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From Cather Studies Volume 3

Spatial Structures and Forms in The Professor's House

Much critical attention has been directed toward both structure and form in The Professor's House. Early critics questioned the effect of the book's tripartite structure, but modern Cather criticism-beginning in 1965 with James Schroeter's structural analogy of "Tom Outland's Story" as the "turquoise" encased in the "dull silver" frame of the Professor's story-has helped us to see that Cather's experimental form is not only balanced but also purposeful. Based on spatial relationships as much as temporal ones, the structure of The Professor's House is avant-garde even today; based on archetypal shapes and on Platonic idealism, however, Cather's use of forms grounds her novel in the community of arts, in universal human psychology, and in her own romantic philosophy.

The critical theorist R. S. Crane defines the structure of a work as "the order, emphasis, and rendering of all its component materials and parts" (Abrams 70). It is the structure of The Professor's House to which Cather refers in her famous letter about her novelistic "experiment . . . [that] was very much akin to the arrangement followed in sonatas" (On Writing 31-32). It is the structure of the novel to which she refers when she compares "Tom Outland's Story" to "the device of inserting the Nouvelle into the Roman" (30). And it is the structure to which she refers when she writes that, as in Dutch genre paintings, she wanted to open within her novel "the square window and let in the fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa" (31-32).

Whatever formal analogy one uses to explain this structure, the structure itself is essentially spatial rather than temporal, synchronic rather than diachronic. As recognized by Arnold, Skaggs, and Middleton, the three parts of the narrative are held together by "Juxtaposition and contrast" (Arnold 169). According to Skaggs, books 1 and 2 function as a pedestal for the artistic center, the Taormina jar, of "Tom Outland's Story" (64); according to Middleton, Tom's story functions as a "vacuole," or a "gap within the progression of events taking place in 'present' time" (108). But the analogy that most clearly expresses the structural and spatial relationships within the novel is Cather's own: the analogy of the square window opened to the air.

The image of the open window extends throughout The Professor's House, providing symbolic import and contributing to the spatial structure of the work. The blank wall space of St. Peter's attic study is interrupted by "a single square window, swinging outward" (16), a window from which he can see, "far away, just on the horizon, a long, blue, hazy smear-Lake Michigan, the inland sea of his childhood" (29). In the middle section of the novel the window completely disappears; the reader is outside the window in both space and time, beyond the confining frame of the realistic present and in the past-both the recent past of Tom Outland's discovery and the ancient past of the cliff dwellers' civilization itself-that juxtaposes idealistic aspirations with human betrayals. In the crucial scene in which St. Peter is nearly suffocated in his study, he has, significantly, refused to "go out of the house that afternoon," just as he has symbolically refused to leave his own mind, "reviewing his life, trying to see where he had made his mistake" (275). As Rosowski has recognized, he is at this point not only "out of humanized space" but also, since the scene occurs at midnight, outside of time ("Subverted Endings" 82). Totally alone in both space and time, St. Peter has discovered the psychological "immensity," even the emptiness, that Gaston Bachelard says "is within ourselves" (184). Having seen from his window only stormy weather, he turns increasingly inward, even contemplating suicide when he realizes that "the long-anticipated coincidence had happened.... The storm had blown the stove out and the window shut" (276). St. Peter does make a feeble attempt to reopen the window of his life, but his courage and strength are insufficient without the outside aid of Augusta. As Rosowski has observed, this "series of frames, narrative open windows . . . promise something real, but . . . once entered reveal disorder and emptiness" (Voyage 151).

According to Joseph A. Kestner, the modern authorial technique of using narrative frames "not only emphasizes the spatialpictorial quality of the plot . . . but also functions in another atemporal manner, as a delay . . . Such enclosures serve the presentation of 'simultaneous actions'" (72). Whereas Tom Outland's narrative occurs logically and chronologically before St. Peter's memory of it in the text, Outland's narrative is simultaneous with St. Peter's memory of it. This simultaneous occurrence, which halts the outer linear narrative of St. Peter's life,[1] also illustrates what Joseph Frank has called the "spatialization of form in a novel," a technique he illustrates with the fair scene from Flaubert's Madame Bovary, a favorite novel of Cather's and one that conceivably may have influenced her style. In the spatialized novel, Frank says, "for the duration of the scene, at least, the time-flow of the narrative is halted; attention is fixed on the interplay of the relationships within the immobilized time area. These relationships are juxtaposed independently of the progress of the narrative, and the full significance of the scene is given only by the reflexive relations among the units of meaning" (16). Thus, for the duration of "Tom Outland's Story" attention focuses on Tom's relationship to Roddy and to the ancient cliff dwellers themselves. However, when the narrative window on the past closes and the focus returns to St. Peter in his study, both St. Peter and the reader reflect on the significance of the scene and on its relationship to St. Peter's life.

Cather's other metaphors of the sonata and Dutch genre painting confirm that she is using spatial structures in The Professor's House to achieve Art with a capital A-an artistic form that symbolically incorporates all art forms into its presentation. As Robert P. Morgan observes, the vocabulary used to describe music is spatial rather than temporal (526-28). Music is "high" or "low"; it moves "up" and "down" on the scale; and it has "texture" and "depth" of sound. Moreover, the tripartite sonata form, like the three movements of Cather's novel, requires appropriate mood changes (see Middleton 105). Like other modern art forms, then, music is comprehended through space. "Only through space," Rudolf Arnheim declares, "only in space do we find the beautiful fossils of duration [in Henri Bergson's sense] concretized by a long stay. This transposition of succession into simultaneity leads to the curious paradox that a piece of music, in order to be surveyed as a structural whole, must be perceived as some kind of visual image" (646-47).

Cather's comparison of the novel to Dutch genre painting, which has been analyzed by Pat Yongue and others, also suggests her use of spatial structure. "Tom Outland's Story" functions within the novel like a painting within a painting. As Janis Stout has observed, this dominant element, is, as in a "well-composed painting," "somewhat off-center, beginning about 5/8 through the novel and ending a little past the 7/8 point" (208). This spatial/structural analogy of fiction and painting has implications not only for the overall structure of the novel but also for individual scenes. Michel Butor asserts that "planting his easel or his camera at one of the points of the space evoked, the novelist will discover all the problems of framing, of composition, and of perspective encountered by the painter" (Kestner 72-73). Like a painter, then, Cather creates a verbal picture of Cliff City; to Tom "that cluster of buildings, in its arch, with the dizzy drop into empty air from its doorways and the wall of cliff above, was as clear in [my] mind as a picture. By closing [my] eyes [I] could see it against the dark, like a magic-lantern slide" (204). Here is the spatial depth and the hint of color associated with painting, with art. The stark contrast between this artistic representation and historical experience, between painting and photographic reality, however, is suggested by Tom's derogatory reference to the photographs that he and Roddy have taken of the cliff dwellings with their small Kodak, for "these pictures didn't make much show,looked, indeed, like grubby little 'dobe ruins such as one can find almost anywhere. They gave no idea of the beauty and vastness of the setting" (226). Art, Cather believes, is more real than objective, scientific fact.

Using the eye of the artist to select and alter details from her 1915 visit to Mesa Verde (Harrell 12), Cather forms the materials of the Southwest into a work of art that is architectonic as well as verbal and pictorial.[2] Quoting art theorist Adolf Hildebrand, Susanne Langer defines the architectonic process as "the construction and ordering of forms in space in such a way that they define and organize the space" (74).[3] As Langer uses the term, form clearly means a shape in space, whether two-dimensional or three-dimensional. However, as defined by R. S. Crane, who emphasizes the original Greek meaning of the word, form is the "dynamis" of the work-its "emotional power," its "shaping principle." According to Crane, then, form "controls and synthesizes the 'structure' of a work" (Abrams 70). Thus, the architectonic process is itself the formal, ordering principle that determines how individual forms are ordered in space. In other words, form determines structure.

Through Tom's perception, Cather does indeed construct and order the individual forms of Cliff City so that they not only define and organize the available space but also provide the overall "form" or "shaping principle" of the novel. Tom relates: In stopping to take breath, I happened to glance up at the canyon wall. I wish I could tell you what I saw there just as I saw it, on that first morning, through a veil of lightly falling snow. Far up above me, a thousand feet or so, set in a great cavern in the face of the cliff, I saw a little city of stone, asleep. It was as still as sculpture-and something like that. It all hung together, seemed to have a kind of composition: pale little houses of stone nestling close to one another, perched on top of each other, with flat roofs, narrow windows, straight walls, and in the middle of the group, a round tower. (201)

The physical forms in the passage-the cavern, the cliff, the houses, the windows, the round tower-are individual shapes, but built into and rising out of the landscape as they do, they are also what Coleridge has called organic forms (Abrams 69). As in O Pioneers! Cather must have allowed the landscape itself to provide the key to form (Sergeant 97) in The Professor's House. But here the organic form of Cliff City also suggests the novel's structure, for the round tower is the structural center of the ancient city, just as "Tom Outland's Story" is the structural center of the novel.

Likewise, the tower itself suggests the novel's themes of human feelings and aspirations. Langer argues that "the purpose of all plastic art"- and architectural forms such as those in Cliff City are indeed plastic[4] - "is to articulate visual form, and to present that form-so immediately expressive of human feeling that it seems to be charged with feeling-as the sole, or at least paramount, object of perception." Langer continues, "This means that for the beholder the work of art must be not only a shape in space, but a shaping of space-of all the space that he is given" (71). Undoubtedly, the tower is the work of art that shapes and gives meaning and human feeling to the surrounding space of Cliff City: It was beautifully proportioned, that tower, swelling out to a larger girth a little above the base, then growing slender again. There was something symmetrical and powerful about the swell of the masonry. The tower was the fine thing that held all the jumble of houses together and made them mean something. It was red in colour, even on that grey day. In sunlight it was the colour of winter oak-leaves. A fringe of cedars grew along the edge of the cavern, like a garden. They were the only living things. Such silence and stillness and repose-immortal repose. That village sat looking down into the canyon with the calmness of eternity... I can't describe it. It was more like sculpture than anything else. I knew at once that I had come upon the city of some extinct civilization, hidden away in this inaccessible mesa for centuries, preserved in the dry air and almost perpetual sunlight like a fly in amber. (201-2)

Suspended between the tall round tower and the deep canyon, Tom inhabits spatially an "ideal" plane of vision that is almost Platonic, the artistic and spiritual ideal rising above him and psychological reality yawning below him. This vision seems almost apocalyptic, and indeed it is. Like Tom, the village stands on the surface plane-the plain-between the tower and the canyon, its deathly "immortal repose" foreshadowing Tom's own death and its preservation "like a fly in amber" foreshadowing the preservation of Tom and his experience in his diary and in the memory of Professor St. Peter.

In addition, the silence and stillness of this scene are themselves spatial, for as Ricardo Gullon has observed, "it is through silence that space declares its presence" (17). Moreover, silence is expressed not only within "Tom Outland's Story" but also with the insertion of the story itself into the text. However, as Gullon also declares, such textual "silences are not hollow spaces but elements complementary to the verbal construct. At some point the forward motion of the text is halted, and at this point the reader of the text is prompted to supply the continuation, thinking, imagining, establishing plausible hypotheses that link what is said with what is kept silent" (17).

The round shape of the tower is also symbolically significant, for circular shapes, according to Aniela Jaffe, symbolize "the totality of the psyche in all its aspects, including the relationship between man and the whole of nature" (266). The round shape of the ancient tower and also the round, natural shapes of the water jars and bowls in Cliff City stand in stark contrast to the square shape of St. Peter's isolated attic room and his French garden just as, according to Pat Yongue, Augusta's "round" dress patterns contrast with the Professor's "square" manuscripts (165-66). Commenting about the significance of such contrasting shapes, Marshall McLuhan argues that literate man, civilized man, tends to restrict and enclose space and to separate functions, whereas tribal man has freely extended the form of his body to include the universe.... Housing was an image of both the body and the universe for tribal and nonliterate societies. The building of the house with its hearth as fire-altar was ritually associated with the act of creation. This same ritual was even more deeply embedded in the building of the ancient cities, their shape and process having been deliberately modeled as an act of divine praise. (1117-18)

True, this ancient world contains the possibility of isolation and death just as St. Peter's modern world does, but its structure, spatial organization, and forms-all built on organic shapessuggest a unity and completeness that is absent from St. Peter's modern world. In particular, the circular tower reaching toward the open sky, perhaps "deliberately modeled as an act of divine praise" (McLuhan 118), suggests the human aspirations of both religion and art to which St. Peter refers in his lecture (69).

A contrast is found in The Professor's House not only between round and square forms-or shapes-but also between open and closed spaces. Because this spatial and psychological dialectic has been so fully treated by Judith Fryer, Sharon O'Brien, and others, I spend little space on the contrast here. Suffice it to say that both the Professor's attic room and the "long, low twilit space" at the back of the cliff dwellers' cavern are closed forms and that the view of the lake from the Professor's window and the "ocean of clean air" (2-13) extending beyond Cow Canyon are open forms. As has been frequently pointed out, these are the spaces of "intimate immensity" that Gaston Bachelard associates with creativity (O'Brien 409). Moreover, the Eagle's Nest in which Tom secures his diary is a primal image of refuge (Bachelard 91)-though, ironically, no refuge for Mother Eve-that is appropriate to an ancient civilization, whereas the chestlike box-couch that contains the intermingled "treasures" of the Professor and Augusta is a symbol of "intimate space" (Bachelard 78) appropriate to modern civilization. Although the ancient cliff dwellers "built themselves into the mesa and humanized it" (221), the nest itself remains a hidden space, a space that hides the tragedy of Mother Eve as well as the potential art of Tom's diary. However, Bachelard declares that chests are "objects that may be opened" (85), thus opening up the dimension of intimacy. Though intimate space is not, according to Bachelard, "open to just anybody" (78), St. Peter opens his chest for Augusta, thus creating the intimacy that will ultimately allow Augusta to bring him back into the human family, from which he has isolated himself.

In addition to the physical forms-round and square shapes and open and closed spaces-that occur so frequently in the novel, one other important element of Cather's use of forms remains to be discussed. As M. H. Abrams has observed form in its classical or Platonic sense means "idea." I have been unable to locate a direct connection between Cather's reading and Plato; however, not only her broad classical education but also the influence of Emerson on her work that has been demonstrated by Richard Dillman and Demaree Peck suggests an indirect link back to Platonic ideas. Even without such a link, however, Plato and Cather clearly use parallel images. It will be remembered that Plato symbolized his theory of ideal forms with the images of the sun, the cave, and the divided line.

Plato's myths of the sun and the cave are closely related. For Plato, the sun itself symbolizes knowledge and truth, goodness and beauty. In the myth of the cave, prisoners are chained facing the back of the cave so that they can see nothing but the "shadows" thrown by the light of a fire located behind them, at the front of the cave (136). If a man were released and allowed to view first the fire and then the sunlight, Plato says in The Republic, he would at first suffer and long to return to the refuge of the familiar. However, after his understanding developed, the released prisoner who had seen the sun, the source of truth and beauty, would "endure anything rather than go back to his old beliefs and live in the old way" in the cave (137). In The Professor's House, both Tom and St. Peter encounter cave structures. In fact, the "long, low, twilit" structure that Tom discovers at the back of the cavern of the cliff dwellers incorporates Platonic imagery: this space "got gradually lower toward the back until the rim rock met the floor of the cavern, exactly like the sloping roof of an attic. There was perpetual twilight back there, cool, shadowy, very grateful after the blazing sun in the front court-yard" (209). Here Tom seems reluctant to move from the shadow into the sunlight, but, ironically, after his betrayal of Roddy, Tom eagerly courts the sunlight and the understanding that it represents. That summer on the mesa, Tom explains, "was my high tide. Every morning, when the sun's rays first hit the mesa top, while the rest of the world was in shadow, I wakened with the feeling that I had found everything, instead of having lost everything. Nothing tired me. Up there alone, a close neighbour to the sun, I seemed to get the solar energy in some direct way" (251). Moreover, just as Plato reports that the enlightened prisoner would try to return to the cave to release his former companions, so Tom tries to share his knowledge with the world, especially with St. Peter, who recalls that "through Outland's studies, long after they had ceased to be pupil and master, he had been able to experience afresh things that had grown dull with use. The boy's mind had the superabundance of heat which is always present where there is rich germination. To share his thoughts was to see old perspectives transformed by new effects of light" (258). But the message that Outland brings to St. Peter is insufficient to draw him out of the cave of himself, the womblike attic study identified by Leon Edel as "A Cave of One's Own." In fact, St. Peter identifies with Euripides, who as an old man "went and lived in a cave by the sea" because "houses had become insupportable to him" (156), and in the scene in which St. Peter nearly suffocates, he wakes and watches as the "fire made a flickering pattern on the wall" (276) of his cavelike attic and then succumbs to sleep.

In his Divided Line, Plato separates the world into four Forms. The two lower Forms, shadows and objects, exist in the physical world of appearance; the two higher Forms, thought images such as round or square shapes and ideas such as Beauty and Goodness, exist in the world of Forms, or true reality. This hierarchy is represented in The Professor's House in the implied shadow of the round tower, the round tower itself, the idea of roundness, and the idea-or ideal-of perfection symbolized by roundness. Significantly or coincidentally- I am not sure which-Cather actually uses the term forms to refer to Augusta's dressmaker dummies, which share the Professor's attic space with him: These "forms" were the subject of much banter between them. The one which Augusta called "the bust" stood in the darkest corner of the room, upon a high wooden chest in which blankets and winter wraps were yearly stored. It was a headless, armless torso, covered with strong black cotton, and so richly developed in the part for which it was named that the Professor once explained to Augusta how, in calling it so, she followed a natural law of language.... Though this figure looked so ample and billowy (as if you might lay your head upon its deep-breathing softness and rest safe forever), if you touched it you suffered a severe shock, no matter how many times you had touched it before. It presented the most unsympathetic surface imaginable....

The second form was more self-revelatory; a full-length female figure in a smart wire skirt with a trim metal waist line. It had no legs, as one could see all too well, no viscera behind its glistening ribs, and its bosom resembled a strong wire bird-cage. (17-18)

Most obviously, these forms represent St. Peter's wife and daughters. Critics have interpreted these forms in many different ways. The descriptions of Judith Fryer and Susan Rosowski, however, are fairly consistent with the Platonic idea of Forms. To Fryer, the body represented by these forms "has become a thing to enjoy abstractly"; to Rosowski, any "attempt to decode" these forms "linguistically is blatantly inadequate" because "settings, characters, actions"- and I would add objects- "all have only the slightest concern with circumstantial reality" (Voyage 139).

Like the shadows of Lillian St. Peter and her daughters, and like the women themselves, these physical dressmaker formswhich represent the lower rational, geometric level of ideal reality (the third level from the bottom)- are imperfect. As Skaggs has recognized, these "empty forms offer no succor"; "they are headless, gutless, and comfortless" (77-78). Like the Professor himself-like the "upper-story" of his head (Skaggs 75) that projects a "narrow intellectualism" (Rosowski, Voyage 131)-these forms are rational rather than human. Likewise, Tom Outland is associated, for most of the novel, with the rationality and coldness of pure idealism. Confronted spatially with the archetypal myth of Cliff City, Tom records and classifies its artifacts, he sacrifices Roddy's friendship for an idea, and he excels in mathematics and scientific invention. Presented through St. Peter's memory, Tom is more of an idea than a real human being. St. Peter thinks that his "fine long hand . . . had never handled things that were not the symbols of ideas" (260), and most tellingly, Tom's friend and Kathleen's husband, Scott McGregor, confesses to St. Peter, "You know, Tom isn't very real to me any more. Sometimes I think he was just a- a glittering idea" (111). As both Arnold and Skaggs have recognized, then, Tom's idealism is divisive, separating Tom from Roddy and St. Peter from his family as well as from himself (Arnold 17 1, 176), just as, in the structure of the novel, "Tom Outland's Story" is, in Skaggs' words, "the great disrupter of this house of fiction" (79).

Although the idealized figure of Tom Outland is presented ambiguously, the novel contains another figure -Augusta-whose idealized qualities are presented positively and without ambivalence. Unlike Tom, Augusta unifies rather than divides. Indeed, it is only through the truly human Form of Augusta-symbolic of the true ideal of Goodness-that St. Peter can be renewed and returned to the human family. Through her Cather not only humanizes the ideal but also achieves the humanization of abstract space, which Richard Gullon identifies as the goal of the novelist (14). Like the ladder that connects different spatial levels of Cliff City, Augusta helps St. Peter to make human connections across his empty mental spaces. Likewise, Augusta and her forms reach across the structural and spatial gap of "Tom Outland's Story" to connect "The Professor" to "The Family" and to help him bridge mentally the space of the Atlantic and face with fortitude the return of his family.


 1. After reading an earlier version of this essay at the Western American Literature Association meeting in Wichita, Kansas, in October 1993, 1 discovered a complementary interpretation in Susan Rosowski's article "Willa Cather's Subverted Endings and Gendered Time." Although Rosowski does not focus specifically on The Professor's House, one passage from her introduction is especially relevant to the novel and to my interpretation of it. Rosowski believes that in formulating the conclusions to her novels "Cather made dramatic the contrast between two principles with which she worked. One was that of linearity, a story organized by a beginning, a middle, and an ending and emblematic of a traditional and often patriarchal social order; the other was that of simultaneity, with its assumption of symbolism and its positing of alternatives to tradition by creating a new and often female order" (68). The role of simultaneity in the novel is inherent to my interpretation of The Professor's House, but after reading Rosowski's article I decided to clarify here the contrast between simultaneity and linearity. Furthermore, although I do not specifically discuss gender in my essay, my concluding comparison between Tom Outland and Angusta-between the masculine and the feminine ideal-clearly supports Rosowski's reading. (Go back.)
 2. The composing eye of the artist-as revealed in Cather's shaping of space through Tom-becomes especially clear when one recalls that the perspective of the original discoverer of Mesa Verde, the prototype for Cliff City, was quite different. As David Harrell reports, when Richard Wetherill first viewed this stone city he was not at the bottom of the canyon looking upward but rather on "the opposite rim of the canyon looking straight across" (96). (Go back.)
 3. Sharon Spencer defines the architectonic novel as one that embodies "approximations of time-space fusions achieved by various ingenious structural procedures" (xx). (Go back.)
 4. Relevant definitions of plastic are "pertaining to or dealing with shaping or modeling" and "having the qualities of a piece of sculpture; well formed" (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language). (Go back.)


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