Study Guide

Angle of Repose Memory and the Past

By Wallace Stegner

Memory and the Past

And this is all [...] I am going to think about it. I am going back to Grandmother's nineteenth century, where the problems and the people are less messy. (3.1.75)

Lyman lays out his mission statement so clearly that he pretty much does all of our work for us. C'mon, dude. Basically, the guy is delving into his grandparents' past because his life in the present is way too much for him to deal with. Unfortunately for him, he'll soon learn that the past isn't all that neat and tidy, either.

It all looks as it looked in my boyhood [...] My eyes have not changed, the St. Paul's boy is still there. (3.7.5)

Lyman feels seriously nostalgic while he's back at his grandparents' Zodiac Cottage. But that's just the half of it: being there also makes him feel more connected to the little boy he was back then, the little boy who admired his grams and gramps more than anything in the world.

"I'm not writing a book of Western history [...] I'm writing about something else. A marriage, I guess." (4.1.53)

The more Lyman writes his book, the more he understands his own motivations. What he doesn't yet realize is that his own broken marriage drastically affects the way he understands his grandparents' lives—though that realization will come soon enough.

The fact is, I don't know. He is the silent character in this cast, he [...] left no novels, stories or reminiscences to speak for him. (4.2.210)

The fact that Susan Ward wrote so many letters and stories makes it a lot easier for Lyman to write his book. But what about good ol' granddad? Given that Oliver was a steadfastly silent man in life, it only makes sense that he's equally silent in death.

She did not have to come at her grandparents, as I do, through a time machine. Her own life and that of the grandfather [...] showed her similar figures in an identical landscape. (4.7.10)

It seems like time moved a lot more slowly back in the good old days. Before Susan left to go west, her family lived in the same house, in the same town, for generations. As a result, she was extremely connected with the lives of her ancestors. For Lyman, however, this is a much more difficult prospect—the world has changed a lot in the hundred-some years since his grandparents first left their homes.

It doesn't much matter what year they were written in; those years were cyclic, not chronological. (7.4.1)

See what we mean about time being different back then? These pioneers didn't have calendar apps to manage their hectic schedules or Facebook to store pictures for posterity. All they had were their memories.

The Zodiac is very real to me. To her it is not even a memory, it is only some decaying buildings and a boarded-up entrance. (7.7.21)

Although Shelly's family history is tied to the Zodiac Mines, she has a much different relationship to them than Lyman does. For Lyman, they gave him access to a privileged lifestyle that he still enjoys today; for Shelly, however, they're just another meaningless piece of historical trivia.

Why then am I spending all this effort trying to understand my grandparents' lives? What am I talking and organizing all this for? (7.7.46)

That's the million-dollar question. So, is Lyman trying to make a point about the reality of life in the early West? Is he trying to make sense of his own failed marriage? Or, is he simply trying to honor his grandparents' memory in the best way he knows? Honestly, we'll go with all of the above.

How would I explain, if I were susceptible to Shelly's truth parties, or even if I were writing a book about myself instead of about my grandmother, my relations with Ellen Ward. (7.7.50)

With this, Lyman finally comes clean: he's been studying his grandparents' relationship in the hopes of figuring out what went wrong in his own marriage. Of course, the later revelation that this seemingly perfect marriage was actually quite imperfect shatters these romantic notions in an instant. It's almost as if relationships have always been difficult. Crazy, we know.

"Sometimes it chills my heart to think about the future almost as much as it warms it to think about the past." (8.3.51)

This quote comes from Susan, but it might as well be coming out of Lyman's mouth. To be honest, both of them seem to have the same problem: they look back at the past in order to avoid the future. Like grandma, like grandson, right?