Stoner by John Williams: A Book Review

Beyond the many facets of your personality, do you have inside you a part that retreats from the harsh realities of life? That part that, afraid of the social world, coils inside the hermit shell of its study, and rests in the intellectual luxury of books, academic concepts and philosophy? That part that, because of all these things, may be preventing you from seizing your purpose in life by its horns and riding it out to its exciting conclusion? That part of you is William Stoner.

He is a university professor, and main character of John Williams’ beautiful novel that bares his name. The first thing we learn about him is, morbidly yet truthfully, the meaningless of this man’s existence. As Williams introduces his character on page one;

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.’ (p.1, Williams)

Why did this man’s life mean nothing to anyone? Did he not do anything to share his passion with the world, to have a positive contribution that people would remember him by? This is a profound question, and its answer echoes throughout the following pages of this book like a sad sigh of regret.

Williams’ intensely observant style is perhaps a hallmark of this novel. When Stoner leaves his family farm to study at the university (he would later find himself an English Professor at), he is encapsulated by the library there;

‘He wandered through the stacks, among the thousands of books, inhaling the musty odour of leather, cloth, and drying page as if it were an exotic incense.’ (p.14, Williams)

‘Musty,’ ‘drying’ ‘exotic’… It is within these hauntingly accurate words that you hear the voice of a poet, as well as an author. A sensitive, observant and keen personality.

Stoner marries the wrong person. Not only that, but he knows it from early on when meeting her. Yet despite this, he still goes through the conventions of a stale, formal, embarrassingly awkward marriage. It is of no surprise that he later has an affair with a woman he truly cares about; a student half his age called Katherine Driscoll. In his effort to impress her and vice versa, they both put on a pretentious, gay performance for each other, which soon falls flat;

‘He watched with an immeasurable sadness their last effort of gaiety, which was like a dance that life makes upon the body of death.’ (p.220, Williams)

As they pass through layers of social artificiality, they tap into parts of one another that are true and passionate. Though they would never dare do it in reality, they fantasise about both quitting the university and eloping together. Stoner excitedly yet cautiously insists that if they did this;

‘We both would become something else, something other than ourselves. We would be — nothing.’ (p.221, Williams)

What he forgets is that he is nothing in the eyes of those he spends his life with anyway. Without being conscious of it, he is living a lie and experiencing the consequences in the form of a dull, monotonous existence. He fails to realise that by eloping with Katherine, he would have nothing really to lose, and only happiness to gain.

This lack of passion in his life however is not without cause, and Williams’ allows us to understand this through Stoner’s thoughtful reflections. From them, it appears that his issue is clearly rooted in sub-conscious lessons absorbed in his tough upbringing in rural America;

‘Though he seldom thought of his early years on the Boonville farm, there was always near his consciousness the blood knowledge of his inheritance, given him by his forefathers whose lives were obscure and hard and stoical and whose common ethic was to present to an oppressive world faces that were expressionless and hard and bleak.’ (p.226, Williams)

Perhaps this lack of emotional expression runs through his genes, and that is the reason he is afraid to share his true desires with other people. All children learn from those who raise them; they pick up their beliefs, attitudes, fears, values, habits and subconscious patterns that they may lurk beneath their awareness.

But part of Stoner is at times painfully aware of his fate. It is a voice that haunts him in his darkest, quietest, most solitary moments. Such an example of this is when;

‘He foresaw the years that stretched ahead, and knew that the worst was to come… he realised the futility and waste of committing one’s self wholly to the irrational and dark forces that impelled the world toward its unknown end.’ (p.227, Williams)

What are these ‘irrational and dark forces’? They are the forces of a rigid society and social hierarchy, that packages people’s lives and careers into little boxes and strives to make sure they don’t kick up too much of a fuss about it. A society that seduces its people with promises of security and comfort. It whispers in your ear; Why risk losing everything for some pipe dream? Instead, live your life how we want you to and you can have your comfort and security. Be loyal to your family and boss, aim to earn a steady income, and above all, ignore any opportunities that arise for you to follow your dreams…

He is not alone, however, in this submission. And this is what makes his affair with Katherine Driscoll so harmonious and sweet. It is the reason why she is the love of his life;

‘She was, he knew — and had known very early, he supposed — one of those rare and always lovely humans whose moral nature was so delicate that it must be nourished and cared for that it might be fulfilled. Alien to the world, it had to live where it could not be at home; avid for tenderness and quiet, it had to feed upon indifference and callousness and noise. It was a nature that, even in the strange and inimical place where it had to live, had not the savagery to fight off the brutal forces that opposed it and could only withdraw to a quietness where it was forlorn and small and gently still.’ (p.244, Williams)

It tried, but failed. Like most dreams it was too delicate to blossom in a world which stunts its growth. Not because society is necessarily evil, but because, as Williams so poignantly illustrates, it is ‘indifferent,’ ‘callous’ and ‘noisy.’ In a nutshell; it does not care.

Stoner is the kind of novel that may understandably give you an existential crisis. But this is a side-effect I believe, not its true intention. Williams’ desire lies in waking you up. For my Mum, who recommended the book to me, it was nothing short of an epiphany; A hero’s call to escape the rut of monotony, and in the words of Jackson. C. Frank’s haunting lyrics in Milk and Honey; ‘to sing my heart’s true song.’ There may be repercussions, there may be losses of security and comfort, but what you will gain from living in integrity with your dreams will be worth so much more. It is with this insight that we are reminded of this novel’s stark significance in our lives. For Williams not only offers us a penetrating and disturbing psychological account of a life un-lived, but in many ways an existence that is closer to our own than we may care to admit.