Angle Of Repose Summary

Wallace Stegner

Angle Of Repose

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Angle Of Repose Summary

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Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose is a novel about marriage told from the point of view of a former university professor, Lyman Ward. Lyman taught history until a bone disease forces him to live confined to a wheelchair after having his leg amputated. He had been married, but his wife left him while he was in the hospital, convalescing. When she left, she wrote him a note detailing that she had left him for his surgeon. Lyman goes to live with his grandparents, and while he is there, he seeks to understand what leads to a marriage’s success or failure.

He arrives at his grandparents’ home embittered. He feels defeated not only by the physical changes in his life, but also by the emotional changes vis a vis the loss of his wife. While he is there, he plans to write a novel about his grandmother’s life. He begins going through her papers, which detail her experiences as a writer and an artist in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Lyman originally planned to write a novel about her professional experiences but ends up writing about her marriage.

Lyman’s grandmother, Susan Ward, and her husband, Oliver, had a challenging marriage. Despite that, they remained married for sixty years. During those sixty years, Susan and Oliver faced a number of difficulties, including tragedy, infidelity, jealousy, and even long separations. Through learning of these hurdles, Lyman makes discoveries about himself and his own life.

Lyman accepts the help of a young college dropout, Shelly Rasmussen, in sorting through his grandmother’s papers. She left her husband because he cheated on her, and she too learns about herself in researching Susan’s life and marriage. Susan’s story is told in an epistolary style, through letters written to her closest friend. Lyman discovers that a lifelong commitment to another person via marriage is difficult no matter what time period one lives in, or no matter how old one is. Through learning of his grandparents’ mistakes, his bitterness ebbs away. Though the book does not end on a saccharine note, Lyman does want to learn to forgive his ex-wife, not for her sake, but to lift the burden from his own shoulders and become a better person.

The main theme of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is marriage. The main characters all have marriage difficulties that they react to in different ways. Susan and Oliver Ward undergo separations but they ultimately stay together. Lyman’s dropout assistant left her husband because he cheated on her. Lyman is dealing with the after effects of divorce after his wife ran off with another man—the same man who cut off his leg. By examining Susan and Oliver’s marriage, which lasted despite its difficulties, Lyman is able to begin to heal emotionally.

An important theme tied to the theme of marriage is that of loyalty and trust. Oliver and Susan have opposing views on trust. Where Oliver thinks it is important, and the world is only made worth living in by being able to trust others, Susan thinks he is entirely too trusting of others. Because of his belief in trust, Oliver also values loyalty. For example, if he believes in his work, he will stay with a company despite not receiving pay for his efforts.

A third prevalent theme is infidelity. All three marriages are touched by infidelity. Susan cheats on Oliver with Frank. It is not revealed in the book whether they had a physical relationship, but Susan returns Frank’s love and that emotional infidelity takes its toll. Susan and Oliver’s marriage becomes cold—one in name, not in love. When Lyman’s leg is removed and he needs his wife’s support the most, she abandons him for the surgeon. This not only shows the effects of infidelity, but her choice in the surgeon is a double blow to Lyman because even though his amputation was necessary, the surgeon is still the one who took Lyman’s leg, thereby requiring his wheelchair confinement. Finally, after Shelly finds out her husband cheated on her with multiple women, she leaves him. Where infidelity is concerned, Lyman discovers the aftermath can either include an actual separation or an emotional distance.

Published in 1971, Angle of Repose is based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote. These letters were published later in a book titled A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West. Angle of Repose ranked number eighty-two on Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the twentieth century in 1998. In 1976, the novel was adapted for the stage as an opera by Andrew Imbrie, and performed by the San Francisco Opera. In addition to writing novels and short stories, Wallace Stegner was also an historian and environmentalist. He wrote and published thirteen novels, including Fire and Ice, All the Little Live Things, and Crossing to Safety. He wrote six short story collections and a chapbook, as well as sixteen works of nonfiction.