Angle of Repose
What causes a long-standing marriage to unravel and what might be done to at least partially resurrect it after it has been seriously damaged? These seem to be the questions that Lyman Ward, narrator of Angle of Repose, wants answered as he researches the lives of his grandparents, Oliver Ward and Susan Burling Ward, in Wallace Stegner’s 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
In every respect Angle of Repose is an outstanding work of fiction. It is Stegner’s examination of the institution of marriage illustrated by two flawed marriages, however, that I wish to discuss.
Lyman Ward is a retired history professor and prolific author of books about the Western frontier. He is divorced, disabled, and wheelchair-bound – his right leg has been amputated, his head is immobile, his joints are in constant pain due to a bone disease that has caused the hardening of his cervical spine. He has taken residence in his deceased grandparents’ house in Grass Valley, California, has hired a family friend to bath, feed, and see to other essential needs, and has begun the task of writing a book about his grandparents, pioneers in special ways during the late Nineteenth Century West’s development.
He seeks to remain independent of his adult son Rodman, who wants to place him in a care facility. “Though we are affectionate with each other,” Lyman writes, “[Rodman] is no more my true son than if he breathed through gills.” Lyman feels more connected with Oliver and Susan Burling Ward. “Fooling around in the papers my grandparents, especially my grandmother, left behind, I get glimpses of lives close to mine, related to mine in ways I recognize but don’t completely comprehend.”
Lyman makes brief statements about his father and his grandparents in his first chapter, bits of information that readers should not dismiss.
Lyman’s father Oliver Ward – named after Oliver, the grandfather, but called Ollie throughout most of the book – “had a queer unhappy life … and finally got so addled that Ada and Ed Hawkes [friends of the Ward family and caretakers of the Green Valley property] had to look after him as they would have looked after a willful and irresponsible child.”
Lyman is critical of Rodman knowing nothing about Lyman’s grandfather’s “inventiveness or his genius for having big ideas twenty years ahead of their time or his struggle to do something grand and humanly productive and be one of the builders of the West.”
Lyman’s grandmother “was the best-known woman illustrator of her time, and the only woman who ever did anything significant about drawing the early West.” Looking at her portrait behind his work desk, Lyman comments: “A Quaker lady of high principles, the wife of a not-very-successful engineer whom you supported through years of delayed hope, you lived in exile, wrote it, drew it – New Almaden, Santa Cruz, Leadville, Michoacan [Mexico], the Snake River Valley, the deep quartz mines right under this house – and you stayed a cultural snob through it all. Even when you lived in a field camp in a canyon, your children had a governess, no less, unquestionably the only one in
. The dream you had for your children was a
dream of Eastern cultivation.” Idaho
Being the wife of a field engineer, she knew the meaning of the term “angle of repose.” Late in the book she explains its literal meaning. Referring to an irrigation ditch being dug to carry water, she wrote that its twelve-foot banks “slope at the ‘angle of repose,’ which means the angle at which dirt and pebbles stop rolling.” In the first chapter of his book, Lyman surmises that she tried to apply the term to her “wanderings and uneasy life. It is the angle I am aiming for myself … I wonder if you ever reached it.” Much of the rest of Stegner’s novel is about what Lyman discovers.
Lyman writes: “There was a time up there in
was wrong; your husband’s career, your marriage, your sense of yourself, your
confidence, all came unglued together.
Did you come down out of that into some restful 30 degree angle and live
happily ever after? … Or did you cling
forever to the sentiment you wrote to Augusta Hudson [her lifelong cultural mentor
and soul mate] from the bottom of failure in Idaho
– that not even Henry James’s expatriates were so exiled as you? We shared this house all the years of my
childhood, and a good many summers afterward.
Was the quiet I always felt in you really repose? I wish I thought so. It is one of the questions I want the papers
[her letters yet to be examined] to answer.” Boise Canyon
As we begin to read chapter two, we know that there will be turmoil in Oliver Ward and Susan Burling’s marriage and that something terrible will occur that will cause Susan to seek angle of repose for the remainder of her life. We later discover that there has been turmoil in Lyman’s marriage and that he must consider whether he wishes to initiate repair.
Susan meets Oliver at an 1868 New Year’s reception hosted by a rich
hostess. Susan is 21, the daughter of a
middleclass Quaker family living in New York . At the age of 18, while attending a painting
class in New York City, she had met and become a close friend of the very
cultured Augusta Drake [later Hudson], whose “people belonged to the old
aristocracy of New York.” Because of her
association with Milton,
New York ,
therefore accepted by aristocratic circles, Susan had been invited to the 1868
New Year’s reception. Repelled by the
pompous, arrogant declarations of opinion by an important guest, Reverend Henry
Ward Beecher, Susan retreats to the solitude of the hostess’s library to pass
the time sketching. A young man whom she
had observed earlier -- only because he had been quiet, not presumptuous, and demonstrably
uncomfortable in the presence of the gathering’s elite -- enters the room. He is polite, unobtrusive, yet
attentive. “He had an air of quiet such
as she had known in men like her father, men who worked with animals. He did not look like one who was easily
upset, or talked too much, or thought he had to be entertaining.” She tolerates his presence. They converse. He is Oliver Ward, a distant cousin of the
Reverend Beecher. He had attended Yale
for two years preparing to become an engineer.
Believing that he was going blind, he had left Yale and moved to Augusta to grow
oranges. Two years later he had returned
to Florida ,
having learned that his vision problem was merely astigmatic; what he had needed
was glasses. Rather than return to Yale,
he has decided to go West to “make myself
into an engineer.” During their
off-and-on conversation – one of the best scenes in the novel -- Susan notices
physical features and mannerisms that attract her. At the end of their shared time together, he
suggests that while he is out West they correspond. She is amenable. I had bonded with each character. New York
Nearly five years pass. They write each other. He is in love with her. She regards him as a friend. She has taken a romantic interest in the cultured Thomas Hudson, assistant editor of Scribner’s Magazine. When Thomas eventually chooses
to be his wife,
Susan is distraught. Gone from her life is
the potential husband and lover and, very probably, her closest female friend. Leaving Augusta New York City,
she returns to her parents’ residence in . “Within two days after she heard of the
engagement of August and Thomas, Oliver Ward wrote that he was coming home from
the West.” He visits her in Milton . Not long afterward they are engaged. Milton
The following is the scene that Lyman imagined happened when Susan and Augusta met after Susan had accepted Oliver’s proposal. Not only does it illustrate Wallace Stegner’s considerable skill at showing (not telling) action and using crisp dialogue that conveys emotion. It intimates why Susan went against her instincts and cultural inclinations to commit herself to a marriage that over the succeeding years would cause her to be increasingly dissatisfied.
“Oliver Ward? Who on earth is he? Have I met him? You’re joking.”
“No, I’m quite serious. You haven’t met him. He’s been in
“Then where did you meet him?”
“At Emma’s, one New Year’s Eve.”
“And he’s been gone since? How long?”
“Four years, nearly five.”
“But you’ve been writing to him.”
“And now he’s proposed and you’ve accepted, all by mail!”
“No, he’s back. He’s been visiting at
for a week.” Milton
“I didn’t know he was going to become so important.”
“But now after a week’s visit you know.”
“I do know, yes. I love him. I’m going to marry him.”
“You’re forgetting yourself!”
“Sue, I think you’re forgetting yourself. What does this young man do?”
“He’s an engineer.”
“And he wants to take you out there.”
“As soon as he finds the right place, with some permanence in it.”
“And you’ll go.”
“When he sends for me, yes.”
“My art isn’t that important. I’ll never be anything but a commercial illustrator.”
“You know that’s utterly wrongheaded!”
“I know I want to marry him and go where his career takes him. It won’t be forever, but it may take some time. He’s not flashy, he’ll take a little while to establish himself. I can go on drawing. He wants me to.”
“In some mining camp.”
“I don’t know where.”
agitation broke out. She stopped, she
gripped her hands before her face and shook them. “Susan, Susan, you’re mad! You’re throwing yourself away! Ask Thomas.
He’d never agree this is
“In this,” said Susan, as if in a novel, “I can consult no one but myself.”
“And make a mistake that will ruin your career and lead you a desolate life.”
Susan does live over the years, in her mind, a desolate life. She is ashamed at various times that her husband is closed-mouthed during social conversations with cultured people. Oliver is a kind, very considerate husband exceedingly well-liked by common people. He is honest. Not confrontational. Dishonest people take advantage of him. She holds this against him. Worst of all, she cannot help holding him responsible for her not having a permanent place of her own to raise their children in a cultured environment. Her husband’s continued defeats and her increased dissatisfactions lead him to drink, in her mind the worst of sins. The following scene late in the novel illustrates how far their marriage has deteriorated.
Oliver had been offered a two-year job working for the United States Geological Survey. It would mean abandoning seven years of waiting and hoping to see realized a grand irrigation project conceived by Oliver to turn
desert into fertile farm land. Susan wants him to take the job. Idaho
“You wouldn’t be giving up everything. All your work would be useful for this government survey. Maybe when that’s done, irrigation will be better understood and you’ll get your backing and can go on.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I don’t know. Don’t you?”
“Still I ought to take it.”
“I think so, yes.”
“And what do you and the children do?”
“It doesn’t matter what we do! I’d be happy anywhere if I thought you were working and … satisfied with yourself. I can support the children [writing about and doing illustrations of the West for Thomas Hudson’s Century Magazine] Haven’t I been doing it?”
It was not the thing to say. She knew it, but could not help saying it. The steady, heavy stare of his eyes told her that he resented her and hardened himself against her, and the moment she saw his reaction, she resented him.
“It will do you good to get away from those people and that town,” she said. “You’ll be out in the mountains doing what you like to do. I want you to take this job and I want you to promise me you’ll stop drinking. If you’re working, there’s no excuse, is there?”
“No,” Oliver said.
At his tone she flared up. “Is there? Is there? I’ve tried to understand. I’ve excused you, because I know how … But now if you’re working again there isn’t any excuse. You’ve got to promise me!”
“You’d better let me work that out for myself,” he said. “I do better when nobody is pushing and pulling.”
“You think I’m pushing and pulling?”
He looked at her and said nothing.
“If that’s what it is,” she said, close to crying, “if you think I’m a bossy managing woman, it might be better if I took the children away somewhere and never came back.”
He was exactly like a balky mule. She could see his hind quarters settle and his ears lie back. Aghast at what she had said, more than half afraid she meant it, she stared into his frowning face.
“That’s what I mean by pushing and pulling,” he said. He walked away from her and sat on the table, looking out the window down toward the bridge and Arrow Rock. He talked to the window, or to her reflection in it. “You’re a lot better than I am,” he said. “You think I don’t know that?” In the glass his eyes found and held hers. “You think I don’t know what I’ve put you through? Or that I don’t care? But I tell you, Sue, I’m not going to do any better because anybody, even you, is hauling at me. I’m doin’ my best right now.”
[He explains,] “If a promise means anything, I have to make it to myself. … Then if I break it I’ll be harder on myself than you’d ever be. But I can imagine breaking it.”
[She responds,] “I can’t understand. … Doesn’t it shame you to be … enslaved that way? Doesn’t it humiliate you to think that you can’t resist that temptation when someone like Frank [Oliver’s best friend who -- Oliver and Susan know -- is in love with her], living out on the railroad with the roughest sort of men, never touches a drop? Why can’t you be like Frank?”
And that was the greatest mistake of all. “Because I’m not Frank,” Oliver said, staring at her reflected face. “Maybe you wish I was.”
That terrible happening, which will affect drastically the lives of five people, the consequences of which, in Lyman’s mind, she seeks to attain angle of repose for the remainder of her life, Susan alludes to in a letter she writes soon afterward to Augusta.
“I am gong back. Behind all this anguish, I believe, has been my refusal to submit. I do not mean to my husband only. I have held myself above my chosen life, with results that I must repent and grieve for the rest of my days. I have not been loyal. If there is ever a chance that our lives may be patched together, it must be in the West, since that is where I failed.”
Angle of Repose thoroughly engaged my emotions. I wanted so much for Oliver to succeed in his endeavors and for Susan to be happy and fulfilled. Each person I considered to be an excellent human being. Stegner’s account of their deteriorating marriage gives spouses of long-standing marriages pause to reflect on their own marital commitments, their personal weakness, and the necessity of embracing understanding and forgiveness.