John Williams’s Stoner
is an extraordinary novel with an extra ordinary (not extraordinary) hero.
William Stoner almost always plays it safe, making predictable, sensible choices. He studies literature at the University of Missouri and ends up teaching there for the next 40 years. Even though he teaches the same classes over and over, he isn’t completely able to articulate to his students what he loves about literature. He marries badly, has a child to whom he wishes to be closer, enters into a doomed but beautiful love affair, and writes a failed book.
If the plot sounds a little dull or unoriginal to you, I believe that was Williams’s intention. Williams created in Stoner a character who demands no attention from the students who pass him in the quads of Jesse Hall. But as readers we’re privy to the quiet desperation (as Thoreau put it) that is the result of everything Stoner wants being just out of his reach. Although he hides it from the world, we see and feel the constant disappointment he experiences; and to make it all the more frustrating—and all the more real—these disappointments are due sometimes to his own safe choices and sometimes to circumstances that are out of his control.
But where other characters in other novels by other authors might respond to a lifetime of incessant disappointment with suicide, Stoner takes up Hamlet’s question, wondering if his life is worth living. But he goes beyond simply asking the question of himself; he realizes the question is general to all mankind, and more importantly it doesn’t necessarily spring from dire and immediate circumstances:
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 kind of 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.
Williams’s prose is beautiful in the most subtle, restrained way. It’s quite remarkable to understand the pulsing emotions bubbling under Stoner’s surface when his outward appearance is so tame, but that’s how most of us live. Indeed, that’s the magic of Stoner: he’s the kind of unglamorous hero that the rest of us are.
I’ve run macrolit for three years, and this is my first full-length review. I couldn’t help it because I love this book so much. It’s now a Top 5 all time novel for me. Please read this wonderful, touching book! And if you have read it, please chime in with your thoughts.
Stoner, John Williams
My Goodreads rating: 5/5
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