Stoner by John Williams

Stoner Stoner was published in 1965 and is considered to be an American classic but I have to admit I hadn’t even heard of it until quite recently when it started to appear on some of the blogs I follow. It didn’t really sound like the sort of book I would usually choose to read, but when I saw a copy in the library I thought I would try it. I liked it much more than I’d expected to; it’s a quiet, reflective book about a university professor whose life is marked by disappointments and unfulfilled potential, but it’s beautifully written and surprisingly gripping at times.

William Stoner is the son of a poor farmer from Missouri. Sent to the University of Missouri in 1910 to study agriculture, William discovers that his true passion is for literature and changes his degree course without telling his parents. After graduating, Stoner decides not to return to the family farm and stays on at the university to teach English Literature where he remains for the next forty years. During those forty years he marries, but the marriage is not a happy one, has a daughter whose life also turns out to be quite miserable, and faces problems at work with students and colleagues. When he retires in 1956 and dies soon afterwards, most of those who knew him quickly forget he ever existed.

This is certainly not an exciting, action-packed novel, but that was obvious from the very first page which sums up Stoner’s whole life in one paragraph (I haven’t spoiled anything above by telling you when he dies) and then continues with:

“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.”

The story of Stoner’s life is a mediocre and uneventful one and yet somehow, despite that, it’s fascinating to read. It’s proof of the quality of John Williams’ writing that he could make me feel so interested in the boring life of a man I didn’t even always particularly like. Probably the most dramatic part of the novel, if you can describe any of it as dramatic, is when Stoner tries to fail an incompetent student and finds himself opposed by the student’s tutor, who happens to be the head of the English department. I was completely engrossed by this section of the book, where Stoner tries to do what he believes is right despite the attempts of the other professor to make things as difficult as possible for him.

The character I was most intrigued by was Edith, Stoner’s wife. Her behaviour is very difficult to understand and I’m not sure what conclusions we are supposed to make about her character. She seems to be suffering from a form of mental illness which is never specified and while it is hinted that she may have been abused by her father, this is never explained in any detail either. She was a mystery to me from beginning to end and I never felt that I (or even Stoner) ever really got to know her at all, which was the one thing that disappointed me about this book.

I know I’ve probably given the impression that Stoner is a very sad and bleak story, but it’s actually not quite as depressing as it sounds and I do recommend reading it, especially if you enjoy novels with an academic setting. Now I’m curious about John Williams’ other books – if you’ve read any of them please let me know what they’re like.

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6 thoughts on “Stoner by John Williams

  1. lauratfrey says:

    My experience is so similar to yours – didn’t know about the book, heard buzz on other blog, read it and loved it, with the same impressions about Stoner and Edith. The daughter was the most heartbreaking to me, though. She never had a chance. Edith probably had undiagnosed postpartum depression among many other things!

    • Helen says:

      Oh, I felt sorry for Grace too! It was unfair that she had to suffer as a result of her parents’ unhappy marriage and Edith’s problems. Her story was so sad.

  2. Karen K. says:

    This book keeps popping up all over the blogosphere, it’s been really popular in Europe the last few years. I have a copy and I am determined to read it soon. It sounds like just the sort of thing I would love.

    • Helen says:

      I can’t remember ever hearing about this book until recently, but now that I’ve read it I can definitely see why it’s so popular. I hope you can find time to read it soon – it’s a great book and I hope you’ll like it as much as I did!

  3. Alex says:

    I have been putting off reading this because it is on one of my book group lists for August. I have heard so many different comments from readers like yourself that I respect that I don’t quite know what to expect. I’m interested though in the way it has become the book that everyone is reading. I must have seen at least half a dozen people with copies in Staff House over the past term. Surely, I keep telling myself, there must be something remarkable about it.

    • Helen says:

      It is interesting that this book seems to have had such a surge in popularity recently. I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it at first but was won over after a few chapters.

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