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Literature as an Invitation to Spiritual Growth
An Online Book Group
Discussion Guide by The Rev. Margaret Gunness

The Angle of Repose
by Wallace Stegner

I find this book to be an extraordinary piece of literature and art. Its language is rich and evocative, its characters real and accessible, its writing style powerful and creative. The novel is, for me, a lifetime favorite. The story itself is told by a man named Lyman Ward, who is writing in the early 1970s about the life of his grandparents, Susan and Oliver Ward, who were among those pioneers who strove to develop the American West. Susan was a sensitive, sophisticated and artistic woman who knew only the wealthy, cultured life of the social circles of the Northeast. Oliver was an engineer, a westerner, a man with rough edges as well as hidden tenderness. Their story gives us a panoramic view of a family, an era and the sacrifice and challenge which faced those who struggled to build up the American West.Let’s begin with two concepts of particular significance in this story written by Wallace Stegner:One is the angle of repose, defined as the angle or slant at which rocks or other detritus cease to slide downward and comes to rest. Lyman Ward, who is telling the story, uses this term himself, but I think it could also apply to him. Lyman is partially paralyzed, immobilized and in a wheelchair. Reflecting on his grandparents, he writes, “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.” He is clearly using a term which could perhaps be applied to himself, and which, I imagine, was frequently used by engineers such as the grandfather, of whom he is writing.What I see underlying the emphasis he places on this concept is an implication that the angle of repose is not a growth concept, but a concept of diminishment, of becoming less significant as one moves into that angle of stillness.Some related questions arise which we can ask of our faith:

  • Can our faith flourish if it seems to reach such an angle of repose?
  • Can faith (or for that matter, learning or understanding) grow if it remains at such an angle?

Also related to this is a statement which appears on the back cover of the book:

    A fine novel, engrossing and mature…for when all is said, individual lives are very much like bits of detritus, rolling down from the high places of stress and emotion until they reach that place where the tumbling and the falling stops and they find their angle of repose…

  • Do you agree with this statement? Why? Or why not?

But now let’s turn to a second concept, that of the Doppler effect, defined as

the apparent change of frequency of sound waves … varying with the relative velocity of the source and the observer; if the source and observer are drawing closer together, the frequency is increased.
Webster's New World College Dictionary, Indexed Fourth Edition (Foster City, CA: IDG Books, 1997)

Likewise, I would add that after the source of a sound and the hearer of that sound have passed one another,and the distance separating them again grows larger, the frequency of the sound waves and thus its volume is decreased. So, to use it in this way as a metaphor as Stegner has done, I would ask you this:In the Old Testament of the Bible, the prophets foretold and anticipated the coming of the Son of God. This could be compared to the increasing sound of a moving object (a train, for example coming toward us). Then, still continuing with the metaphor, the earthly life of Jesus could be seen as the height of the intensity of that sound. But, and this is my question, does that sound then diminish as the earthly life of Jesus drops further and further into the past, while time and human history continue to move forward? An interesting question to ponder or discuss.To move on to another challenging concept that the book evokes, let’s look now at its use of Nemesis. In mythology, Nemesis was the goddess of retributive justice (the deserved punishment for evil done, or sometimes, the reward for good done; a merited requital). In theology, Nemesis is seen as the reward or punishment in another life for things done in this life. Twice Lyman Ward, the storyteller, calls himself Nemesis while he’s looking back on the life of his grandparents.

Why them am I spending all this effort trying to understand my grandparents’ lives? … Is it love and sympathy that makes me think myself capable of reconstructing these lives, or am I Nemesis in a wheelchair, bent on proving something, that not even gentility and integrity are proof against the corrosions of human weakness, human treachery, human disappointment, human inability to forget?
—pp. 439-440

Part of my uneasiness comes as a direct result of living my grandmother’s life for her…There is some history that I want not to have happened. I resist the consequences of being Nemesis.
— p. 512

I often think of Nemesis as a rock on which the waves of our life come rolling in, and they break on that rock, somehow showing us to be good and acceptable, or to be flawed and rejected. Nemesis is judgment and as such is both a reminder and a source of fear. What do you think?

Now I want us to move on to explore two words used in this book with significance and strength, words that we generally consider to be a basic part of the Christian faith. First is hope. Lyman Ward states that

As a practitioner of hindsight I know that Grandfather was trying to do, by personal initiative and with the financial resources of a small and struggling corporation, what only the immense power of the federal government ultimately proved able to do. That does not mean he was foolish or mistaken. He was premature. … Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality. —p. 382

Yet hope is what we’re urged by scripture and by faith always to have. How do you reconcile that with the unending hope that seemed to be Oliver Ward’s undoing, his Nemesis? The next word is endurance. Again, Lyman Ward is speaking:

Occasionally I have these moments, not often. [He refers to moments of feeling sorry for himself and what has become of him]…imprisoned in nearly sixty years of living, chained to a chair, caged in a maimed and petrified body…. It would be easy to call it quits….Tantrums and passions I don’t need, endurance is what I need. —p. 200

I ask you to consider these reflections of Lyman Ward’s on hope and endurance in relationship to these texts from scripture:

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. —I Corinthians 13:7He who endures to the end will be saved.
—Matthew 10:22

Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus.
— Hebrews 12:1b-2

Susan and Oliver eventually ran out of hope and out of love. At this stage, Stegner says, first of Susan:

She is Massaccio’s Eve, more desolate than Adam because he can invent the bow and arrow and the spear, but she can only try to reassemble outside Eden an imperfect copy of what she has lost…she has been guilty of pride, she has held herself apart, and so contributed to the fall. —p. 159

then of Oliver:

Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality. —p. 382

Finally, in conclusion, Lyman says this of his grandparents, Susan and Oliver Ward:

So they lived happily-unhappily ever after…Year after irrelevant year, half a century almost, through one world war and through the Jazz Age and through the Depression and the New Deal and all that; through Prohibition and Women’s Rights, through the automobile and radio and television and into the second world war. Through all those changes, and not a change in them. —p. 561

Copyright ©2001Margaret Gunness


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