Study Guide

Angle of Repose Themes

  • Family

    Sometimes your family members can be your best friends in the whole entire world; at other times, they might as well be your worst enemies. If you don't believe us on that one, just ask Lyman Ward, star of Angle of Repose—he knows what we're talking about. Having set out to write an exhaustive history of his grandparents' lives, Lyman is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about his family's legacy. Spoiler alert: it's not all sunshine and roses. Although it can a pretty huge bummer at times, Lyman walks away from the experience with a better understanding of his family—and, ultimately, of himself.

    Questions About Family

    1. How does Lyman's view of his family change over the course of the novel?
    2. Are the Wards a happy family? Explain your answer.
    3. How do Oliver's and Susan's views of family differ?
    4. In your opinion, why does Lyman's dad become a "difficult man"?

    Chew on This

    Although Lyman romanticizes his grandparents at first, his research ultimately teaches him that his family is as flawed as anyone else's.

    While Oliver and Susan are both great parents, their marital turmoil ends up harming their family in irreparable ways.

  • Memory and the Past

    A historian by trade, Lyman Ward spends his life in the past in Angle of Repose. He's actually more comfortable in the past than in the present. Unfortunately for him, however, this love affair with the past gets complicated when he dives headlong into his most ambitious project yet: a partially fictionalized account of his grandparents' lives. As Lyman investigates his family's tumultuous past, he uncovers some shocking truths, and he's forced to come to terms with the reality behind his rose-colored nostalgia for his youth. What he finds isn't all that pretty.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Why does Lyman love studying history so much?
    2. How does Lyman's view of the past differ from Rodman's?
    3. Does Lyman romanticize the past? Why or why not?
    4. Are Oliver and Susan ever able to let go of the trauma of their past? Explain.

    Chew on This

    Essentially, Lyman studies the past because he doesn't like facing the present.

    While Lyman believes that you have to look to the past in order to learn about the future, Rodman doesn't think that you have to look any further than the present.

  • Technology and Modernization

    Spanning from the early days of the Wild West to the rollicking 1970s, Angle of Repose is a firsthand lesson in the development of the modern era. We see the Industrial Age, which transforms rural America into a manufacturing behemoth. We see the rise of suburbia, which moves the country even further away from its farmland roots. And that's just scratching the surface. Although Lyman Ward isn't exactly enthused about all of these changes, his snarky attitude helps us better understand the consequences of modernization.

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. How does Oliver contribute to the modernization of America?
    2. Does Lyman like modern American culture? Why or why not?
    3. In what ways do Shelly and Rodman represent modern America?
    4. What does Lyman mean when he says that being a "modern" and "one-legged" man are similar?

    Chew on This

    Although Lyman criticizes modernization in all of its forms, his beloved grandpa was one of its chief architects, even if he didn't realize it at the time.

    In many ways, Rodman and Shelly represent everything Lyman hates in 1970 about the new generation: their radical politics, their free-spirited nature, and their absolute rejection of everything that came before them.

  • Society and Class

    Susan Ward is such a classy broad that we're pretty sure Tom Jones wrote "She's a Lady" about her. Having grown up as the "poor" kid in the world of wealthy New York intellectuals, Susan actually tends to care about class issues more than most—which gives us a hint that she's insecure about her own standing in the upper crust of society. As Susan gets older, we see these class concerns grow larger within her, causing tension in her marriage and ultimately affecting her in a profoundly negative way. That's what happens when keeping it classy goes wrong.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Why is Susan so insecure about her class standing?
    2. How does Susan's understanding of the nature of class change over the course of the novel?
    3. Why does Susan doubt Oliver's ability to survive in high society?
    4. What are the negative consequences of Susan's obsession with class?

    Chew on This

    Susan is more focused on acting high class than her peers because she wasn't born into it—she had to fight her way in.

    Although Susan's high-class status helps her throughout the novel, it also causes her to have standards that are too high to ever be met.

  • Love

    In Angle of Repose, love is shown to be a lot more complicated than all those sappy Beatles love songs would have you believe. Sometimes, it can be a trickster, compelling you to act in ways that are strange and unfamiliar. Sometimes, it can be an inspiration, giving you the motivation to do things you never thought possible. And at other times, love can be something else entirely: evidence of some yearning need at the deepest part of your being. So, yeah—love might be all you need, but you know what they say about having too much of a good thing...

    Questions About Love

    1. Why does Susan fall in love with Oliver in the first place?
    2. Do you think Lyman and Ellen will ever make up? Why or why not?
    3. What causes Susan's attraction toward Frank?
    4. Do you think Shelly will go to school or to the commune? Explain.

    Chew on This

    Susan falls in love with Oliver for the same reasons that she doubts her love for him later: his manliness, steadfastness, and self-sufficiency.

    Although Susan certainly loves Frank, her feelings toward him primarily sprout from her dissatisfaction with her relationship with Oliver.

  • Women and Femininity

    Susan Ward, the heroine of Angle of Repose, is one down chick. She's an artist and writer in an era when women were expected to be nothing more than housewives. She lives in the Wild West at a time when ladies were even rarer than gold. She even becomes the breadwinner for her family. In other words: Susan was a feminist before feminism was cool. Although Susan earns a lot of respect in our book for these forward-thinking moves, she ultimately pays the price for her indomitable nature—in more ways than one.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. In what ways does Susan buck the gender stereotypes of her time?
    2. Compare and contrast Shelly's and Susan's respective approaches to feminism.
    3. Is Lyman a misogynist? Explain your answer.
    4. Why is Oliver so opposed to using Susan's money for the family?

    Chew on This

    Susan is such an exceptional woman because she is able to subvert traditional gender stereotypes while still using her femininity to her advantage.

    Oliver gets angry about Susan using her money for the family because he thinks that it's inappropriate for a woman to supersede the authority of the man of the house.

  • Ambition

    Oliver Ward is one ambitious dude. He's got no other choice: you've got to be on your grind if you want to survive in the Wild West of Angle of Repose. While Oliver works harder than anyone in the world, he proves himself far less adept at the business side of his endeavors, which never stop tripping him up. Don't think that's going to slow him down, though. Even when failure is staring him in the face, Oliver keeps doing what he does best: putting the pedal to the metal.

    Questions About Ambition

    1. Why do so many of Oliver's business ventures fail? Explain.
    2. Is Susan ambitious? Explain your answer.
    3. How do Oliver's and Frank's work ethics differ? How are they similar?
    4. In what ways is ambition related to the idea of the "West"?

    Chew on This

    Although Oliver is as ambitious as they come, his businesses continually fail because he lacks the killer instinct that sets great businesspeople apart.

    Although Frank works very hard, he lacks the patience that eventually helps Oliver make a success out of himself.

  • Isolation

    Although it follows several generations of the Ward family, Angle of Repose is held together by one common feeling: isolation. There's the isolation of Susan Ward, who moves thousands of miles away from everyone she knows and loves. There's the isolation of Oliver Ward, who dedicates himself to his work with an obsessive focus. And then there's the isolation of their grandson, Lyman, who has somehow convinced himself that he deserves to be lonely. This can all get to be a bummer at times, but the novel ultimately speaks to the importance of fighting these feelings of isolation by being a part of a real community.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Why has Lyman isolated himself in the Zodiac Cottage?
    2. How does Susan fight her feelings of isolation?
    3. What are some examples of psychological isolation in the novel?
    4. Do you think Lyman will become less isolated after the events of the novel? Explain.

    Chew on This

    Ultimately, Susan copes with her feelings of isolation in an unhealthy way: by starting an affair with Frank.

    After his divorce, Lyman undergoes a period of self-imposed isolation that culminates in his writing of Angle of Repose.

  • Visions of the West

    Here's a shocker for you: life in the Wild West wasn't quite like it's depicted in cowboy movies. For example, you don't usually hear about how mega-wealthy businessmen used shady labor practices to line their own pockets. You don't hear the stories of the many immigrant groups who made a home in that unforgiving country. And, you don't hear a lick about the day-to-day lives of the regular folk who bucked tradition to become trailblazing pioneers. Ultimately, Angle of Repose shows us that life in the American West was a lot more complicated than modern stereotypes would have us believe.

    Questions About Visions of the West

    1. In what ways do we see the West change over the course of the novel?
    2. Compare and contrast Susan's views of the Northeast and the West.
    3. Why does Susan fall so hard in love with Mexico?
    4. What is Susan's favorite place to live in the West? Her least favorite?

    Chew on This

    Although pioneers like Oliver helped build the West from nothing, their hard work has been swept away by the conformity of the modern era.

    Although Susan loves the West, she never stops trying to transform it into the Northeast of her youth.