Thinking about William Stoner



Michael Hingston wrote a really stirring review of John Williams’ much-loved novel Stoner, over at his Tumblr, Too Many Books in the Kitchen. “Trust me,” he writes in conclusion of his post, “nobody is more disappointed that I didn’t love Stoner than me.”

And I felt that disappointment, heavily. Because it was the same disappointment I tried to suppress while I was reading the novel—incidentally, when I read Michael’s post, I was knee-deep in the parts that he detailed.

It has to be said, however: I love Stoner, I really do. Upon very careful introspection, I realize that I can’t help love this novel about—as he is too easily seen—a virtual failure, despite many issues.

Despite many issues. It’s not so much I had to convince myself of my love. But I really found it curious why I would still feel so strongly about a novel that, as Michael all-too-astutely describes, feels like “one long jerk of the chain” when it comes to its display (exploitation?) of tragedy, and “a never-ending gauntlet of injustice and cruelty.”

See, I agree heartily (and with much regret) with Michael. The tragedy is overbearing at times, the injustice and cruelty Stoner is subject to is overwhelming—more so since he stoically (apathetically?) holds his peace. Never mind that I even went so far as to scream, “Damn it, man, live!” to the book. Even, “Baby panda in a cracker—cheer up!”

He had come to that moment in his age when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it. He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been. It was a question, he suspected, that came to all men at one time or another; he wondered if it came to them with such impersonal force as it came to him. The question brought with it a sadness which (he thought) had little to do with himself or with his particular fate; he was not even sure that the question sprang from the most immediate and obvious causes, from what his own life had become. It came, he believed, from the accretion of his years, from the density of accident and circumstance, and from what he had come to understand of them. He took a grim and ironic pleasure from the possibility that what little learning he had managed to acquire had led him to this knowledge: that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter.

But I love Stoner. I love him despite all the things he did not do in the face of all the craziness thrown his way. I love him because he was one damnable hero, I love him because he bore his suffering well, and I love him because as annoyed and enraged as I was by certain events within the novel, not once did I feel Stoner was a martyr. Hell, I wanted William Stoner to come out of his office with fists flying, but damn it, he done good. He done good.

Oh, Stoner, you are a riddle.


An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. 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.

That is from the first page, mind you. Aherm. It’s not a very uplifting portrait of a man, who, in the face of all the good tidings he truly deserves and all the batshit-crazy heaped upon him, he remains an implacable wall of Not-Quite-Emotionally-Present Suffering in Silence. His foray into literature is nearly a mere matter of chance. And his profession is borne out of a usually absent mentorship from an archetypal irascible yet secretly truly lonely senior professor.

The education, the apprenticeship, the labors—the infernal fuckwads of office politcs? This happens to Stoner, and I keep waiting for him to fight back. Dammit, he has a spine, it’s there. But because of his work ethic, his disposition, his god-damned dignity, he bears it all quietly. He’s not a martyr, nope—for some reason, a voice in my head says it’s demeaning to call him that. He’s just, well, he’s Stoner. That’s how he is. [And yes, I am aware how inane this argument sounds.]

Stoner too often comes off as a slave to other people’s whims. His life is not his to lead, as his sole friend once hinted. Is this passivity symptomatic of his generation, compounded with his class? The farmer-turned-scholar. [That makes no sense, again.] Laboring within the politics of oak walls and patched elbows. The man who marries the woman who first makes his breath catch, never mind that there’s this bewildering distaste in Edith that all too soon burgeons into full-on barely-disguised hate?

Eventually, I learned to simply hope that all this annoying grief will lift on its own accord. Occasionally, I learned to stop reading. Two times this happened: when Stoner met his wife Edith, and when he met his Katherine. The first time, I stopped reading because I wasn’t prepared for the heartache and the nastiness that was to come from Edith herself. The second time, I stopped reading because I couldn’t bear to witness Stoner losing the Katherine who finally gave him the love he needed, deserved, and have long looked for.


Ah, but I’ve missed the point, haven’t I? There is, some might argue, no fixed “point” in literature—but back when I furiously thought all of the above, and even when I write this, I just felt wrong. I just felt, really strongly, that this wasn’t the Stoner that was presented to me, this wasn’t the Stoner whose life I’d just shared. Never mind that, as the end came nigh, thoughts such as this increasingly came to him:

He was forty-two years old, and he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember.

Good god, man. Good god, Sasha. Why are you not more bothered? Why can you not simply set aside your infuriating love of William Stoner and realize that he is a loser? Come on, Sasha—this whole Root for the Underdog Ra Ra ain’t doing you good. The man himself has thought his life has gone to shit.

Mercilessly he saw his life as it must appear to another.

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 had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of whom had now withdrawn so distantly into the ranks of the living that . . . 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. He had wanted love, and he had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality. Katherine, he thought. “Katherine.”

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 king 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. And what else? he thought. What else?

What did you expect? he asked himself.

Can I be cheeky and say I just didn’t care about all the rationalizations against this love of mine for William Stoner? That I continue to love him, love him strongly, and will urge everyone to weather the pain with him?

Perhaps that’s it—not unlike the camaraderie you have for, say, a brother who was sick with the measles the same summer as you; the girl you chain-smoked with after a particularly nasty break-up no one wants to dignify with the adjective heartbreaking; the teacher who stood in front of the assembled student body being berated by the pre-menopausal demon of a principal for approving a play you wrote about a pre-menopausal demon of a principal; the boy you loved despite everyone saying it was so very wrong, despite the virtual crusades against you, and to paraphrase Miss Twain, look how far you’ve come, baby. Maybe that’s it. Suffer together, bleed as one, and all that jazz?

Maybe I’m just a sap? Maybe I simply don’t know any better? Hell, I don’t know—nor care, to a certain extent—the logic behind this, or lack off. See, I’m peachy-fine where I am: following my bleeding heart, and blah, and blah, and blah.

John Williams’ Stoner was sent to me as a birthday present, by my darling Aunt Anne, enabler in all things book-dorkery.

5 thoughts on “Thinking about William Stoner

  1. What a thoughtful discussion! I love how you combine your analysis of the book’s limitations with such a clear personal respect for and connection to the book. (I am very much looking forward to reading this book, being a huge fan of depressing injustice myself…)


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