An American Masterpiece: Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose
Wallace Stegner’s (1909-1993) masterpiece Angle of Repose (1971; Pulitzer 1972) explores the marriage relationships of Susan and Oliver Ward and Lyman and Ellen Ward and the free-love relationship of Shelly Rasmussen and Larry. Lyman, a retired historian, writes a history of his grandparents’ lives after his wife leaves him for his surgeon during his struggle with a debilitating illness. As Lyman focuses his writing, he discovers that he is writing about a marriage. He tells his son, Rodman, “What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them” (211). Lyman struggles to understand marriage, his own and his grandparents’, and in this process, tries to enlighten Shelly about her own relationship. This study of the past enlightens us on the struggles and joys of marriage.
Lyman’s marriage has dissolved following his illness, and although Ellen’s affair and treatment of Lyman has been wrong, Lyman cannot find the strength to forgive, an essential part of making a marriage―or any relationship, for that matter―work. Lyman dreads Rodman’s visits, in which he pleads for his mother. “She doesn’t look good . . . She’s had a bad time. . . . I think she’d like to see you” (213). Rodman wants his father to reconcile the relationship by forgiving Ellen’s indiscretions. However, Lyman cannot forgive. His response is anger and hate. “She made her bed” (213). “I have nothing to say to her. Tell her so” (214). The marriage relationship, although now severed through divorce, cannot flourish because of Lyman’s current attitude. This is part of Lyman’s inability and refusal to forgive, an attitude similar to his own grandfather’s.
His grandfather Oliver cannot forgive Susan for a disloyalty comparable to Ellen’s. Frank Sargent, Oliver’s best friend and coworker, pursues Susan romantically during the years they spend together settling the west. He calls his infatuation with her “an incurable disease” (398). As their passion increases, they spend more time together. Lyman reports that they likely never had sex. However, Susan and Frank do kiss and spend time together according to Lyman.
The tragedy of the story occurs when Frank and Susan go for a walk with Agnes and become “so absorbed in themselves,” they forget where Agnes has wandered (536). Agnes drowns in the canal as a result of their philandering. Because Oliver had figured out what was really going on between Susan and Frank, he cannot forgive the carelessness and deception that led to his daughter’s death and Susan’s disloyalty.
A symbol of his inability to forgive is when Oliver pulls up all of the rose bushes at their home in Mesa. The roses are significant because Susan’s childhood home had a magnificent rose garden, one she always wanted to reproduce in order to bring the East to the West with her. Oliver had planted them to please her, but in his anger, he rips them from the ground as a reminder of what she had done to betray him. Following this, the couple separates but finally settles back down together. Although they continue to be married, Oliver’s inability to forgive is evident in his taciturn manner. The couple also never speaks of Agnes. Their marriage reaches an angle of repose that is unhappy and strained because of unforgiven trespasses.
Lyman’s realizations of his grandparents’ roadblocks in marriage lead Lyman to a painful understanding of his own failed marriage. He breaks down crying when he tells Ellen that his grandfather never forgave his grandmother (563). “In all the years I lived with them I never saw them kiss, I never saw them put their arms around each other, I never saw them touch!” (563). Lyman finds himself overcome with emotion at the tragedy of such a marriage and he strangles on his words (563). This scene is the key to the novel’s lesson.
I learned this from one of my favorite professors, Dr. B., who is the author of the Western Writers Series monograph on the novel. He also wrote his dissertation on the novel, and I always admired his expertise on Stegner. I was convinced before, but I am more convinced after having taken several classes from Dr. B., that Stegner is one of, if not the most, accomplished American writers. All of his work is breathtakingly beautiful, perfectly executed, and astutely didactic.
Besides exploring marital infidelities, Angle of Repose shows us a mismatched marriage being weathered by a life on the frontier of the west. Oliver is an engineer who is hell bent on creating the best formula for concrete. His adventures take the couple all over the west, and even into Mexico. Susan is an eastern society girl who misses her good friend Augusta Hudson and must learn to make do with little supplies and luxuries in the west. Susan is constantly unhappy with Oliver, although she knew who he was before she married him. Oliver feels her disdain, and in a moment of ingratitude—when he has brought Susan to Boise after a long separation, has shown her their new home, and has told her all of his grand plans—Susan continues to criticize.
Lyman, in writing their story, creates this scene with a look on Oliver’s face that seems to say: “You married me . . . Maybe that was a mistake. But you didn’t marry what you could make out of me. I wouldn’t be much good remodeled” (470). Oliver’s warning is a reminder to Susan of her own failing to love the person she chose to marry. How many of us are guilty of that? It’s hard not to criticize somebody you spend so much time with. Their little habits tend to annoy, but the key to a strong marriage is to ignore these trivialities and focus on what you do have in common. I often hear the saying: Choose your love, and love your choice. Susan would have benefited from doing this.
In Santa Cruz, a neighbor sees the pattern of Susan’s judgment and tries to stanch it with words of wisdom gained through years of marriage and mothering. Mrs. Elliot corners Susan and tells her to stop pushing Oliver to invent cement. Susan becomes offended, thinking Mrs. Elliot to be meddling. However, her words echo the idea that Susan should learn to love Oliver as he is, instead of trying to change him. Mrs. Elliot advises:
“What bothers me is that Oliver thinks you’re better than he is, some sort of higher creature. He thinks what you do is more important that what he does. I don’t deny you’re special. You’re both special. But I’d hate to see you discourage him from doing what he’s special at, just so you can coddle some notions about dirt and culture” (188).
Mrs. Elliot is telling Susan to support her husband, to love him no matter what, and to accept the life she has chosen for herself by marrying Oliver. However, Susan’s pride continues to cloud her ability to do so, and she holds a resentment that grows as the years pass, leading to increasingly unhappy times.
In exploring their story, Lyman is trying to learn from his grandparents, but this episode also gives Lyman a chance to explain his values when Shelly tells him that traditional marriage has never been a success story. Lyman says: “I have no faith in free-form marriage. It isn’t marriage, it’s promiscuity, and there’s no call for civilization to encourage promiscuity” (518). Lyman champions these values because it seems that his own life would be happier if his wife had adhered to them.
It’s interesting to note what Stegner really thought of his own work and its purposes. Of the time it was written, in the 1970s, Stegner, in an interview with Richard W. Etulain, a specialist in western history and culture, said: “I have been disturbed for the last twenty years by what the sexual revolution has done to marriage and family life. It has been a disaster for children . . . [and] for individuals, married individuals” (94). Stegner also admits that his novel “is old-fashioned . . . deliberately, conscientiously old-fashioned” (96). These conservative values are present in the conversation between Lyman and Shelly about free-love and marriage. Following this debate, Lyman thinks of his grandmother and how infidelity ruined her marriage. He finds himself “looking out into the rose garden and across Grandfather’s acres of lawn, and feeling bleak, bleak, bleak” (523). He realizes that breaking the marriage vows ruined Susan’s and Oliver’s marriage, and he is not yet certain at this point of how they could have fixed it.
Lyman’s eventual discovery that forgiveness can heal all wounds, even his own, and his understanding of Susan’s mistake make this “late twentieth-century novel capable of inspiring something besides cynicism” (Burrows 52). The old-fashioned values Lyman holds dear come to show the way to make the most important life relationship work. And, it seems that Lyman is willing to learn from the mistakes of Oliver and Susan. Marriage is hard, yes, but it can be done when those involved learn to love the one they selected and to forgive as they would like to be forgiven. In this, Stegner gave us a way to make marriage work, even in the toughest of times, modern or Victorian. Stegner told Etulain that in marriage you must “bend yourself to make some kind of reconciliation of the irreconcilable, which is what a marriage is always having to do, a real one, that is” (94). To make a real marriage work, unconditional love and forgiveness are essential. They can soothe ruffled feathers and puffed up pride in any era.
I contend that Wallace Stegner is THE great American novelist. Of course, I’m biased because Stegner spent much of his youth in Salt Lake City, earned degrees from the University of Utah, and wrote many of his novels in the setting of the western United States. I’m also in awe of him because of his academic career. He started the creative writing program at Stanford and won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Do you admire Wallace Stegner? Which of his books is your favorite?
Burrows, Russell. Reading Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. Western Writers Ser. 147. Boise, Idaho: Boise State UP, 2001.
Stegner, Wallace. Angle of Repose. New York: Penguin, 1971.
Stegner, Wallace and Richard W. Etulain. “Angle of Repose.” Conversations with Wallace Stegner: On Western History and Literature. Rev. ed. Salt Lake City: University of Utah P, 1983. 83-100.