Monday, December 2, 2013


Stoner by John Edward Williams

"From the earliest time he could remember, William Stoner had his duties..At seventeen his shoulders were already beginning to stoop beneath the weight of his occupation."

William Stoner was the son of Missouri farm folk, quiet, hard-working people. Their only child grew up lonely and isolated in the depressed house.

Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed.

Then one day his father makes the only speech of his life. He tells William that he wants him to attend the University to learn modern farming methods in hopes of reviving the farm, with the expectation of a better life for the family.

"He did his work at the University as he did his work on the farm--thoroughly, conscientiously, with neither pleasure nor distress."

In his first literature class in college, Stoner is confronted by a question he had never considered before. "What does it mean?" Professor Sloane asks after reading a Shakespeare sonnet.

"This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong/To love that well thou must leave ere long."

Stoner has an epiphany. He drops his agricultural science courses and takes up literature. He applies himself with a passion he had never before known. In his senior year Professor Sloane summons Stoner to his office and asks what his plans are.

"But don't you know, Mr. Stoner?" Sloan asked. "Don't you understand about yourself yet? you're going to be a teacher."

Stoner is offered a teaching position while working for his Master of Arts degree. He spends his entire academic and work career at the University.

Stoner struggles to voice the feeling he experiences with literature until he can finally answer Sloane's question of "What does it mean?" He is able to eventually share his passion with his students, and becomes a good teacher. But he struggles to find meaning in his personal life, which is a failure, as is his professional political life in the University hierarchy. At the height of his career, because of his integrity and high regard for education, he crosses the department head and a one way feud ensues. His upper level courses are taken away and he is given an untenable schedule of freshman English classes.

Through it all he continued to teach and study, though he sometimes felt that he hunched his back futilely against the driving storm and cupped his hands uselessly around the dim flicker of his last poor match.

Stoner finds joy in little pockets of his life: the first years of his daughter's life, before his wife separated them in her vengeful hatred of the man whose only fault was that he loved her and wanted her physically. He finds passionate love in middle age with an instructor, but when discovered by the department chair they must separate.

As Stoner faces death, he confronts the meaning of his life.

He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality.

Stoner is a book about work. It is about ideals. It is about love. It is like the movie "Mr. Holland's Opus" without the happy ending of public acclaim. William Stoner, in the end, provides his own happy ending, accepting the reality of his life with joy.

This is a beautifully written book, a moving portrait of Everyman. I only discovered it when it was offered on an Amazon daily kindle deal. I can't believe I had never heard of it before! Stoner is a treasure, and I know I will read it again.


  1. Nancy, the main character sounds a little too besieged, but the conclusion seems entirely realistic and especially relevant in this era of perfect everythings. Perfection is not for this world, the integrity we envision at 21 is not the real integrity we discover by 61 or 71 (if we're lucky). Our problem is, as Jack Burden learns in "All the King's Men" (Robert Penn Warren), that we can never know our situation fully. Life is too broad and too complex. Some madman oceans away can be insulted and that insult can result in the death of a child he never knew. Isn't that the case with all great protagonists in literature---Achilles, Oedipus, Hamlet, Raskolnikov, et al? I've decided that so far as theme and meaning goes, all great literature sends me back to "Ecclesiastes." Humility is all. Yet we struggle against that knowledge and the futility of our efforts to organize our lives perfectly. Hence the material for novels!

    Sounds like an interesting book. Will try to read it in coming year.

    1. Gaye, I also thought of Ecclesiastes, especially the advice to do whatever work is given you.