Many critics before me have tried to identify the literary ghosts haunting The Professor’s House, with most of them having focused their attention on the intricate dialogue established by Cather between her work and that of Anatole France. However, the Flaubert connection has so far yielded only scant information on Cather’s vision of the world and on her conception of art in this novel, despite the fact that she explicitly upheld the French writer as her model and as a master of style. It is therefore most interesting that the novel which is generally regarded as Cather’s most personal one (in which she projected her own anxieties in the face of the modern world) strangely echoes what Gustave Flaubert considered the defining work of his career, The Temptation of Saint Anthony.
Saint Anthony was born in Egypt in the third century and has gone down in history as a hermit who retreated to the desert in order to devote his life to meditation and prayer and who was visited by many followers desirous to benefit from his teaching and hard-won wisdom. Legend has it that at one point he decided to escape his tormentors by taking up his abode in a tomb, but the Devil followed him there and beat him unconscious, whereupon Anthony was rescued by villagers who gave him food and shelter. He is particularly well known for having successfully resisted trials and temptations of all sorts that assailed him during his many years of retreat. In true hagiographical fashion, The Temptation of Saint Anthony—Flaubert’s most disheveled and romantic work, one that has been described as “the book of solitude and desire” (“le livre de la solitude et du désir” [Thibaudet 180])—retraces one such night of terror. Inspired by the mystery plays and marionette shows attended by the young Gustave at the marketplace in Rouen, The Temptation becomes the script for a play in which Saint Anthony must struggle against a legion of demons succeeding one another on the stage of his delirious imagination. Each in turn—the Queen of Sheba, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Chimera, and the Sphinx— strives to sow doubts in the anchorite’s mind by tempting him away from his solitary retreat. Acting as a catalyst for the whole work is Flaubert’s fascination with the idea of a confrontation between man and Satan. In The Temptation, Satan takes the form of an old disciple of Anthony’s called Hilarion. The latter first appears as a child on the doorstep of Anthony’s cabin, disappears for a while, reappears as a grown-up man dressed as a hermit, and then metamorphoses into the embodiment of Stcience and transports Anthony through the heavens in an exploration of life, matter, and infinity. In the end, the saint has to confront the temptation of suicide and go on a journey back to the beginning of all life and motion, whereupon the face of Christ appears in the disk of the sun and Anthony returns to his prayers.
The first part of this analysis will focus on Flaubert’s influence on Cather’s novel in terms of characterization and will be followed by an exploration of the Faustian dimension in both works. I will then look into the meaning of desire for both protagonists and examine Cather’s inconclusive ending in the light of Flaubert’s own aesthetic choices in The Temptation.
Flaubert started work on this ambitious project in 1848, after losing his mentor and childhood friend Alfred Le Poittevin. The latter’s sudden death prompted Flaubert to withdraw from the world and to meditate upon the past. Despite the obvious complex distances separating him from Saint Anthony, Flaubert progressively identified with his main character to the point of proclaiming: “I was in Saint Anthony as Saint Anthony himself” (“J’ai été moi-même dans Saint Antoine le saint Antoine,” 30 January 1852). One finds throughout his impressive correspondence a constant association between the artist and the hermit figure, and Flaubert particularly enjoyed comparing himself to Saint Polycarp, a first-century disciple of John and later Bishop of Smyrna, with whom he shared a profound sense of alienation. Flaubert emerges from his correspondence as the errant knight of French literature whose total dedication to his art sometimes led him to fantasize about living in an ivory tower or to present himself as an “old fossil of romanticism, the wreck of a lost world” (21 August 1871, 6 September 1871). These are only some of the many affinities that found their way into the elaboration of Cather’s character Godfrey St. Peter.
Besides the obvious resonance in the name of Cather’s protagonist (Saint Anthony/St. Peter), the textual parallels between The Temptation and The Professor’s House are considerable. Both give center stage to a middle-aged man going through the major crisis of his life. While Saint Anthony is first presented at the top of a mountain in the desert, St. Peter appears to have found refuge at the top of his old house amidst the spiritual desert of his social life. Up there, both men enjoy their much-sought-after solitude and sadly contemplate the extent of the world’s sins and depravity. The word “anchor” (which forms the root of the word “anchorite”) is also significantly used to refer to the Professor’s attachment to his old house (he is “doggedly anchored in the old house,” 271), thereby suggesting Cather’s vision of this place as a real hermitage or anchorage. As in The Temptation, St. Peter’s visitors come and go, presenting him with varied facets of human imperfection: envy (Kathleen), arrogance (Louis), pride (Scott), greed (Rosamond), and anger (Mrs. Crane), among others. Like St. Peter, Anthony had to face the disapproval of the women in his family when he left his home to become a hermit. Both protagonists also follow the guidance of a disciple (Tom Outland/Hilarion) in their quest for knowledge, and both experience a pantheistic return to nature, followed by temptations of suicide and the rediscovery of elemental humanity enabling them to go on living. Although Saint Anthony’s wellknown retreat into a tomb as final escape from a life of torment is not woven into the fabric of Flaubert’s Temptation, one notes its echo in St. Peter’s fantasy of lying in a coffin (272) and in the presentation of the old house as a “shadowy crypt” (110). After a close shave with death, each protagonist eventually chooses to face life at all costs.
Flaubert’s influence can also be detected in the fortunate appearance of Augusta as deus ex machina to save St. Peter from his final temptation of suicide. In Flaubert’s Temptation, Anthony finds himself alone on the edge of the cliff and is toying with the idea of jumping off into the abyss when two women suddenly appear—an old one with a shroud wrapped around her head, and a young one with roses in her hair who exhorts him to take his pleasure in life. These allegorical representations of Death and Lust ultimately embrace each other and merge into one single monstrous being, who leads Anthony to the conclusion that “Death is only an illusion, a veil, masking betimes the continuity of life” (179). This is also the sum of Augusta’s teaching as she comes to be associated with a vision of death into life as part of the inevitable cycles of life and nature. Her function becomes apparent to St. Peter after she rescues him, as he is lying on the couch and reflects upon her attitude toward life during her many years of service to his family: “She talked about death as she spoke of a hard winter or a rainy March, or any of the sadnesses of nature” (280–81). In Flaubert, the young figure with the roses is echoed in Rosamond (in whose name Cather might have planted a clue to this connection), especially when she takes her father on a shopping trip that turns into a veritable “orgy of acquisition” (The Professor’s House 152). In the mummified corpse of Mother Eve, St. Peter confronts a version of the representation of all fallen women (allegedly imprisoned at the top of the tower) that Simon introduces to Anthony to lead him astray.
As for the Professor’s wife, Lillian, she has her counterpart in Flaubert in the Queen of Sheba, who appears with all her riches and courtesans to tempt Anthony away from his retreat. (One should not forget that St. Peter is said to have grown up in the Solomon Valley.) Lillian is characterized as “a hand (a beautiful hand) holding flaming arrows—the shafts of her violent loves and hates, her clear-cut ambitions” (275). Flaubert draws attention to the Queen’s hands, which he describes as “loaded with precious rings, and terminated by nails so sharply pointed that the ends of her fingers seem almost like needles” (37). Each woman is associated with a mysterious casket that seems to serve as a repository of secrets. Her connection with the Queen of Sheba further reinforces the links between Lillian and the world of materialism, artifice, and worldly desires. As the novel draws to a close and St. Peter learns of the impending return of his wife and daughter, he goes through his most intense crisis and is tempted to abandon the fight with his “demons” by surrendering to the gas from the blown-out stove, much in the same way as, after confronting the Queen, Saint Anthony eventually lets go of whatever held his self together and falls onto the mat outside his cabin.
Although Flaubert is never mentioned inThe Professor’s House, Cather’s use of other significant details suggests a link to his work. For instance, the Professor’s family chooses to buy him presents in a town that carried strong Flaubertian associations in Cather’s mind—Trouville, a seaside resort where Flaubert’s family spent their summer holiday and where he met Elisa Schlésinger (later immortalized as Marie Arnoux in The Sentimental Education). More specifically, a slanting reference to The Temptation can be found in St. Peter’s defense against the charge of asceticism: “But he had been able to get on only by neglecting negative comforts. He was by no means an ascetic” (27). In itself, this denial strengthens the allusion and points to the problematic nature of this literary relationship. As John Murphy demonstrated in “The Modernist Conversion of Willa Cather’s Professor,” St. Peter’s story can be read as a slow, unconscious progression toward conversion. The Professor consequently appears to waver between a desire to be “god-free” and a fascination with art and religion which, in many ways, echoes Flaubert’s attraction to the idea of religion regardless of individual dogmas (which he said he found particularly repulsive). Just as Saint Anthony has to fight the attraction of the void and the Devil’s attempts to instill doubts in his mind about the existence of God before coming back to earth and resuming his devotions, St. Peter must undertake a “perilous journey” through the heavens of Tom Outland’s story before coming back to the “solid earth” of Augusta’s faith (“Seasoned and sound and on the solid earth she surely was,” 256). This journey naturally brings him face to face with evil under its various shapes and disguises.
Linked to characterization, the Faustian dimension of Flaubert’s Temptation similarly reverberates in Cather’s treatment of St. Peter’s quest. Tom Outland can easily be discerned as an avatar of Flaubert’s Hilarion—Tom seems to materialize out of nowhere on the St. Peter doorstep, change the Professor’s life, and then become a scientist. And the middle section of Cather’s novel seems to echo Anthony’s flight through the heavens in the company of Hilarion back to the original source of knowledge. In both works, this diabolical encounter is clearly meant to dramatize man’s confrontation with the other side of himself that only occasionally comes back to the surface of his consciousness. Cather set the tone right from the beginning when she established close links between St. Peter and Mephistopheles: “His wicked-looking eyebrows made his students call him Mephistopheles—and there was no evading the searching eyes underneath them” (13). As in The Temptation, the true devil resides within the protagonist’s heart and mind, and Cather’s skillful play on doubles throughout the novel further corroborates such a vision.
The dramatic composition of The Professor’s House—three acts set mainly upon the bare stage of the Professor’s attic study—adds weight to the Faustian argument. As in My Ántonia, Cather uses a process of mise en abyme by inserting an opera scene into the heart of the narrative. Significantly, it is a performance of the French opera Mignon (loosely drawn from Wilhelm Meister), a comic adaptation of Goethe’s original tragedy that the Professor and his wife are made to attend, perhaps a clue to Cather’s reworking of the Faustian theme. The subject of the couple’s conversation at this point, the temptation to freeze time and recover one’s youthful self, harks back to this theme. However, by choosing Mignon, Cather might have wanted to undercut the potentially tragic nature of her protagonist’s final choices, thereby throwing a veil of suspicion over her highly ambiguous ending. By so doing, she places herself in the tradition of Flaubert, whose fascination for the hermit’s life was not devoid of ironic distance. This complex web of allusions and intertextual connections further supports the argument that The Professor’s House might be the only one of her books (albeit a profoundly personal one) that Cather viewed from an ironic distance—an argument to which her own statements lend credibility if we consider that The Professor’s House “was certainly not her favorite among her books,” as noted by James Woodress (319), and one she referred to as “a nasty, grim little tale” (292). Cather’s natural gift of empathy with her characters has led a number of reviewers to identify intimate connections between St. Peter and his creator, and thus to see the novel as a reflection of Cather’s profound pessimism in the face of the modern world. But by denying her protagonist any association with the nobler genre of tragedy, Cather significantly deprived him of the tragic stature he would willingly have claimed as his own and signified her reluctance to fully endorse his nostalgic, backwardlooking attitude.
Like Saint Anthony’s disciple, Tom Outland consequently embodies St. Peter’s main temptation, and the dialogic interplay created by the insertion of Tom’s story within the larger frame of St. Peter’s definitely throws an ironic light on the Professor’s life choices, much as Hilarion puts forward a number of arguments that systematically undermine Anthony’s faith. In his refusal to “move,” for example, and in his decision to withdraw into his attic study, St. Peter echoes Anthony’s assertion that, “Being spirit, Man must retreat from material things. All action is degrading. I would have no contact with the earth,—the soles of my feet notwithstanding!” (48). St. Peter’s rejection of materialism is strikingly exemplified by his critical attitudes toward his daughter’s shopping spree, Mrs. Crane’s covetousness, and even Lillian’s fondness for creature comforts. As in The Temptation, the choice of cutting oneself off from the earth and of “not moving” is closely bound up with a harsh denunciation of the ambient materialism. In Flaubert’s text, however, Anthony’s assertion provokes Hilarion’s condemnation: “Hypocrite! Burying thyself in solitude only in order the more fully to abandon thyself to the indulgence of thy envious desires! . . . Thy chastity is but a more subtle form of corruption, and thy contempt of this world is but the impotence of thy hatred against it!” (48). If we choose to push the parallel further, we can say that Flaubert’s text provides us with the critical reaction that remains only latent in Cather’s text, since her choice of a restricted consciousness allows her to shy away from any explicit condemnation of St. Peter’s attitude. Short of using such unequivocal moral judgments, Cather uses Tom Outland’s story as the prism through which her reader can reassess St. Peter’s life choices. Missy Dehn Kubitschek has emphasized how “Both Tom and the Professor subconsciously realize their self-indulgence,” but, she adds, “Even at his most solipsistic, Tom prepares to reestablish human contact” (18) and thus shows St. Peter the way to follow. Although this discovery takes different channels for Tom and St. Peter (conscious ones for the former, more subconscious ones for the latter), “hatred” or at least distrust of the world and of others must eventually give way to a renewed sense of human community. In both The Professor’s House and The Temptation, this coming to awareness is strongly linked with the protagonist’s ambivalent relationship to desire.
Interestingly, the Flaubert connection invests Augusta’s sewing dummies (which Cather chose to call “forms”) with a philosophical significance and suggests from the very beginning of the novel the direction that St. Peter’s quest for knowledge will probably take. The reflection on form and substance is, indeed, one of the leitmotivs of The Temptation, in which impure forms clearly stand in contrast with the abstract world of ideas and appear as so many obstacles to overcome on the way to knowledge of the infinite. Most of Anthony’s interlocutors, including Apollonius and Apollo, for example, proclaim their desire to lift themselves above the contingencies of forms in order to reach the realm of pure ideas: Apollonius: “Above all forms, further than the ends of the earth, beyond the heavens themselves, lies the world of Idea, replete with the splendor of the Word! With one bound we shall traverse the impending spaces, and thou shalt behold, in all his infinity, the Eternal, the Absolute, the Being! Come! Give me thy hand! Let us thither!” (115) Apollo: “No! enough of forms! Further, higher!—to the very summit!—to the realm of pure thought!” (152) The Devil himself insidiously leads Anthony to wonder if form may not be “perhaps, an error of [his] senses,—Substance a figment of [his] imagination” (169), unless illusion is the only reality in the world. In his own search for the absolute, St. Peter also moves from the possession of empty “forms” (some of which are endowed with a deceptively attractive nature) to the yearning for the one and only essence from which all of these forms originate. In Spinozist terms, however, St. Peter’s decision to “live without delight” (282) and thus without the desire to seek it runs counter to the vital awareness of desire as a fundamental mode of this one and only essence and puts the Professor in danger of becoming just another one of these “empty forms.” His redemptive journey still lacks in substance and remains to be completed by his successor Jean-Marie Latour in Death Comes for the Archbishop, through whom Cather will later “affirm that the physical and spiritual are not separate essences, that in fact the spiritual resides in the physical, though it takes a special kind of sensibility to see it there” (Arnold 39).
In his landmark study of Flaubert, L’idiot de la famille, Sartre explains how Flaubert was led to turn desire into an absolute— the supreme value of life and the catalyst of all movement. Renouncing desire consequently means settling into a life of apathy and runs counter to the novelist’s most fundamental beliefs. Flaubert’s famous assertion that “The measure of one’s soul is the extent of its desire” (“une âme se mesure à la dimension de son désir,” 21–22 May 1853) highlights the narrow limits of the soul of St. Peter in succumbing to the prospect of a life without desire. And it is probably no coincidence that Cather should use Flaubertian overtones when phrasing her definition of Tom Outland: “If there were an instrument by which to measure desire, one could foretell achievement. He had been able to measure it, roughly, just once, in his student Tom Outland,—and he had foretold” (30).
In Flaubert’s eyes, Saint Anthony epitomized the obdurate refusal to fulfill one’s desires, hence the consequent exacerbation of such desires. Ironically, Anthony’s experience eventually climaxes in a series of hallucinations that express the infinitude of desire. Carried away by the force of a delirious identification process, he successively beholds all sorts of animals blending with vegetables which, in turn, “become confounded with the stones” while “metals palpitate.” These visions give way to the final contemplation of “tiny globular masses” (190) in which he perceives the vibration of newly emerging life. The passage culminates with the memorable outburst of exultation in which he finally expresses the wish to become pure matter: Anthony (deliriously): “O joy! O bliss! I have beheld the birth of life. I have seen the beginning of motion! My pulses throb even to the point of bursting. I long to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl. Would that I had wings, a carapace, a shell,—that I could breathe out smoke, wield a trunk,— make my body writhe,—divide myself everywhere,—be in everything,—emanate with all the odours,—develop myself like the plants,—flow like water,—vibrate like sound—shine like light,—assume all forms—penetrate each atom—descend to the very bottom of matter,—be matter itself!” (190)
The temptation to “divide [oneself] everywhere” finds its way into The Professor’s House, as pointed out by Murphy, who writes that “What Cather examines in the novel’s final section involves both multiple divisions of the self and the arbitration among the resulting selves that is necessary to resolve the divisions” (55). Cather obviously had The Temptation in mind when she decided to give St. Peter a sudden propensity for reverie and a faculty of imagination in the last stage of his midlife crisis: “He found he could lie on his sand-spit by the lake for hours and watch the seven motionless pines drink up the sun. In the evening, after dinner, he could sit idle and watch the stars, with the same immobility” (263). he old self that comes back to him in the course of these lonely summer days is also expressed in terms that strikingly recall Anthony’s revelation: “He was a primitive. He was only interested in earth and woods and water. Wherever sun sunned and rain rained and snow snowed, wherever life sprouted and decayed, places were alike to him. . . . He seemed to be at the root of the matter; Desire under all desires, Truth under all truths. . . . He was earth, and would return to earth” (265). Anthony’s journey back to the origin of life finds its counterpart in the announcement of Rosamond’s pregnancy, which figuratively puts St. Peter face to face with images of birth and/or rebirth. The Professor’s momentary lapse into unconsciousness appears as a final act of resistance against this new, emerging self. As in the case of Saint Anthony, the primitive self cannot endure but must give way to a renewed consciousness of one’s place in the world likely to resolve the whole journey.
This parallel between the two works in their respective penultimate stages can lead the reader to reassess the denouement of The Professor’s House in the light of its French hypotext. Like her predecessor’s, Cather’s inconclusive ending leaves ample room for speculation. I am not the first to voice discomfort with the final implications of St. Peter’s resolve to “live without delight” (282) or to find it difficult to reconcile his new perception of himself as being “outward bound” (281) with his determination to settle into a life of “apathy” (283). Flaubert’s Temptation has given rise to similarly conflicting interpretations. In her introduction to La tentation de Saint Antoine, Claudine Gothot-Mersch summarizes a series of interpretations (ranging from pantheism to skepticism and the desire for total annihilation) suggested over the years by a variety of critics. The end of The Temptation could thus be seen either as a celebration of the triumph of Christianity or as a playful assimilation of Christianity with pagan beliefs (Gothot-Mersch 30–31). Following Anthony’s illumination when confronted with the beginning of life, The Temptation closes on a scene at daybreak with the radiant face of Jesus Christ appearing “in the very disk of the sun,” whereupon “Anthony makes the sign of the cross, and resumes his devotions” (191). Cather interestingly transposed this coda not into the story of St. Peter but into Tom Outland’s after Blake’s departure from the mesa. Like Anthony, Tom experiences a sudden “religious emotion” (250) and presents himself as “a close neighbour to the sun, I seemed to get the solar energy in some direct way. . . . I was full to the brim, and needed dark and sleep” (250–51). As pointed out by Kubitschek, however, Tom eventually returns to the human community he had left and takes an active part in it. Similarly, “the Professor must find some way of participating in, not just living in, this very imperfect world” (16). Anthony resuming his prayers has also sometimes been seen as an ironic counterpoint to his recent epiphanic discovery of motion and as another form of self-withdrawal, away from the rest of humanity, and thus prefigures St. Peter’s inner contradictions in the final pages of The Professor’s House.
Whether St. Peter successfully negotiates this journey through life and death is a moot point. True to the modernist spirit that Murphy identifies in the novel, Cather leaves her protagonist at the edge of an abyss that is even deeper than the one from which he has just escaped. No sense of resolution truly emerges from the final pages, despite St. Peter’s apparent commitment to follow Augusta’s teachings. If resolution there is, this is indeed an “inchoate” one (Murphy 54), and the workings of St. Peter’s conversion remain anything but clear to the reader. This open ending is faithful to the spirit of Flaubert, one of whose major creeds in art was the refusal to conclude. In one of his letters, he highlights the need to accept inconclusion and remarks that scientists only made progress once they agreed to scrap causality systems. The Middle Ages failed to discover the nature of essential nature, God, motion, and the infinite, because its search for truth was motivated by self-centered, practical interests, he argues, and then extols the virtue of contemplation as opposed to the wish to conclude (18 December 1859). This interplay between science and religion also lies at the heart of St. Peter’s lecture early in the first book. Tom Outland’s scientific pursuits could be seen to be at variance with his function as the embodiment of desire, but in the light of Flaubert’s beliefs we must bear in mind that Tom’s discovery will serve to set things in motion and that his early death conveniently leaves it up to others to “conclude,” that is, to apply this discovery to practical purposes. In The Temptation, too, Hilarion is both the representative of science and the one who takes Anthony back to the original source of all desire after an exploration of human and natural history.
Indeed, a possible resolution is suggested through the figure of Tom Outland, who emerges as Cather’s attempt to reconcile the competing claims of science and religion, of worldly pursuits and desire. However, his untimely death brings to the fore the demise of such optimism. We are left with a sense of the unfulfilled possibilities and infinite contemplation of an altogether more believable character who now has to grapple with the consequences of the conversion he has experienced, albeit unwittingly. It is not surprising, therefore, that The Professor’s House should mark the start of a phase of ontological and theological questioning in Cather’s career. Her subsequent novels (My Mortal Enemy and Death Comes for the Archbishop) allowed her to probe into such concerns—the existence of God, the search for the absolute, and the philosophical quest that leads one from the diversity of forms to apprehending the unity of substance. It seems, then, that Flaubert’s decisive influence in The Professor’s House led Cather’s work in new directions that she would continue to explore for many years to come.