Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 843
In the late 1940’s, Wallace Stegner, professor of creative writing at Stanford University, arranged for the university’s library to acquire the papers of American writer and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote. Foote lived from 1847 until 1938, roughly the period during which Susan Burling Ward lived, and, like Susan, married a self-educated mining engineer. Using the Foote papers as his base, Stegner wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Angle of Repose.
The novel, although detailed and based on much fact, is essentially a fiction. Stegner, as a creative artist, felt free to distort history to his own artistic ends. The book is realistic and, because it is based on history, can be labeled historical realism.
Recognized as a preeminent writer about the West, Stegner is sometimes compared to William Faulkner, because both use locale to express universal truths that extend far beyond their compressed geographies: Stegner, the West; Faulkner, the South and his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Stegner, however, ranges farther geographically than Faulkner usually did; the story in Angle of Repose centrally involves three parts of California, as well as Colorado, Idaho, and Mexico.
Angle of Repose is, to a large extent, a study in contrasts between East and West. One major distinction between the two is that of scale, as Stegner demonstrates in the scene in which Susan, on an outing along the Hudson River with Oliver, falls in love with him. Susan leans over a precipice to see a waterfall; Stegner notes that at about the same time, John Muir is doing the same thing to look at Yosemite Falls in California. He comments that Muir has much farther to look and that the rush of water is much greater than what Susan is looking at.
In building this contrast, Stegner sets up the sort of dichotomy that, throughout the novel, defines Susan, an Easterner who, despite living for seventy years in the West, can never be a Westerner. Perhaps the vastness of scale intimidates her, forces her retreat into herself, into her world of words and drawings.
The most salient East-West distinction Stegner makes, however, is that the West lacks the sense of community and tradition the East has. There is, in the West, a sense always of moving on, of impermanence.
Susan is the more distinguished of Lyman’s grandparents. Oliver, however, emerges as the admirable character. He lacks Susan’s imagination and abilities, although he has his own abilities firmly grounded in the world that he inhabits. The differences between the two probably are what first attracted them to each other, Stegner implies, but these differences also eventually drive them into their own separate worlds. Stegner uses the geological term “angle of repose,” the slope at which rocks cease to roll, as a metaphoric description of their relationship. Their angle of repose, however, is merely an unhappy accommodation.
The story Stegner tells might have been told in half the space he uses for its unraveling. Had he compressed it, however, he would have compromised the novel’s relaxed, episodic quality. In this book, which spans the period from 1860 to 1970, he explores the complex theme of how people interact with each other over time. He also explores how people deal with their wounds. When Oliver and Susan lose their daughter, the pain is too great for them to speak of her again within the family. Although Lyman’s father never speaks of his lost sister, he expends considerable time and great energy perfecting a hybrid rose that he names “The Agnes Ward.” Through this device, Stegner shows that, although people refrain from talking about the injuries that haunt their souls, the memory of these injuries remains with them.
Tied into this theme is the novel’s final, surrealistic dream, in which Ellen comes to Zodiac Cottage. This chapter brings together many of the novel’s disparate threads, answering some questions the rambling narrative poses and suggesting, however feebly, that perhaps people do, with difficulty, finally achieve their angles of repose.
Ellen presumably comes to effect some sort of reconciliation with Lyman. Lyman, however, is no longer a part of Ellen’s life, Ellen no longer a part of his. He constructs quite carefully the society he wants and needs: the Hawkeses, Shelly, and Al Sutton, his old friend from junior high school. When Ellen intrudes into this society, she threatens the structure that Lyman devises and that suits him well. His dream becomes a nightmare as he is left alone with Ellen, who finally fixes his meal because Ada suffers an arrhythmia that requires Ed and Shelly to take her to the hospital. Al has long since departed.
After dinner, when the subject of Lyman’s bath is raised, Shelly returns, planning to bathe Lyman. She goes into the bathroom with him, draws a hot bath, takes off her blouse (her pendulous breasts transfix him), and then proceeds to strip him. Lyman becomes an object in a struggle between his former wife and his caregiver, thereby revealing his subconscious fears generated by his son’s desire to control his father’s life.