‘Stoner: A Novel’ by John Williams

Vintage Classics edition, published 2003

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 278 pages; 2003.

In the introduction to my copy of  John Williams’ Stoner, Irish writer John McGahern says the one central idea of this novel is love: “The many forms love takes and all the forms that oppose it.”

But the message I took from it is to not be afraid to follow your passions, to stay true to yourself, to steer your own course and not fall under the influence of toxic people. This applies in all facets of life, whether love, work or play.

William Stoner, the protagonist in this novel, steers his own course when it concerns his career but lets others get the better of him in his personal life. It makes for a sometimes frustrating read, not least because you want to grab him by the shoulders and tell him NOT TO BE SO PASSIVE! Yet this is a wise and wonderful book about life and love on — and off — campus in the early part of the 20th century.

Vintage Classics edition, published 2012

A rediscovered classic

First published in 1965, Stoner was “rediscovered” in the early 2000s and became THE must-read book for bloggers circa 2005, which is when I acquired my copy. It has since gone through another mini revival, in 2012, when Vintage reissued it again. By my reckoning it’s about time for another comeback, as it were.

The story charts the life of one man — William Stoner — from the time he begins university to study agriculture in 1910 to his death as a just-retired English professor more than 40 years later.

It largely focuses on Stoner’s career, which starts off full of promise and vigour but as the years wear on becomes slightly curtailed by university politics and his rivalry with another professor, Hollis Lomax, and contrasts this with his married home life, which also starts off promising but becomes toxic even before the honeymoon is over.

It’s written in a coolly detached manner but is rich in human insights and universal truths. There’s an intensity to everything that Stoner does, whether that be marriage or study or having an affair or hanging out with his beloved daughter. And always — always! — there’s a commitment to honesty.

A love of literature

When the book begins, Stoner is heading to the University of Missouri to study agriculture so that he can run the family farm when he graduates. However, in second year, that plan goes awry when he switches to literature, where a whole new world opens up to him. Later, his mentor, English instructor Archie Sloane, pulls him aside and suggests he stay on to do his Master of Arts:

“[…] after which you would probably be able to teach while you worked towards your doctorate. If that sort of thing would interest you at all?”
Stoner drew back. “What do you mean?” he asked and heard something like fear in his voice.
Sloane leaned forward until his face was close; Stoner saw the lines on the long, thin face soften, and he heard the dry mocking voice become gentle and unprotected.
“But don’t you know, Mr Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”

Which is exactly what happens. Previously a rather lonely, introverted person, as a tutor in the English Department he finds a kind of solace and develops friendships with other educated men who are his equals. Sadly, his best friend David Masters is killed on the battlefields of France during the Great War (Stoner refuses to sign up), a relationship he mourns long into the future.

And this, essentially, becomes the pattern of Stoner’s life: he finds something he loves, then it is either lost or becomes damaged or lessened in some way.

Case in point: his marriage to the beautiful and privileged Edith Bostwick, the daughter of a banker, who grew up in a big house with servants, turns sour very quickly. Edith, he discovers on the night of their wedding, is not interested in sex, and when they’re installed in a home of their own reveals herself to be a demanding and manipulative wife, encouraging him to buy property beyond his means, moving his study (without asking) into a poky glassed-in sun porch because she wants to use his room for her twin hobbies of painting and sculpture. Later, she uses their young daughter, Grace, as a way to hurt her husband even further.

Second case in point: his affair with Katherine Driscoll, a student in her late 20s, who asks him for feedback on her dissertation. The pair fall in love but the relationship comes to an abrupt end when its discovery is used against him as a form of blackmail by his rival in the English department. He never quite gets over this loss.

Anyway, you get the idea… Stoner’s personal life is pockmarked with these losses and tragedies, and these occasionally impinge on his career, which is, itself, plagued by political infighting and office dramas. Even when he nears retirement age, his desire to work beyond that has to be relinquished through events not of his own making.

Life of a lonely man

It’s easy to come away from Stoner thinking what a sad and tragic — and ultimately lonely — life he lead. Yet I never felt sorry for him; I simply wanted him to stand up for himself, to stop being so nice to his wife, to help his daughter when she needs it most, to push back against all the forces trying to keep him down.

Do we make rods for our own backs? In Stoner’s case, yes, that’s probably true.

But despite all that, Stoner is also an admirable person, not least the love he has for his daughter (although his inaction to help her out as an adult is questionable). Equally, his passion for literature and language, his dedication to his work and his desire to uphold academic standards against the face of interpersonal corruption is commendable.

As a whole, Stoner is psychologically compelling, tender, passionate and wise. I don’t know why it took me so long to read it.

The 1965 Club logoThis is my 16th book for #TBR40. For some reason I have two copies of this book — the Vintage Classics edition published in 2003 (purchased in the wake of “blogger buzz” circa 2005) and the reprinted edition from 2012. Mr Reading Matters also has a Kindle edition, which is the version I read.

This review also forms my contribution to the #1965Club run by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings. I wrote a little bit about the club here.

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12 thoughts on “‘Stoner: A Novel’ by John Williams

  1. What a wonderful review of a book long on my list to read, probably since 2005 as you mentioned. I began my blog in 2006, and its effect was still strong. I, too, would like to shake a passive character, and certainly, I would like to know him better.

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    • Thanks for your kind words… it’s a great novel but not without its frustrations. I really did want Stoner to talk things through with his wife, but I actually think he was scared of her, and yet, at work, he was more than happy to have it out with colleagues getting the better of him. Go figure.

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  2. This book gets a lot of love, though I have seen people critical of it recently. I wonder if it depends very much on your state of mind when you read it? I imagine that there would be times when you sympathise with Stoner and others when you want to shake him, as you say! Fascinating stuff, and I really must read my copy one day. Glad you could join in with the #1965Club! 😀

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    • I think it does depend on your state of mind… I went through phases of hating this book and wishing it would end, then really loving it and not wanting it to stop! I think it’s the kind of story you need to think about and digest before rushing to an opinion. I found the John McGahern intro, read AFTER I’d finished the book, hugely helpful in processing what I thought of the novel.

      Thanks for hosting the #1965Club — without this impetus Stoner might have languished on my shelf for another 10 years!

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    • Well, I wouldn’t call myself a huge fan: I think the book is uneven and the character annoyed me, but I think it does show how we can either let fate/other people shape our lives or we can shape them ourselves. Not sure I’d describe it as a hallmark movie — it’s completely devoid of emotion/sentiment — but I know what you mean about it being predictable. I just knew the story wasn’t going to end well !

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  3. I’m firmly in the camp that loved this book (and *waves to Kaggsy*) it was published in 1965, eh?).
    But I don’t agree that Stoner was passive, far from it. This is a novel of powerful stoicism, and a victory over the self. And when he farewells Katherine, it’s *because* he cannot have her and still be himself. The very act of seizing the opportunity for a new life with her would change them both irrevocably, and that would ruin what they love about each other.
    If you’ve ever wondered why some people stay in a relationship that’s toxic (as distinct from violent, I mean) this book explains it. It’s not apathy or passivity, it’s strength and a determination to hang onto the values that matter most.

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  4. Oooo, interesting take on it, Lisa, hadn’t thought of it like that. However, I don’t think it’s stoic to let your wife walk all over you and use your daughter as a battleground and not say anything! And I’m pretty sure he gave up Katherine not because it would irrevocably change him but because it was going to cause a scandal at the university and he was going to lose his job! I actually wonder now that I’ve thought about this book a bit more whether Stoner was a likeable person to his colleagues and his wife… how did they perceive him? Standoffish? Selfish? Rude? Did he lack charm? Did he have poor interpersonal skills? It’s hard to know…

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  5. Pingback: The #1965Club is here! – Stuck in a Book

  6. Pingback: Stoner by John Williams #1965Club – Stuck in a Book

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