Study Guide

Angle of Repose Analysis

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Before we get started, let's just go ahead and define an "angle of repose" for all you non-engineers out there: it's the angle at which a material will stop sliding.

    In other words, if you pour a bucket of sand on the ground, its angle of repose would be the way that it settles onto the ground. Make sense? No? Check out this video if not.

    So, what does this have to do with anything? Well, Lyman makes our job easy because he lays it right out for us: he wants to figure out how his grandparents "clung together [...] rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them" (4.1.54). In other words, he wants to figure out how they ended up the way they ended up because whatever they did kind of worked.

    While Lyman's understanding of his grandparents' angle of repose (and his own) changes over the course of the novel, he remains obsessed with the concept at all times.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Angle of Repose ends in the strangest and most unexpected way possible.

    First, we witness the sad end of the Susan-Frank affair. Based on his research, Lyman determines that Oliver and Susan's youngest daughter, Agnes, drowns in a canal after accompanying her mother on one of her trysts with Frank. Frank commits suicide several days later, presumably out of guilt for indirectly causing the young girl's death. So, yeah—that's a bummer.

    Lyman's story, on the other hand, ends rather abruptly. First, he has a really trippy dream (which we write about in more detail in our "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section) that involves his ex-wife, Ellen, and a topless Shelly, and an awkward incident involving a catheter. It's a lot, we know. But, the important part is the effect this dream has on Lyman—it causes him to wonder if he should forgive Ellen and try to make some sort of amends.

    In the end, Lyman finally makes the connection between his own marriage and his grandparents' marriage, saying that he hopes that he's "man enough to be a bigger man than [his] grandfather" and forgive Ellen (9.1.240). Oliver was never quite able to let go of his anger toward Susan, but Lyman hopes to do better than the old man's example.

  • Setting

    America...Like All of It

    The Ward family lives in their fair share of different locales over the course of Angle of Repose. From the sleepy East Coast to the rollicking West Coast and everywhere in between, the Wards' travels reflect the experiences of countless early pioneers in the American West.

    Starting Small

    Milton, New York, is the place where our story begins. In many ways, this tiny town on the East Coast sets the standard for all that follows, as Susan inevitably compares each successive home to her childhood abode in Milton. Although she returns to Milton occasionally throughout her life, she's never able to fulfill her dream of moving back and growing old there.

    Instead, she's left gallivanting around tiny Western towns like New Almaden, which is her first home on the range. Although she's scared at first, she quickly falls in love with the picturesque environment: the "exotic red-barked trees among the woods" and the "herb-cupboard smells of sage and bay" (2.1.65). Sure, Susan isn't able to spend as much time with fellow intellectuals as she'd like, but New Almaden's proximity to major towns like San Francisco gives her a limited degree of access.

    Breaking Into the Big Leagues

    Susan ends up even deeper in the wilderness in Leadville, Colorado. Leadville is actually a pretty interesting place. On the one hand, it's a boomtown on the rise, which means that there's a surprisingly large number of bigwigs hanging around. On the other, Susan quickly learns "how deep and violent [...] the divisions in the camp" are when she witnesses several brutal attacks on its small-town streets (2.7.103). In Leadville, all of the contradictions of the West are on full display.

    Mexico is a completely different story. Susan has been living in the boonies for years now, so she jumps at the chance to go to Mexico and get "her only glimpse of the ancient and exotic civilizations that in her innocent nineteenth-century local-colorish way she craved to know" (5.1.26). Susan might have a beef with certain aspects of Mexican culture, but she loves the idea of being part of an established aristocracy.

    A Home of Their Own

    From there, the family sets down roots in Idaho to work on Oliver's irrigation scheme. They actually live in two different homes in the area: first, in a small shack in the middle of a canyon, and later, in a massive McMansion on the mesa. Interestingly, Susan prefers the tiny shack to the big house, although that's mostly due to the good memories she associates with that first home. Regardless, the sheer size of their new digs is a reflection of the growing status of the Ward family.

    Eventually, the family ends up in California, where they live in the Zodiac Cottage. We don't actually watch Oliver and Susan move there; instead, we see it in the possession of their grandson Lyman, nearly a century after Susan and Oliver first headed out west. The home is filled with reminders of them, like Susan's paintings and Oliver's old "woodenhandled cavalry revolver of the Civil War period" (1.1.18).

    Though the world has changed a lot since they first shuffled into New Almaden, Susan and Oliver are alive and well in the Zodiac Cottage.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (7) Snow Line

    Wallace Stegner writes in a relatively straightforward way, so don't expect to be hemorrhaging brain cells while reading this one. That being said, the book covers a century's worth of history, so the sheer volume of stuff in here means that remembering people and places can sometimes be a grind.

  • Lyman's Dream

    Lyman has one weird dream, you guys. Frankly, we haven't been so freaked out since we binge-watched the first season of Twin Peaks.

    So, how are we supposed to make sense of this crazy thing? In our eyes, the best plan of attack is to break the scene down into easily digestible chunks:

    • The Intro: the dream begins with Lyman watching a baseball game with his crew (Ed, Ada, Shelly, and, oddly, Al Sutton) as his ex-wife, Ellen, approaches. This makes us think that Lyman cares about his neighbors and friends more than he lets on: for example, Dream Shelly chooses to go back to "school [...] in ten days" instead of joining the commune, which shows that it's an issue that Lyman cares about (9.1.141).
    • The Tour: after everyone else leaves, Ellen forces Lyman to give her a tour of his home. This little interaction tells us a lot about how Lyman really feels about Ellen: the fact that he's so easily convinced to show her his home shows that, on some level, he wishes that he could do it in real life.
    • The Bathroom Disaster: and now for the weirdest part of all, Shelly and Ellen's duel over who should give Lyman his bath. We actually see this as a reflection of the Oliver-Susan-Frank love triangle. Interestingly, however, Lyman fits both of his grandparents' positions: he could be either Oliver (because he has been betrayed by his wife) or Susan (because he is attracted to a younger woman, Shelly), depending on your perspective. In the end, Ellen earns the right to give Lyman a bath, saying that "it wasn't right to let [Shelly]" come in because "it's [Ellen's] job" (9.1.231).

    So, yeah, this thing is pretty ambiguous. In fact, there's a good chance that you walked away from the scene with a completely different understanding of its symbolism. And that's totally cool. In fact, we think it's pretty awesome that a single scene can be interpreted in so many different ways.

    The one thing that everyone can agree on, however, is the effect that this dream has on Lyman. Not only does it give him a better, more nuanced understanding of his grandparents' relationship, but it also helps him make peace with his own tumultuous marriage. This leads him to wonder if he is "man enough to be a bigger man than [his] grandfather" by forgiving Ellen and taking the first step toward reconciliation (9.1.240). Given everything we know about Lyman, this change of heart is practically a miracle.

  • Roses

    Can we just say that roses represent love and call it a day? No? Fine.

    Susan loves all flowers, but roses hold a special place in her heart. For example, she spends a lot of time planting and caring for a bunch of yellow climber roses when the family lives in the valley. Oliver even replants these same roses when the family moves into their McMansion in the mesa several years later. In our minds, this makes roses a symbol of Susan and Oliver's seemingly undying love.

    But—as we know—some serious trouble befalls the relationship when Susan cheats on Oliver, indirectly leading to their youngest daughter's death. In the face of this tragedy, Oliver does something seriously symbolic: he "heavily, impassively, expressionlessly [...] tears the roses from the ground and leaves them lying" (8.7.80). In one swift move, Oliver has effectively told Susan that he doesn't love her anymore.

    The story doesn't end there, though. We eventually learn that when Oliver is an old man, he designs a hybrid rose that he names in honor of Agnes. This is an exhaustive process: it takes Oliver "two or three years" to make "a dozen roses [...] trying for just the right one" (9.1.86). Interestingly, he never tells Susan about this. Although his pride may prevent him from shouting it from the rooftops, this represents Oliver coming to terms with Susan's betrayal and quietly admitting that he still loves her.

  • Fact Versus Fiction

    Figuring out the difference between fact and fiction in Angle of Repose is a lot easier said than done. Sure, you can certainly do it, but you'll find that things get a lot more complicated the deeper you dig.

    Lyman's Lying

    So, let's start off with Lyman. Although Lyman is a historian, he's not exactly writing a history book about his grandparents; he's writing a novel about their lives. That's a pretty big distinction. Although he has letters and personal documents to provide background info, there are tons of scenes that he totally makes up. For example, when he's writing the first encounter between Susan and Frank, he complains that he "can't avoid it any longer" and must "put words in their mouths" (7.7.109).

    As a result, Lyman's biases are easily apparent throughout his book, especially where his grandparents' sexuality is concerned. Although Lyman is completely unaware of this, Shelly tells him that a "modern reader [...] might think [he is] ducking something essential" (4.6.22). As modern readers ourselves, we know that this tension is the result of his own disastrous marriage: Lyman is trying to figure out how his grandparents' marriage survived in order to determine why his own fell apart. Still, it also shows that Lyman subconsciously bends the truth to fit his preconceptions.

    Reality Bites

    But, we're not done yet—there's another layer of fact versus fiction that must be mentioned. Like Lyman Ward, Angle of Repose author Wallace Stegner is a historian turned novelist. No surprise there. What might surprise you, however, is the fact that the letters in the novel are absolutely real: they were written by a woman named Mary Hallock Foote, who actually experienced the things the novel attributes to Susan Ward.

    This choice has garnered a lot of controversy, but we think that it provides a fantastic layer of authenticity to the novel. What do you think? Do you agree with us that using real letters was a smart choice? Or, do you think it devalues or exploits Foote's real-life experiences?

      • Allusions

        Literary and Philosophical References

        • Paul Goodman (1.1.15)
        • Margaret Mead (1.1.15)
        • John Greenleaf Whittier (1.1.22, referenced throughout)
        • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1.1.22, referenced throughout)
        • Mark Twain (1.1.22, referenced throughout)
        • Rudyard Kipling (1.1.22, referenced throughout)
        • William Dean Howells (1.1.22, referenced throughout)
        • Henry James (1.1.40, referenced throughout)
        • Henry Adams (1.1.41)
        • Joseph Rodman Drake, The Culprit Fay (1.2.8)
        • W.J. Linton (1.2.14)
        • Edward Eggleston (1.2.14)
        • Frank R. Stockton (1.2.14)
        • Harriet Beecher Stowe (1.2.14)
        • Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1.2.18)
        • Emma Lazarus (1.2.18, referenced throughout)
        • The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1.4.4)
        • George MacDonald (1.4.4)
        • George Washington Cable (1.4.4)
        • John Greenleaf Whittier, Snow-Bound (1.4.4, referenced throughout)
        • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Hanging of the Crane (1.4.5, referenced throughout)
        • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Skeleton in Armor (1.4.6, referenced throughout)
        • Bret Harte (1.4.6, referenced throughout)
        • Edith Wharton (1.4.14)
        • Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1.4.15)
        • William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1.4.15)
        • Henry James, The Bostonians (1.4.15)
        • Cicero (1.4.17)
        • John Muir (1.5.4)
        • Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1.6.20, referenced throughout)
        • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (2.3.59)
        • Theodor Storm (2.3.59)
        • Ivan Turgenev (2.3.59, referenced throughout)
        • Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (2.3.13)
        • George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (2.4.6)
        • Hjalmar Boyesen (2.5.48)
        • Dante, The Divine Comedy (2.6.30)
        • George William Curtis (3.3.49)
        • Margaret Fuller (3.3.49, referenced throughout)
        • Louisa May Alcott (4.3.28, referenced throughout)
        • Walter Scott, Quentin Durward (4.3.62)
        • Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ode (4.4.54)
        • Helen Hunt Jackson (4.4.62, referenced throughout)
        • Joaquin Miller (4.7.1)
        • Frithiof's Saga (5.1.27)
        • Artemus Ward (5.6.16)
        • Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (7.5.5)
        • Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King (7.7.86)
        • Kate Douglas Wiggin, The Birds' Christmas Carol (8.4.2)
        • Plato (8.6.38)
        • Sir Thomas More (8.6.38)
        • Herman Melville (8.6.38)
        • Samuel Butler (8.6.38)
        • D. H. Lawrence (8.6.38)
        • Alain Robbe-Grillet (9.1.2)

        Artistic References

        • Abbott Thayer (1.2.19)
        • Mary Curtis Richardson (1.2.31)
        • John La Farge (1.4.4)
        • Thomas Moran (1.4.4)
        • Augustus Saint-Gaudens (3.2.19)
        • Thomas Cole (4.7.1)
        • Winslow Homer (5.1.31, referenced throughout)
        • Joseph Pennell (5.1.31)

        Historical References

        • President Grover Cleveland (1.1.22, 7.7.68)
        • George Hearst (1.1.34, referenced throughout)
        • George de Kay (1.2.8)
        • Henry Ward Beecher (1.2.22)
        • Theodore Tilton (1.2.22)
        • Lyman Beecher (1.2.68)
        • Edward Everett Hale (1.2.68)
        • George Washington (1.6.14)
        • Lewis & Clark (2.3.83)
        • Denis Kearney (3.5.13)
        • Clarence King (3.6.4, referenced throughout)
        • Henry Kaiser (3.6.10)
        • Frank Jay Haynes (4.1.22)
        • "Wild" Bill Hickok (4.1.30)
        • Calamity Jane (4.1.30)
        • Buffalo Bill Cody (4.1.41)
        • Captain Jack Crawford (4.1.41)
        • Horace Tabor (4.1.47)
        • William Morris (4.4.61)
        • Samuel Emmons (4.4.63, referenced throughout)
        • John Hay (4.4.64)
        • Rossiter Raymond (4.4.69)
        • Henry Janin (4.5.13)
        • William T. Sherman (4.7.6)
        • Robert E. Lee (4.8.27)
        • Davy Crockett (5.1.3)
        • Lord Ferdinand and Lady Isabella (5.3.6)
        • Edwin Lawrence Godkin (6.1.5)
        • Raphael Pumpelly (6.1.6)
        • Henry Villard (7.5.1)
        • John Wesley Powell (7.6.11)
        • Clarence Dutton (7.6.11)
        • Stanford White (7.7.68)
        • Bronson Alcott (8.6.77)

        Pop Culture References

        • Joseph Jefferson (3.2.19, referenced throughout)
        • David Susskind (4.5.6)
        • Grateful Dead (7.5.8)
        • Last Year at Marienbad (9.1.2)