor works serve as a metaphorical trap that is holding the professor hostage in his current/past life/behavior and causing emotional turmoil and angst from which he can't see a clear escape.

At a higher, more sociological level, the novel portrays some interesting counterpoints on society. The Professor is doing well enough off teaching at the university and does even better once he receives an award for his writing. His two daughters are well enough off as well though one is moving into the "upper class" while the other is sitting fairly "middle." The family interactions and conversations give interesting insight into the class reactions of the era and some of the internal and external results of class mobility. As the professor's daughter and son-in-law gain their wealth and rise to a higher social status, there are jealousies and even some resentment and anger both within and outside of the family.

Looking at the writing, it is clear that there are MANY levels at work in this novel. Cather's frequent use of color helps categorize different themes or values. Her descriptions of the houses, rooms and other settings set the balance between the different classes or social situations. To further illustrate that NOTHING appears to be arbitrary in this book, it was pointed out to me that there is particular significance in the name of the ship that Outland takes to the war, the name of the ship that the Professor's family returns home on, and even the book that Outland uses to study latin.

So, even though the book's plot isn't terribly engaging, I can see this work as having a lot of valuable insight into the social and mental ideas of the 1920s, many of which have relevance today especially given the almost parallel economic situation around us.

While it's not likely something I'd read over and over, it is something I can recommend to those interested in human behavior, the 1920s, or life in general. Cather paints a vivid and beautiful picture of a family…not a perfectly adjusted and blissfully happy family, but a realistic, flawed and interesting family.

3 stars out of 5

View all my reviews

No comments: