Described by John McGahern in his introduction as “this classic novel of university life, and the life of the heart and the mind,” Stoner is for me one of the saddest novels I’ve read. If you open this novel expecting Kingley Amis or David Lodge, you will be disappointed. This novel is neither angry nor satirical as campus novels so often are. At the end of the work, I was left with a feeling of intense vicarious disappointment. This melancholy may, of course, say more about me than it does about the book. It was recommended to me by someone who was extremely enthusiastic about the novel; an ex-colleague is equally impressed.
If anything, I would say that my own sense of disappointment is actually testament to John Williams’ skill in evoking the atmosphere of a small mid-western university in the first half of the twentieth century. The novel follows the life of William Stoner, the son of Missouri farmers from the time he enters the University of Missouri as a freshman in 1910 until his death in the mid-fifties. Williams captures the irony of academic life in the humanities: how the study of literature in an academic setting while offering a universe of challenge to the enquiring mind can also for academics lead to life in a small, enclosed society beset by the anxiety concomitant on ambition and rivalry. Stoner becomes a victim of this rivalry because he refuses to condone academic dishonesty by a favoured graduate student, and as a result spends most of his career with an extremely inconvenient timetable teaching freshmen composition. The demands of his teaching schedule preclude his continuing in any meaningful way with his research into his beloved medieval literature. Much of his situation will seem familiar to modern labourers in the academic vineyard, especially those without a tenure track position. Stoner is fortunate in that at least.
In his personal life, too, Stoner suffers disappointment. Williams’ presentation of Stoner’s frigid and manipulative wife is a masterpiece of insight into the problems of a woman whose “sexuality . . . was indirect and unacknowledged” (54). She is “ignorant of her own bodily functions” (55) and experiences Stoner’s physical love for her as an “enduring violation” (75). In mid-life, Stoner has a deeply fulfilling love affair with a younger woman, but that is ended because of pressure from the university.
For most of his life then, Stoner, endures as his dreams are thwarted. McGahern quotes Williams as saying that Stoner is “a real Hero” (xii). Williams goes on to discuss teaching as a “job in the good and honorable sense of the word . . . . It’s the love of the thing that’s essential . . . . You’ve got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization” (xii). Stoner certainly keeps the faith.
In many ways, the novel struck me as very much of its time, the early to mid sixties. Its limited third person narrative, its fairly long paragraphs, and minimal dependence on dialogue may feel somewhat alien to ears attuned to more contemporary minimalist prose. In its ethos, too, the novel is of its time. I’m tempted to describe it as existentialist. Stoner creates his own meaning, and his triumphs, such as they are, are all internal. Just before his death, Stoner experiences something akin to joy: “A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been”; in that moment, he realises that in the one book he wrote and which he is holding in his hand “a small part of him that he could not deny was there, and would be there” (277).