Willa Cather


Willa Cather’s Nature Message In The Prof’s House Essay, Research Paper

Cather s Nature Message

The major themes in Cather s The Professor s House all seem to collide in the section of the book called Tom Outland s story. The art, religion, and nature themes are all highlighted in this section of the book. Almost from the beginning of Tom Outland s Story Cather sets up her conflicts. Not that she hasn t been doing this all along. The change in tone, which has moved to deliberate, almost ritualistic, has highlighted the art, religion, and nature themes from the previous section of the book, The Family. In The Family, Cather seems to just let her story go, that is, she seems to be writing it as it comes to her. There are definitely a few themes that she wanted to touch on and set them up, but, in general, she seems to be more concerned with just letting us know what those themes are and introducing her characters. On the other hand, Cather seems much more interested in presenting her themes, though no less interested with developing her characters in Tom Outland s Story. In other words, Cather s agenda is much more obvious in Tom Outland s Story than it is in The Family. The only theme that this doesn t apply to is the the greed/ money theme that is closer to forefront in The Family, and though present, is not stressed in Tom Outland s Story as much.

Ironically, the first theme that is set up in the first chapter of Tom Outland s Story is the greed/money one. Tom says of Blake after the night that they first met that He was the sort of fellow who can do anything for somebody else, and nothing for himself. (164) This is one of the bits that sets up Blake seeming to cross Tom by selling all the artifacts that the two had uncovered much later in the book. If we paid attention to this little tidbit, then we will know that Blake did what he did while Tom was in Washington D.C. to benefit Tom and not for himself. Also near the end of the chapter, was the fact that Tom had a hard time doing his share of the work because Blake was so concerned under the pretext of Tom s health that Blake did all Tom s work for him, especially the heavy work. Also evident here is Blake s concern, or knowledge rather, that Tom was something special and needed to develop his mind over his brawn. By the end of the first chapter, Cather has said to the reader to not jump to conclusions in the greed area of Tom Outland s Story. She doesn t really hit this theme again until Tom goes to Washington D.C.

The opening chapter of Tom Outland s Story is ripe with little tidbits that point to things to come. Cather set up the greed/money theme as presented above. She introduces the Blue Mesa to us, which becomes essentially a character in this section of the book. She spends about a half of a page to describe the Blue Mesa which she starts out by saying, The Blue Mesa was one of the landmarks we always saw from Pardee-landmarks mean so much in a flat country. (165) The reverence for the Blue Mesa starts here. As someone who has had experience hiking in all type of terrain, I can tell you; a landmark can save your life. Men have been known to talk to landmarks. To an outdoorsmen, landmarks are almost a religion of their own. This is important because the Blue Mesa becomes very important to Tom himself, and Cather lays that groundwork here. The Blue Mesa is important in the nature theme and the religion theme. Cather sets the mesa up as both in the first chapter. She sets up the nature theme here when Tom says, all summer long we planned how we were going to climb the mesa and be the first men up there. (166) Not only does this tidbit foreshadow the plot because they do eventually get up there, but it also tells us what Cather is trying to say about nature, which is, people don t understand it, they don t care for it, and they mess it up even when they don t mean to. We know Cather is saying this because Tom and Blake were not the first men up there. The American Indians were there first and we held no regard for their nature religion or their culture. However, at this time, we do not know about the Cliff City and neither do Blake and Tom. At this time, Blake and Tom only want to climb it for the sake of climbing it.

There is also a little subjectivity of does art reflect life or vice versa shown by the two books mentioned here in the collection of Blake and Tom, Gulliver s Travels and Robinson Crusoe. The age-old question explored by many artists is shown by the mentioning of Gulliver s Travels because of Tom s journey to the Washington D.C. and Blake and Tom s adventures are a bit like Robinson Crusoe.

All of the major themes are presented in the first chapter of Tom Outland s Story . The chapter is so full of foreshadowing and introductions it almost seems like Cather wrote this section of her book backward. How all these pointers showed up in the first chapter of this section isn t important. What is important is that they are there. The fact that they are present and the magnitude of them show the deliberate care that Cather used in this section of the book. All of these themes show up repeatedly. Tom Outland s Story is full of this stuff. It is hard to turn a page without reading something important for later in the book.

In chapter two of Tom Outland s Story, we are assaulted again right from the get go when Cather develops further her themes in the mythic qualities of the Mesa. The Mesa, it seems, has a penchant for devouring cattle. Now, there is this quasi-mythic herd of cattle running around in the mesa. The cattle outside of the Mesa, Cather says, get skittish around the Mesa. The foreman, Rapp, says, The Mesa has been populated by runaways form our herd, till now there s a fine bunch of wild cattle up there. (169) The foreman cements the larger-than-life qualities of the Mesa by not only making the Mesa, Valhalla for runaway cattle but also by making it seem like Fort Knox to get into. The cliffs are like the base of a monument, he says, The only way into it is through that deep canyon that opens on the water level You can t get in by that, because the river s too deep to ford and too swift to swim. (169) He figures that if the cattle could swim it so could a horse but he wouldn t want to try. Then the foreman says that Tom had better not try to go over there or he fire Tom. The all-important foreman also shows us what man thinks of nature when he says, If it wasn t for that mesa, this would be the best winter range in all New Mexico. (170) You get the feeling here that if he could, Rapp would raze the mesa to the ground just so he d have premium, no-risk, grazing ground. Rapp s attitude is at the heart of the what Cather is saying about man s relationship with nature long before it got popular to do so.

The culmination of the Cather s nature/religion themes doesn t occur until Tom comes back from Washington. Tom went to Washington to hopefully drum up some interest in the mesa, but basically failed because all the authorities he talked to were too busy and into themselves to pay any attention. While Tom was away, Blake sold all of the artifacts that they had found up on the mesa to a foreigner. Tom thought first that Blake did it for the money. Even after Tom found that to be wrong he was still upset because Blake violated the sanctity of the mesa. Until Blake sold all the artifacts Tom didn t even realize the amount power the mesa held over him. Cather s message about nature/religion only comes through clearly here. Tom went to Washington D.C. with the best of intentions. Tom hoped he would bring back an archeologist who could uncover the story of the mesa for everyone to know and understand. Even though Tom s intentions were the best, the outcome was the worst. Tom realizes that he should have just left well enough alone. If he never found the mesa, or if he never went Washington D.C. the mesa s sanctity would still be intact. Cather blurs the line between nature and religion by giving the mesa sanctity. And the fact that Blake could violate that sanctity is the same as if he sacked the alter in the Vatican. The impact to Tom is the same as the impact would be to the Pope if it had been the Vatican. The final moral of Tom Outland s Story and onfe of the main morals for the whole book comes here which is that we should leave the gifts that nature gives us alone. If we don t leave these gifts alone even when we have the best intentions for the gift and humanity we wind up fouling it up in the long run. This is evident in Tom s journey to Washington and return to the Mesa.

Works Cited

Cather, Willa. The Professor s House. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1925

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