Stoner: John Williams (1965)

These days the word Stoner has a certain connotation, but William Stoner, the protagonist in John Williams’ novel is a staid, dare I say it … plodder. Playing my alternate title game with this book, it would be Downer.

William Stoner, the only child of a dirt-poor, hard-working Missouri farming couple, does not think of his life beyond the daily drudgery of the farm, but one day, a County agent approaches his father regarding sending William to the state university to study agriculture. This will be a hardship for the family, but Stoner’s father makes the decision that his son should attend. There’s no sense of ambition behind the decision, but more the sense that it might ‘be a good thing.’ In 1910, Stoner, equipped with the bare minimum is taken via mule-wagon by his parents to the nearest town, and then he walks to the university. He is given a ride in a wagon for part of the way and finds himself in a whole new world. He boards at the farm of his mother’s cousin, another dirt poor couple, and he pays for his room and board by working on the farm.

Stoner is an average student until he walks into a required English Literature class taught by Archer Sloane, and it’s in this class that Stoner finds a deep love for literature. He switches his major, learns Greek and Latin, and eventually, encouraged by Archer Sloane he enrolls in a PhD programme. Somewhere along the way he meets Edith, the only child of a banker. He may fall in love, but there’s a whiff of last chance in Edith’s acceptance. The novel follows Stoner’s life, and what a miserable life he has. On one hand it’s a story of tremendous success–a story of how a man’s life is transformed by education, and yet it’s a story of loneliness, a bitter marriage, university backstabbing politics and moral failure. Stoner is part of the great American tradition of the misunderstood, underappreciated, overworked American male crushed by the often neurotic social climbing women in his life. That’s not a slam, but there is a such a sub-genre. Thinking Dodsworth here.

Set from 1910 until 1956, the book serves as a tableau of American history –we see WWI, Prohibition, The Great Depression, WWII, the Korean war and McCarthyism like a moving picture all taking place outside of the sheltered world of the university.

This is also a campus novel, so we see Stoner’s steady but plodding academic career, and he’s no match for the more politically savvy university employees. Stoner’s contemporary, Gordon Finch is the quintessential political animal, a man whose personality guarantees he will float to the top. Stoner has an arch enemy in Professor Hollis Lomax, and long standing hatred brews in the English Department (as it so often does). Stoner, as a professor is reliable, steady, and has principles–rather expensive principles as Stoner learns. For this reader, the depictions of university life are the best aspects of the novel: the petty squabbles, using students as a battleground, the silent politics of appointments, the tyranny of tenure. Oddly, the descriptions of the campus are the best (non-depressing) descriptions in the book.

His sense of time was displaced. He found himself standing in the long parquet first floor corridor of Jesse Hall. A low hum like the distant thrumming of birds’ wings was in his ears.In the shadowed corridor, a sourceless light seemed to glow and dim, pulsating like the beat of his heart, and his flesh, intimately aware of every move he made, tingled as he stepped forward with deliberate care into the mingled light and dark. He stood at the stairs that led up to the second floor. The steps were marble and in their precise centers were gentle troughs worn smooth by decades of footsteps going up and down. They had been almost new when, how many years ago, he had first stood here and looked up. As he looked now, and wondered where they would lead him, he thought of time and its gentle flowing. He put one foot carefully on the first smooth depression and lifted himself up.

The narrative of Stoner (which is all tell and no show) tends towards depressing descriptions. Here he is thinking about his dead parents:

He thought of the cost exacted, year after year, by the soil; and it remained as it had been–a little more barren, perhaps, a little more frugal of increase. Nothing had changed. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed. Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives; and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them. Slowly the damp and rot would infest the pine boxes which held their bodies, and slowly it would touch their flesh, and finally it would consume the last vestiges of their substances. And they would become a meaningless part of that stubborn earth to which they had long ago given themselves.

Stoner is well-worth reading and is considered an “American masterpiece.” It is, however, somewhat problematic. As a protagonist, Stoner is passive. He’s not a man of action; he’s worked on and against more than anything else. He accepts whatever is dealt to him–his wife’s antagonism is a great example. She vomits the first time they have sex, but later when she decides she wants a child, she turns into a bedroom nympho which seemed more like a male fantasy than anything else. Eternally discontent, her nomadic neuroticism initially manifests as an ongoing cleaning campaign but later she drifts from one hobby to another. She mostly ignores their only child, Grace, until she can weaponise the child against Stoner. Edith is the mistress of covert, malicious domestic warfare. Stoner comes home from work one day to find that his office is stripped so that Edith can work on her watercolors (a long abandoned hobby). His books desk etc are shoved in the unheated sun room. Later, children are allowed to play in the room, so many of his papers (for a second book) are trashed. Upon another occasion, a window is broken and items ruined, so Stoner, accepting defeat, moves his work, his books, to the college campus. At home, he sleeps on the couch.

There are three female characters in the novel: Edith, Grace and Ann. Edith and Grace both have mental health issues, and Ann seems a male fantasy created to feed Stoner’s unacknowledged ego. We only get Stoner’s version of his depressing long-suffering life with Edith, a woman who has the emotional maturity of 12. I wanted him to pick up a chair and break it or something–anything to end the tyranny of her personality. In every relationship Stoner is passive, but ever stoic, with increasingly stooped shoulders, he bears up like Atlas under the burden of his woes. The only time he drops his timidity is when he’s defending his position at the university, but even that takes years. Stoner is a downer. You really wouldn’t want to follow this with, let’s say, Jude the Obscure.



Filed under Fiction, posts

23 responses to “Stoner: John Williams (1965)

  1. Everyone was hailing Stoner as a modern neglected masterpiece, but I found it plodding and a downer, like you say. And Stoner does not find happiness until he ditches his long-suffering wife and takes up with one of his coed students. I’m still not sure why everyone calls it a masterpiece.

  2. I loved Stoner! It rang true while I was reading it. I am one of those who call it a master piece, I was really happily surprised and energized while reading it. :-)) Thanks for writing about it!

  3. I must take you to task for conflating passivity with stoicism. Stoner’s stoicism is a considered choice, it is actually a position of strength. It takes strength not to pick up a chair to hurl it, or do worse. It takes strength to stick it out in a toxic marriage or career too.

    I think what Williams was doing was showing readers who’ve grown up in a culture of easy divorce and the prioritisation of personal desires over integrity, what it was like beforehand. He’s showing the price of respectability, but he’s not doing it by sneering at it, rather (as shown in your excerpt) he’s showing how that ingrained respectability derives from a different set of values.

  4. I agree with your assessment. Not only was Stoner extremely passive I could see no justification for this in his life to warrant any empathy. I think this is a book readers either love or dislike strongly.

  5. A while since I read it, but you bring it all back, and I agree with the sentiment: finely written, but an odd and somewhat unsatisfactory book. It’s an interesting case study: after the “rediscovery” and all the buzz, is it now (again) somewhat… forgotten? I wonder if there’s some “buyer’s remorse” among its keenest boosters from a few years back. Good though that Williams got a new lease of life – I think Butcher’s Crossing is his best, and much superior to Stoner, albeit will never be fashionable in the same way as it is “just” a Western.

  6. I’ve heard about it…tempted.

    I read a lot of reviews of it after seeing your post. People go back and forth and around on whether Stoner is passive or stoical. Nobody seems to comment much on the role of social expectations frustrating individual ones. Seems like the story could be an interesting dissection of social structure, albeit an unpleasant one, but your review implies that that opportunity was neglected.

    I’ll have to wait until I’m in the right mood, but not sure what mood that would be. 🙂

    • I didn’t see the stoic vs passive debate as I tend to not look at other reviews before I write mine unless it is a new book and I’m stunned by all the positive gushing or conversely the negative tomato throwing, and I want to get a sense of the tug o’war.

      Chewing it over….I would say he is stoic when it comes to his dept head sticking it to him, but passive with Edith and Grace. Grace pays a price for his lack of intervention.

  7. What an interesting discussion in the comments, coming to this late. I don’t mind a miserable book (I’ve read all of Hardy, after all) but I’m not sure I will rush to this one!

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