Stoner by John Williams, a largely forgotten novel, has to be one of the saddest I’ve ever read. It is also, as one reviewer put it “a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.” Another called it a “joy to read.” While I thought it to be a superbly written tale and one that struck a responsive cord, it was at the same time as tragic as a novel can be.
William Stoner was raised on a farm in Missouri that was a constant struggle to maintain. He entered college to learn modern agricultural techniques. Early on he was so profoundly moved by a course on Shakespeare that he decided to change his studies to literature.
“But the required survey of English literature troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before.”
“The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print—the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly and then proudly.”
After completing graduate studies he became a teacher of English at the University of Missouri. From the beginning though he found it difficult to establish himself in the department and gain the respect of his students and colleagues. But Stoner never advanced beyond the assistant professor level, although there were times when he was a rather popular teacher. Yet he was held back by a bitter dispute with another member of the department who also had the power to expose a close and deeply felt relationship he had with one of his students.
“Lust and learning, Katherine [the student] once said. That’s really all there is, isn’t it?”
His life took few truly happy turns. His marriage soon grew stale: “In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one persona attempts to know another.”
After he dies, Stoner is scarcely remembered by those in his department: “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.”
Toward the end of the novel Stoner reflects on his life: “Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind…He had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died…And he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance."
Stoner wanted so much out of life. He loved his work, the books he treasured in the library and the great pleasure in spending hours there, he cherished the joy that literature brought to his life. And yet he knew that “what he wished was impossible, and the knowledge saddened him.”
Stoner knew that it was the love of a thing that was essential and that he truly loved the life he led. He knew that without that kind of devotion no one would ever achieve any degree of distinction. He never abandoned this belief and so through it all he had retained to the full his integrity. In spite of the simple and sad tale it unfolded and the tragic conditions of William Stoner’s life, Stoner was quite simply one of the finest novels I’ve read in recent years.