By: John Edward Williams
Format/Source: Paperback; my own copy
William Stoner enters the University of Missouri at nineteen to study agriculture. A seminar on English literature changes his life, and he never returns to work on his father’s farm. Stoner becomes a teacher. He marries the wrong woman. His life is quiet, and after his death his colleagues remember him rarely.
Yet with truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value. Stoner tells of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history, and reclaims the significance of an individual life. A reading experience like no other, itself a paean to the power of literature, it is a novel to be savoured.
I first discovered this novel through Twitter; Vintage Classics was retweeting people’s reactions to receiving a copy of this edition of the novel and I was curious. It sounded like something I should be reading. So I got around to picking up a copy for myself recently =) May contain spoilers ahead!
What can I say about this novel? While the premise of the book, the blurb at the back, seems rather spoilerish, it really is all about the journey that William Stoner goes through over the course of his life. His life is quiet–nothing spectacular or riveted with mass strokes of good fortune or riddled with controvery and fame–with its fair share of ups and downs, successes and failures. Another reader may argue that in fact his life is mostly failures because of the way his career, his marriage, his family life turned out and for a time I too was rather sad at the way his life turned out. Still am. There are times in this novel where I had to urge to just hug Stoner, pat his head and protect him from all the crappy disappointing things that happen along the way. But other things he discovered along the way–his love of literature, of languages–and the way he forged his own path (he was supposed to finish in agriculture and use his knowledge to help his parents back on the farm) and the smaller moments made me (and him) realise that no, the failures shouldn’t mar his life or be the end-all about his life.
So yes, the power of this novel lies not in the plot–which really only is Stoner’s life and the people that come in and out of it–but in his character’s self-awareness (to borrow another reviewer’s word), his self-reflection, his experiences and the value (the lesson he learned) of them and, as I mentioned before, the journey he goes on. He realises and learns things about himself and about the way life works even as reaches middle age and beyond.
I personally found Stoner relatable on some level: his discovery for a love of literature and the humanities was familiar to me, almost on the same level as when I discovered a love and passion for Russian history. There’s that sense of wonder, that desire to just read everything you could get your hands on to and learn EVERYTHING. That love can really just propel you to overcome even the largest of obstacles, whether it be learning a language you’ve never even attempted to try or rally and continue pursuing a subject you love. On some level, I also sympathised with his growing despondence with teaching in the years before he re-discovered his passion for his subjects; it’s easy to fall into the lull of everyday, administrative tasks, and the confined structures that you’re forced to work with. It can suck that passion right out of you. Sometimes you can rediscover it, as Stoner did, and sometimes you don’t. Again, Stoner experienced another achievement in his life in being able to overcome those lulled moments.
What’s also really interesting about this novel is how it’s able to highlight the common struggles that we experience at different parts of our lives. While his life seems uneventful and riddled with quiet disappointments, he does come across some drama at work, in particular between himself and Professor Lomax, the head of the English department. It’s really strange, frustrating and sad how it developed and how Stoner was sucked into this sort of office politics, which I think anyone who has worked can understand and relate to. These things just happen. And here too lies the power of this novel: Williams’ prose. He manages to elevate a lot of the most everyday occurrences, Stoner’s schedule and the course of his life, into some very beautiful prose. It’s simple but it resonates in a way that just compels me to keep on reading. There are so many wonderful quotes throughout this novel 🙂
Perhaps the bit about this novel that really riled me up was his wife, Edith. Until now I cannot quite understand her character and why she turned the way she did against Stoner because 1) Stoner is not fussy, very simple in terms of what he wants, what he strives for and is, simply put, rather harmless (to use The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference here) and 2) she started off pretty agitated and very quiet. If anything, I thought she would have found some sort of partnership with Stoner, some measure of support as she broke out of her very confined upbringing, but instead she turns on him, alienates him, lashes out at him. I suppose because the reader has been following Stoner first and foremost, we emphathise with him more, but I was really upset at the way, after not caring for Grace for the first six years of her life, suddenly swooped down, took an active interest in her daughter’s life but in the process took Grace away from Stoner. Those little moments of them just hanging out together, poof! Gone. I tried so hard but I could not empathise with her character as she grew bitter and hostile over the years because I never really got a sense that she made some effort to make a partnership out of her marriage with Stoner. She gave up too easy, too early. There’s also the dysfunctional aspect in their marriage that played a role in Grace’s development as she matures, which is also quite sad to read.
Like the quotes on the book cover, Stoner is a pretty sad novel. Stoner’s life passes through without some major, last impact, as the opening page remarked:
Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers. – p. 1
And yet it’s also relatable, whether it be his passion for the subject that he teaches or his struggle for friendship and love (the former of which I realised I didn’t really talk about) or his workplace woes. It’s a fascinating and introspective character journey that may not be for everyone (some may find it really dull, depressing and/or boring) but it’s quite insightful and, in the end, rather hopeful despite it all.