Generally known for her fantasy, science fiction, and young-adult fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin insists that her writing is not bound by genre definitions. The Professor’s Houses was first published in the New Yorker (1982), included in The Best American Short Stories 1983, and reprinted in Unlocking the Air and Other Stories (1996). In her dust jacket comments, she characterizes this collection as realistic although the some stories are laced with the odd and fantastic. “Reality,” she writes, “is a slippery fish that often can be caught only in a net of spells, or with the hook of metaphor.” To illustrate the inadequacy of accepted genre designations, she invented genre names for all the stories. “The Professor’s Houses” is described as “miniaturized realism” (Le Guin, “Some Genres”).
“The Professor’s Houses” relates the history of a dollhouse and its role in the life of a college professor, his wife, and their daughter, Victoria. The title alludes to Willa Cather’s 1925 novel The Professor’s House, in which Professor Godfrey St. Peter gradually removes himself physically and spiritually from family life and prepares for death by refusing to leave his old study when his family moves. This allusion, together with the novel’s introductory declaration that “the Professor had two houses, one inside the other” (39), sets up the story’s inner/outer dichotomy along with the expectation that the life of the mind will be shown in contrast to family life. Unexpectedly, however, the “inner” house is not his cerebral musings but rather the miniature world he creates with the skill and labor of his hands. The dollhouse represents creative work as a microcosm, a world within the world, but in a relationship more complex than simple opposition.
The professor builds the dollhouse for his daughter, but as he becomes more possessed by developing and refining every miniature detail, even Victoria concedes that the Victorian miniature “was really his” (39). The devotion of the professor to the artificial but realistic world of the dollhouse is a metaphor for the relationship of an artist or scholar to his or her work and is depicted with humor and sympathy. Although it begins as an effort to entertain or engage an audience, the artistic or scholarly work becomes satisfying to its creator for its own sake. In the drive to realize the vision or develop the theory, the original audience may be forgotten, the original purpose lost, and contact with the “real” world disrupted. In “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” Le Guin stresses that the literary artist should consider the audience in the planning stage, but once the work is under way, thoughts about the audience are replaced by a focus on the writing itself because “true work is done for the sake of doing it” (Bohner 1,268). The adult professor’s therapeutic and intellectually engaging toy also evokes the genre-transcending effect of children’s literature on adults.
A reference in the story to La Pensée Sauvage by the structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss makes the metaphor of dollhouse as art explicit. Lévi-Strauss explained that art is a reduction “of a material dimension in favor of an intellectual dimension,” as the professor tells his colleagues in the story (41). In addition, Lévi-Strauss regarded art as “lying half-way between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought” (22), an intermediary between the sensual and the imaginary.
Instead of the expected division between the professor’s abstract work and concrete family life, the reader is presented with the dollhouse as a point of intersection of the two. The characterization of the professor and his family depends on the dollhouse as the focal point of their interactions. The daughter’s love is revealed in her admiration of its workmanship and her spirited participation in showing it off to guests. At the same time, we come to understand that both father and daughter have a healthy sense of Victoria’s own needs and preferences even though the dollhouse expresses his vision more fully than hers. In keeping with the comparison between the builder of the dollhouse and the artist or scholar, the relationship between the father and daughter represents a respect for the role of the audience in interpretation and use of the work for its own purposes along with the recognition that audience interest will eventually turn toward another object.
The professor’s wife, Julia, has a limited and perfunctory interest in the “inner” house, and this is shown by the single small rug of inferior quality that she crochets for it. She is eager to point out to others that her contribution is not up to her husband’s standard, but her self-confidence in other areas is shown by her involvement in conservation work with other adults, who show no interest in the dollhouse. A strain in the couple’s relationship during construction of the dollhouse is implied, but when the dollhouse and its furnishings are complete, they have “worked out their problems well enough to go on” (43). The professor works with his wife to repair their leaky “outer” house and imagines collaborating with her on a garden for the “inner” house to link it with the real one. With the child gone at the end of the story, he turns back to his wife for his audience and inspiration.
Although the professor’s obsession with the artificial house threatens the stability and comfort of his home for a time, the two remain in relation, if not always in proper proportion, to each other. His dreams and daydreams reveal his subconscious awareness of the need to restore balance. After he has a vision of the china dollhouse cat moving and drinking, after he dreams that the perfectly preserved dollhouse is outside and deteriorating in the damp weather, the importance of the toy begins to diminish and its unaltered perfection no longer satisfies either him or the child who has grown up and moved on.
Cather, Willa. The Professor’s House. New York: Knopf, 1925.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Edited by Susan Wood. New York: Putnam’s, 1979.
———. “The Professor’s Houses.” In Unlocking the Air and Other Stories. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.
———. “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” In Dancing at the Edge of the World. 1987.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
Tyler, Anne, and Shannon Ravenel. Best American Short Stories 1983. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.