Study Guide

Angle of Repose Women and Femininity

By Wallace Stegner

Women and Femininity

John Greenleaf Whittier said she was the only girl he knew who could conduct a serious discussion of the latest North American Review while scrubbing her mother's floor. (1.1.45)

Susan is not the kind of person who can be defined by a stereotype. On the one hand, she's a proud intellectual, someone who values the power of the mind above all else. On the other, she's more than willing to get her hands dirty in order to get things done. This multifaceted personality will prove to be an asset once she moves out to the wild American West.

There is a certain boldness about her; she strikes me as refusing to be put in any subordinate position. (1.3.48)

Do you think this passage is describing Susan? If you answered yes to that question, you'd be dead wrong—it's actually a quote from Lyman about Shelly. Isn't it interesting that the same qualities he prizes in his grandmother he dislikes in his assistant?

She had a tough and unswerving dedication to her art. She might even have accepted spinsterhood as the price of her career. (1.4.10)

Susan is a career woman at heart. This is a really forward-thinking mindset, especially when you realize that Susan was born in the 1800s. Regardless, it's clear to Susan from an early age that she'll never be happy unless she can dedicate her life to her art.

"You'd rather us live away from you, in some furnished room, than spend my perfectly good money for a house where we could be a family?" (2.7.165)

Susan and Oliver fight constantly over whether to use her money for the family. To Susan, this is a no-brainer: they've run out of other options at this point. To Oliver, however, this is a grave affront to his masculine ability to provide for his family. Talk about tension.

The admiration of two dozen magnetized eyeballs exhilarated her. She supposed it would be pleasant for men deprived of the company of ladies to see one. (4.2.93)

As Susan gets older, she becomes a lot more comfortable with her sexuality. It's not that she becomes a wild child or anything—she just realizes that she is prized by men simply because she's a beautiful woman. While this flies in the face of her feminist beliefs, Susan can't help but be excited by the realization.

She looked like a dog that [...] barked at a stone dog on a lawn, and been barked back at. In spite of that bass-baritone and that air of amused assurance, she is definitely female. (4.6.9)

Unlike his much-beloved grandma, Lyman doesn't have a feminist bone in his body. It often seems like he believes that women are naturally submissive, even though he loves his grandmother because she refused to be submissive to her husband. That doesn't make much sense to us. This contradiction makes it clear that Lyman's view of women is shaped by his own traumatic relationships with them.

There was an ambitious woman under the Quaker modesty [...] The light foot was for more than dancing [...] the womanliness for more than mute submission to husband and hearth. (5.1.24)

See what we mean? If Lyman were to say the exact same thing about Shelly, he'd be using it as evidence of why she's an awful human being with the dumbest beliefs in the world (we're paraphrasing, of course). So, what makes Susan so different? Once again, we'd point to Lyman's tumultuous marriage as the reason behind his often twisted opinions about women.

My grandfather, operating on his belief that ladies were to be protected, conspired [...] to fill all the seats [...] with the more desirable passengers. (5.1.30)

Though he's married to a die-hard feminist, Oliver isn't above engaging in some good, old-fashioned sexism. While this move might be a little more justified back in the days of the Wild West, we doubt that anything that insane would have happened if Susan had been allowed to live as freely as a man.

"It irritates my republican and suffragist sentiments to see such feminine perfection tied like a servant to that Prussian self-satisfaction." (5.4.18)

Mexico is a whole different game when it comes to gender politics. While Susan has to deal with plenty of sexism while in America, the rigid gender roles of Mexican society are something completely unfamiliar (and frightening) to her. Even though she loves the culture, she hates how it treats women.

Less and less a companion, more and more a grind, she was bolted to her desk by her desperate sense that the family depended entirely on her. (7.6.6)

At a certain point, Susan basically becomes the breadwinner of the family. You might think that this would be liberating for a protofeminist like her, but the complete opposite is actually true—she feels more chained down than ever now that it's up to her to pay the bills.