As all book lovers know, there is nothing nicer than “discovering” a book or an author you have never heard of before, opening the book, and finding yourself drawn swiftly and deeply into the story, the characters, the information, the world of the book. This delightful experience happened to me a few weeks ago when I opened the book Stoner by John Williams. Published in 1965, Stoner is now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary and thus has attracted renewed interest and praise from a variety of critics and readers.
Stoner is probably not a book everyone will enjoy. It is a quiet book, subdued on the surface but intensely emotional beneath. Set primarily in academia in the English department of a mid-Western town, Stoner is the eponymous title referring to William Stoner, whose life this novel chronicles.
The only child of two hardworking, dour parents, William Stoner grows up without physical or emotional intimacy. His emotional shyness and insecurity run deeply, yet his sense of himself is also a strong current. Although seemingly born to continue laboring on the family farm, a chance comment by a neighbor opens up an opportunity for Stoner to study at a local university. At first taking classes in agriculture, Stoner is bewildered to find that literature offers an allure previously unknown in his life. Despite the hopes of his parents, Stoner goes on to major in English and even to earn his doctorate and to accept a junior faculty position in his university.
All would seem fair set for a happy and fulfilling life for William Stoner. But life never offers smooth sailing, and neither do the best and truest novels. Although a self-reliant, hard-working, intensely honest man, William Stoner is lacking in many social niceties. A virgin both in mind and body, he makes a disastrous choice for a wife, and this choice will end up blighting his life in a variety of ways, driving him deeper into his self-imposed isolation.
Work at first offers some escape and some consolation. But a serious dispute with an uncongenial colleague who ends up becoming the Head of the English department, leads to more disharmony in Stoner’s life. A brief but passionate affair at mid-life with a young teacher brings some relief to the bleakness, but only for a few months, and never to be repeated.
This is a sad story. Yet somehow it is sad without being depressing. For one thing the writing is so clean, crisp, and unsparingly honest in its depiction of Stoner and his world that the reader is carried rapidly along the swift running current of this all too brief book. More importantly, Stoner is a fully developed character whose foibles you forgive, whose values you respect, and whose suffering touches you deeply.