William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to a university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar's life. As the years pass, Stoner encounters a series of disappointments: marriage into a "proper" family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude. William Stoner emerges not only as an archetypal American but as an unlikely existential hero, standing in stark relief against an unforgiving world.
Stoner arrives at college to study agriculture in order to help on his family’s farm but quickly develops a love of literature that eventually carries him onto the English Department faculty and sets him on a lifelong path of teaching and learning. However, the introspective nature of that path leaves him ill-equipped to deal with realities around him: he is trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman who uses his cherished daughter as a weapon against him and he develops a powerful enemy on the faculty who makes most of his forty-year professional career difficult, to say the least. Even the one respite Stoner has from the soul-crushing nature of his existence—a touchingly rendered love affair that comes in middle age—falls victim to office politics.
This is a beautifully written book and one of the most compelling character studies that I have ever read. In telling Stoner’s life story, John Williams displays great compassion but never flinches as he chronicles all of the professional disappointments and missed opportunities that marked his hero’s personal life. Still, it would be wrong to conclude that this is a wholly sad novel. Williams’ spare and moving prose makes it clear that Stoner has led the life of his own choosing. That it isn’t quite the life we as readers would have wanted for him is ultimately a testament to how deeply the author makes us care.
Extended review: It's for a book like this that I try to leave room at the top. And the room at the top isn't quite enough for me; I'd have to downgrade a lot of my three-and-a-half-star ratings in order for a five to mean what this novel deserves.
When I started Stoner, I didn't expect too much. Yes, I'd seen strong recommendations on LT, which happens to be the only place I'd ever heard of it. But despite praise featuring expressions such as "brilliant" and "beautiful" and "little gem," it didn't sound like much.
And in fact it seemed not only to begin slowly but to suggest to the reader, in an almost diffident tone, that the story of William Stoner isn't worth our attention; that the subject of this fictional biography is unremarkable, forgettable, and possibly downright dull. The opening offers no hooks or enticements and asks no indulgence of us. Here is the man, it seems to say: here he is, as he is, take him or leave him.
And yet the author did take him onward, for 275 more pages. And I followed willingly because somehow the character of Stoner caught my interest and held it, and the language of its rendering, in fine brushstrokes rather than in grand sweeps of color and line, was all the more affecting for its restraint. The scope and outer dimensions are small, but the interior expands like the unseen world on a microscopic slide.
If I hadn't happened to read this one just when I did, in parallel with the text of old Norse myths and a history of the thirteenth-century Icelandic poet who wrote many of them down, I might not have been led to see the figure of Stoner and the arc of his life as if projected onto a larger screen. But because of that unintended juxtaposition, I found myself recasting it in heroic terms, as a mythic struggle as potent as the tales of gods and monsters, cursed rings and dire potions, mighty battles, doom and death. Here, then, in a sepia-toned miniature, without fanfare, crests, or ribbons, we see a modest warrior who
• came of humble origin,
• labored diligently to gain a place in a select company,
• met his mentor,
• found his destiny,
• persevered in the long quest,
• championed the right,
• rescued the maiden,
• stood his ground in battle,
• vanquished the foe,
• had his heart cut out by the witch,
• won it back through the power of his steadfast faith,
• proved his valor by being faithful and true despite adversity,
• earned the fair lady's token,
• met his ultimate enemy clear-eyed and without fear,
• succumbed with dignity on the field of honor.
The battlefield is academe, and the knight is an unassuming professor and scholar of medieval literature. As for the stakes, they are personal and private, and we recognize them as the stuff of our own insignificant dramas, looming large only because we are so close to them. It's the very improbability of William Stoner as the hero of a twentieth-century novel that invests his unheralded quest with significance--the same significance that brings shape and contour to the myths of our own lives.
Stoner is surprised when his parents suggest college:
"His father shifted his weight on the chair. He looked at his thick, callused fingers, into the cracks of which soil had penetrated so deeply that it could not be washed away. He laced his fingers together and held them up from the table , almost in an attitude of prayer.
'I never had no schooling to speak of,' he said, looking at his hands. "I started working on a farm when I finished sixth grade. Never held with schooling when I was a young 'un. But now I don't know. Seems the land gets drier and harder to work every year; ain't rich like it was when I was a boy. County agent says they got new ideas, ways of doing things they teach you at the University. Maybe he's right. Sometimes when I'm working the field I get to thinking.' He paused. His fingers tightened upon themselves, and his clasped hands dropped to the table. 'I get to thinking --' He scowled at his hands and shook his head. 'You go on to the University come fall. Your ma and me will manage.'
It was the longest speech he had ever heard his father make. That fall he went to Columbia and enrolled in the University as a freshman in the College of Agronomy."
Stoner, so moved and passionate about literature, finds he cannot communicate that passion in the classroom:
"...when he began to address himself to his subject and his students, he found that his sense of wonder remained hidden within him. Sometimes, as he spoke to his students, it was as if he stood outside himself and observed a stranger speaking to a group assembled unwillingly; he heard his own flat voice reciting the materials he had prepared, and nothing of his own excitement came through that recitation."
Stoner endures years of personal and professional disappointment and marginalization, and becomes something of a department joke:
"But William Stoner knew of the world in a way that few of his younger colleagues could understand. Deep in him, beneath his memory, was the knowledge of hardship and hunger and endurance and pain. Though he seldom thought of his early years on the Booneville farm, there was always near his consciousness the blood knowledge of his inheritance, given to him by his forefathers whose lives were obscure and hard and stoical and whose common ethic was to present to an oppressive world faces that were expressionless and hard and bleak."
Do you want to know what a passive-aggressive college professor is like? Read this book.
Stoner is actually one of the more fortunate individuals in the 20th century, born a white man in middle America, with a good brain, reasonably good looks, and access to affordable quality education. Although you would not know it from reading this book, he lives in the middle of a deeply racist, classist, and misogynist society, but he takes his privileges completely for granted, just as the author seems to. He drifts through life, taking the path of least resistance, falling into a pattern of poor life choices. After making a failure of a marriage, failing as a father, and failing to connect with any of his students, he has a failed loved affair. Meanwhile, he develops no interests in anything outside his tiny solipsistic world. After living through two world wars without any great suffering, he reaches retirement age feeling immensely sorry for himself, and then suitably dies of cancer.
Really, if this is what teaching medieval literature will do for a person, it's a shame that Stoner didn't stick with agronomy. Oh, and you'd probably be better off doing some gardening instead of reading this book.
(Yes, there are some effectively sparse "writerly" passages that nicely reflect the bleakness of midwestern winters.)
In his private life, Stoner marries Edith after knowing her only for a short time. The marriage is far from being a happy one and William Stoner finds his wife to be very cold and resentful. While sex is not really part of the Stoners' marriage, they still have a child, Grace, who is mostly cared for by William. To sum up, Stoner is a portrait of the protagonist with the same name and follows his career and his private life, both of which are full of struggles. The only positive aspects in Stoner's life are his never-fading love of literature and his affair with a younger colleague, Katherine.
The character of William Stoner is probably what I loved most about this novel. The depiction of Stoner's life is truly realistic and makes you identify with him. There are many well-known characters in literature and to my mind, John Williams' Stoner deserves to be called one of them. I found myself passionately following his every move, hurting when he had to suffer the hardships of his marriage and being joyful when he finally finds true love and is able to enjoy his life. William Stoner takes great care of his daughter in times his wife selfishly abandons the family. There is a special bond between William and his daughter Grace that you can feel while reading the little episodes in their lives. When Stoner is challenged by the head of the department at university, you can grasp the strain this puts on Stoner, who loves teaching literature. The moment Stoner manages to fight back and is once again allowed to teach advanced classes in his field is not just a victory for Stoner but it has also been a victory for me as a reader who just felt that it was about time that something positive happened to this great character.
Stoner is one of the greatest novels I have ever read. Probably it is also one of the greatest novels I am ever going to read. This novel left a deep impression on me that certainly is to last for a very long time. Highly recommendable and no less than a 5-star read.
There's nothing terribly unexpected in Stoner: he's one of the many who seem to get stuck on the academic path. (It's a story I know well.) William marries the first girl he falls for, a high-strung St. Louis socialite who seems to be perpetually disappointed with life, constantly reinventing herself, and family obligations become obstacles in his way. Stoner is hen-pecked by his wife and bullied by some of his colleagues; he is loved by some of his students and disdained by others. He has his days of brilliance in the classroom, but most of the time he feels unable to convey his love of and excitement about literature. He often recalls the words of his graduate school friends, Dave Masters, who believed that the university is "an asylum" for those who can't fit anywhere else. In many ways, Stoner is a tale of quiet endurance.
I think that Williams is a master of flow: Stoner pulls you in, and you are immediately swept away—again, not because the prose or the narrative itself are particularly enthralling per se, but because Williams knows how to captivate and capture the reader’s attention and then drag him or her alongside Stoner throughout the book.
A must-read for those who adore reading, especially those who have been lucky enough to make reading their lives and livelihood.
William Stoner is teacher and later a professor at a southern university. Throughout a career, spanning two world wars, he's willing to sacrifice personal relations and professional advancement rather than compromise his sense of academic integrity. While the reader may cry out for a real battle, it never happens on the outside. Despite almost certain loss of his career and family, he never wavers from steadfast adherence to his core beliefs.
After reading the first paragraph, I wondered how I could find my self caring about this character - but I did and could not stop reading. Tender, real, powerful - Stoner is a true hero.
The first of these are not the author's fault in any way - but in the Vintage edition I had the misfortune to read, the slender plot is explained in the introduction. My advice? Don't read the Introduction
Secondly, (and if you haven't read the book, there may be a SPOILER or two here) he writes female characters badly. There are a grand total of 4 women in Stoner's life. His mother is such a tabula rasa that she promptly dies as soon as her husband does, as though Williams couldn't imagine any contribution she could make of her own. His wife is a sphinx, who seems to loath him for now obvious reason, his daughter a depressive alcoholic for no obvious reason, and the only other female character he interacts with his is passionate lover - again for no obvious reason. Thats literally it - women are mothers, wives, daughters or lovers. There's no other role available for them
Thirdly, he writes friendship badly too. Gordon Finch is Stoner's lifelong friend, but what he gets out of that friendship is again anyone's guess. Fourthly, he writes current events predictably. World War I arrives - and a friend is killed. The stock market crashes - and someone commits suicide. Its all very predictable
What is good is the University politics, the routines and rewards of teaching, and the simple virtues of a purposeful life. But the best novel you've never read? Not even close
Yet this low-key book packs a punch. Stoner may keep his emotions to himself and his life may be a routine and expected one, but the story is oddly gripping, how a boy from dour parents farming dying land went to college to study agriculture and ended up falling in love with literature and language, how he belonged at that university and how he ordered his days to reach something approaching contentment.
Bleak, bleak, bleak.
What's the point? There is no point. Life sucks and then you die. Ugh. Good read, but a deep hurt that is lasting a week or more.
Sublimely told and with such a subtle narrative which flows easily displaying the life of an ordinary man during an extraordinary time in America. This might be the story of a whole becoming country or only the unheroic account of a simple existence.
But its simplicity is what makes it unearthly beautiful, nostalgic and moving.
Early 1900's, Missouri, although Stoner comes from a modest family of farmers his father sends him to the state university to study agronomy. But he falls in love with English literature instead and thanks to a particular professor he becomes a teacher himself, growing estranged from his family in the process.
We follow his life through 40 years of teaching, of crushed illusions and bitter disappointments about his failure of a marriage to the wrong woman, of rare fleeting blissful moments in a rather bleak existence in solitude, of a life dedicated to teaching where he finds his only solace.
I found that as the years passed by, the voice in the novel gained in strength and that Stoner became the person he was always supposed to be. His seemingly detached account of the years between the two great world wars, his increasing estrangement first from his family and later from his own wife and daughter, his struggle for an idealistic conception of what university teachers should be like... all these issues cause great suffering to this man, who, without doing much in his life or maybe doing more than most, bears a stoic testimony of a past time which created the basis of what we are now.
I closed the last pages of the book with my eyes completely blurred and with such constrained emotion in my chest that it was almost painful.
A masterpiece not appreciated as it would deserve, maybe because this book reads like real life instead of a best-seller-hero-with a-happy-ending story.
Can't say how good this novel is, just pick it up and read it.
I was emotionally numbed by the writing, by the way the author tells the story, rather than letting it unfold. The main character, Stoner, comes from a bleak family on a bleak farm. He is sent to university and falls in love with Literature. He becomes a teacher, marries someone who is obviously mentally ill, and settles for an emotionally deadened life. Things happened for no reason, characters seem more like caricatures, and the tone of the novel just trudges on. I was never able to care about anyone in book, they all seemed one dimensional.
The two male villains in the book are physically disabled, which is just awful. And the evil woman is basically described as a blonde ice queen. Shoot me.
And then there's Stoner himself. A man who has glimpses of happiness but lacks the fortitude to seize them. He's like a leaf going down a turbulent river. He so rarely acts and when he does the reader is left to wonder: why now?
There's a lot good about the book, to be fair. The simplicity and straightforwardness of the prose harmonizes well with the simple straightforwardness of the Missouri in which the story takes place. And it certainly is a story that makes you feel the overwhelming despair, loneliness, and hours of life that make up too many lives.