Study Guide

Angle of Repose Ambition

By Wallace Stegner

Ambition

Within a week he had left for California [...] Clearly he went with the notion of "proving himself"—that was Grandfather's character. (1.2.79)

Oliver is incredibly eager to make a name for himself as an engineer. Remember: he never actually graduated from college (though he went to Yale for two years), instead opting to follow his dreams DIY-style. Talk about pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.

Susan Ward came West [...] not to build anything but to enjoy a temporary experience and make it yield whatever instruction it contained. (2.1.1)

Susan, on the other hand, is just along for the ride. Although she does actually make a career out of her life in the West (by selling drawings and stories of her experiences), she never exactly planned to build a whole new life for herself out there.

He succeeded in everything he did [...] She was proud of him, and wanted his value acknowledged by his employers. (2.5.11)

This Oliver Ward dude is the real deal. He's a hard worker. He's a likable boss. And that's not even to mention the fact that he's one of the most accomplished mine engineers this side of the Mississippi. The more time she spends watching him work, the more Susan admires her husband's unquenchable work ethic.

"I want you to [...] start selling cement to everybody in this country, and then I want us to buy this laguna [...] and build a house that looks right straight out at Japan." (3.2.67)

It isn't long before Susan catches the bug and becomes ambitious herself. After seeing how hard and how well Oliver works, she becomes convinced that he's a hair away from a massive, multi-million-dollar success that will change their lives forever. But, life is rarely that simple. As Susan will come to learn, being ambitious is only half of the battle.

Pioneer or not, resource-raider or not, afflicted or not with the frontier faith that exploitation is development and development is good, he was simply an honest man. (3.6.4)

It would be really easy to lump in Oliver with the money-grubbing businessmen we see him dealing with throughout Angle of Repose, but we think that would be giving the guy short shrift. True, in hindsight, he does engage in many practices that we now know are detrimental. But, Oliver was never doing it to line his own pockets—he did it because he thought that it would better mankind.

"I'm just a big green boy too honest for his own good. I'm not smart enough to play these poker games with grown men." (5.5.42)

Although Oliver has no shortage of ambition, he's anything but a businessman. The guy has no interest in playing games, manipulating others, or kissing rich dudes' butts so that they'll toss him a few Benjamins. All Oliver cares about are results.

She saw in his face that he had contracted the incurable Western disease. He had set his cross-hairs on the snowpeak of a vision, and there he would go. (6.2.49)

Of course, there comes a point when ambition becomes a bad thing. At this point, Oliver has invested in countless businesses, but each one has ended up failing miserably. Instead of taking a step back and examining why these things have happened, however, he just keeps his head down and keeps working.

Grandfather was trying to do [...] what only the immense power of the federal government ultimately proved able to do. (7.3.2)

Basically, Oliver has set his sights high. The dude is actually kind of a genius: every single one of his business ventures is about 20 years ahead of its time. While we have to give him props for his forward-thinking vision, Oliver should have learned not to bite off more than he can chew.

She had watched her hopes recede, had had her pride humiliated. Her ambitions for her children seemed certain to be frustrated. (7.7.67)

Unlike her husband, Susan is very much affected by the family's business failures. She once shared Oliver's ambitious mindset, wholeheartedly believing that his business dealings would give them the lives that they deserved. Unfortunately, this wide-eyed optimism could only endure so many disappointments.

"Frank has lost, I am afraid, some of his freshness and exuberance, and has grown almost somber. Like Oliver, he drives himself into the work with a relentlessness that I fear will break him." (8.3.13)

Even Frank—whom Susan turns to when she's disappointed with Oliver—is simply obsessed with working hard. If nothing else, this shows that this mindset is deeply tied to the West itself—in fact, it'd probably be impossible to survive out there without an overwhelmingly strong work ethic. Still, only time will tell if Frank falls into the same pitfalls as his role model.