Best Book of the Week!
When I first began reading Stoner, I was afraid it was going to be a bleak modernist novel. But it is the opposite of bleak. It is a novel about a shy, awkward man who loves. Williams called it “an escape into reality.”
Williams begins the novel by describing William Stoner’s career at the University of Missouri:
“He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.”
It seems that Williams will be writing about a nonentity, but this is not the case.
On the surface, Stoner does not have a happy life. He is the son of a dirt-poor farmer who decides that William should attend college to learn new agricultural techniques. So, Stoner arrives at the University of Missouri a gawky, unsophisticated boy who has only a mild interest in his courses and begins an undistinguished career.
Then in his sophomore year, he takes a required English literature survey course. Although he is speechless in class, he realizes he has found the thing he loves and so changes his major. He eventually earns a doctorate and begins a teaching career at the university.
He makes an unfortunate choice for a wife, marrying a girl whose training makes her more suitable for a society wife than that of an impoverished instructor. It is not clear why Edith marries him except possibly to get away from home. She makes very clear how distasteful she finds sex, and he is too inexperienced to know what to do about it.
Edith’s sexuality changes briefly when she decides she wants a child. After their daughter Grace is born, though, Edith takes little interest in her or in him. Stoner, on the other hand, falls madly for Grace. He takes on almost all the care for her in her first five or six years of life. Then Edith does everything she can to separate them and mold Grace into the type of girl Edith thinks she should be.
Stoner’s solace is in his work, for which he eventually finds a talent for teaching Medieval literature. His progress in his career is hindered, though, by university politics. He finds himself in a dispute over the fitness of a student to enter the doctoral program. Although Stoner’s position is completely justified and his actions misrepresented, he earns himself the enmity of the student’s mentor, Hollis Lomax, who eventually becomes department chair.
Stoner falls in love and finds for awhile some tenderness, but he knows his relationship will be short-lived. It is also ended by university politics.
What Williams accomplishes in this novel is to turn that first assessment of Stoner on its head. Stoner is a flawed man who owes many of the difficulties of his life to inaction, but he is doing work he loves, he is completely conscientious in his efforts, and he even manages a minor victory over his enemy after years of patience. The introduction to the novel states that although readers think Williams is depicting a sad life, he sees it as a novel about love, all the forms it takes, and the forces against it.
You may think this novel sounds dreary. It is not, and it is not often that you feel as if you know and love a character so thoroughly.