Book Review: Stoner

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The eponymous hero of Stoner is dead when the novel begins. In his life, he was a university instructor: a teacher that ‘few students remember’. It was a teacher who recommended that I read Stoner, written in 1965 by John Williams. She gave me the following (paraphrased) summary: ‘You won’t like the main character. Not a lot happens to him. Not a lot happens to the other characters, either. But, for some reason, you’ll love this book.’

‘Born in 1891 on a small farm’, William Stoner is an only child who works hard to support his parents. The family’s life is monotonous, but Stoner’s world changes when he is granted the chance to leave the farm and study agriculture. Neither pleased nor upset by this opportunity, he is moved to action when his father commands, ‘you go on to the University’. Stoner completes his first year of study ‘with neither pleasure nor distress’. Averaging a B grade, he is ‘pleased that it was no lower and not concerned that it was no higher’.

These events occur over a couple of pages. In his second year, Stoner must take a semester survey of English literature. Whilst Stoner fails to see the use of this, the reader observes that for the first time in his life, Stoner is engaging with the world. The longing to stay afloat, in a sea of books and ambiguity, shows this character what it is to be alive. When his English mentor spells it out for him (‘you’re going to be a teacher’), Stoner drops the study of agriculture and, after changing his major to English literature, immerses himself in books for the rest of his life. He also makes a disastrous marriage, which triggers a series of misfortunes that would make Lemony Snicket cry.  The reader remembers how, in his youth, Stoner described the university as a place for ‘exploration’. The university is now discovered to be an asylum.

Contrary to my teacher’s opinion, I do like Stoner (the character). Stoner reminds me of Nick from The Great Gatsby, especially when Williams describes his protagonist as ‘stood outside himself’. For me, Stoner embodies the hard-working but unassuming life that most of us end up living, as well as the mistakes we end up accepting. Williams demonstrates how there will always exist islands of hope to which we can cling when our lives are thrown out to sea. Perhaps that’s why this novel is refreshing, and why the ending is haunting. In Stoner, we see ourselves: mortal, bewildered, stubborn, passionate. Perhaps that’s why we also dislike Stoner, for how often do we say that we ‘like’ ourselves?

 

Stoner comes to understand that the point of his life isn’t to perform a dazzling spectacle. As Stoner’s mentor remarks, ‘There are worst defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history’. We learn, we love, we work, and then we die. In that list, there is nothing of which we should be ashamed.