John Williams explores literature and passion in novel ‘Stoner’

It is seldom that a book draws me into a story so thoroughly that I feel completely renewed in my love for literature and the art of language itself. “Stoner” is one of the most emotionally impactful novels I have ever read. Williams’ plainspoken, icy style flawlessly elevates the story’s subdued devastation, moving through the narrative in a smooth manner that is highly impactful without clichés or sentimentality. In order to understand what makes “Stoner” a uniquely powerful literary work, I wish to center my attention on the novel’s exaltation of literature itself and a core duality within the novel: the protagonist’s display of passion in work and love, according to an essay in The New York Times.

The novel—first published in 1965—has since gone through a modern reappraisal, stated The Irish Times, that has been noted by various critics, authors, and publications (Doyle). The introduction by John McGahern describes “Stoner” as a “novel about work”, a central theme which emerges early in the book’s storyline. William Stoner is born into a poor farming family towards the end of the 19th century, sent off to the University of Missouri to study agriculture. While completing a required English course, Stoner becomes enamored with the study of literature. This begins with a moment of revelation in which he is pressed by Professor Sloane on the meaning of a Shakespeare sonnet. Stoner is unable to answer but, while thinking, becomes acutely aware of the physical and mental sensations that surround and compose himself. He holds onto a feeling of both distance and closeness with others on campus, past grayness seemingly lifted from his life. His own love for literature extends to ourselves; we feel awed by Williams’ ability to describe distinctive, complex feelings with remarkable clarity, reinforcing our own passion for the written word. Having fallen in love with literature, Stoner quickly drops his agronomy courses and explores English instead. Stoner continues his study in graduate school, staying behind for his doctorate while many of his colleagues sign up for WW1. This begins a common thread throughout the story in which Stoner struggles with the positionality of being a scholar, often utilizing literature to cope with private life.

 

At a faculty party, Stoner meets a woman named Edith, quickly falling in love with the idea of her. They agree to speak privately, experiencing their first period of extended time alone with one another. Edith reveals more about herself during this hour and a half than she does for the rest of her life, acutely prompting Stoner to seek marriage. We as readers are similarly appreciative of Edith’s first impressions, described by Williams in a delicately unique manner that emphasizes the overwhelming sway felt with a small spark of love. From the start of their relationship it is clear that whatever connection had been previously experienced is now absent, a feeling of loss that reverberates within us. Stoner instead directs his care in raising his daughter Grace, gaining newfound vigor for his life and work. No longer using literature to cope with unsatisfactory private life, Stoner feels a sense of renewed ability for a short period of time. The reader is reminded of literature’s power through literature (i.e. the novel) itself, and in reading “Stoner,” we begin to share Stoner’s reignited belief in life through our own reading.

Despite re-experiencing the initial passion he held for English, Stoner’s private life begins to complicate his work. Edith systematically drives Stoner and Grace away from one another. Stoner seeks out romantic love and begins an affair with a younger instructor, Katherine Driscoll. Edith becomes aware yet is unbothered. However, trouble confronts Stoner’s career. In one of Stoner’s classes, a protegee of department head Hollis Lomax named Charles Walker is clearly unfit to pass the course. Stoner believes his behavior is threatening to the sanctity, rigor and essence of literary study which he strongly values; this feeling is mutual with us as readers. Seeing himself within the student, Lomax exacts revenge through departmental power for the rest of Stoner’s career, preventing promotion which Stoner would have otherwise earned. Lomax also becomes aware of the affair between Driscoll and Stoner, putting pressure on Driscoll as she tries to complete work within the department, attempting to sabotage each of their careers. 

 

In a harrowing final goodbye, Driscoll and Stoner mutually agree to part ways despite sharing intense passion. Their choice is driven by a shared concern for their careers, seeking to avoid derailing their jobs. Literature related work is valued above love itself by each party, as there is still some solace to be found in a career that is based upon their passions. Even though Stoner saves the job he cares deeply for, life once again becomes mundane as he has again been denied the ability to carry out personal passion for another human. We see a key parallel between the end of the affair and the academic limitations caused by Lomax’s interference, preventing Stoner from fully exercising his passion in either area of life. Literature had been previously suitable for coping with his marriage, yet even that pursuit has become entangled in personal drama. The essential dissatisfaction Stoner feels on both fronts is followed by a declining health, seemingly onset by the state of his passions.

 

With the end of his life marked by tragedy and despair, Stoner contemplates his failures on his deathbed. Did he put enough work into his marriage? Did he succeed as a professor? In a moment of reflection, he watches a group of students pass by while holding a copy of the only book he published. As the sole product of Stoner’s academic ardor slips from his hand, he dies, leaving us to assess his life. Is Stoner to blame for the circumstances others have put him through? Could various moments of action and inaction have changed the solemn, isolated fate of his life and work? Is he a martyr? We are positioned to emphasize with Stoner’s life, for we too possess some degree of his passion for literature by engaging with the novel on our own time. “Stoner” embodies a book about loving books, the only form of love which endures throughout Stoner’s existence. In centering the story around Stoner’s passion for others and literature, the novel imparts a sense of the profound power of language, both in determining the course of Stoner’s life as well as his fictional suffering’s impact on us as readers. We finish the novel reminded of our own passions, devastating for anyone that shares Stoner’s academic desire and belief in the written word.

 

Dickstein, Morris. “The Inner Lives of Men.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 June 2007, www.nytimes.com/2007/06/17/books/review/Dickstein-t.html. Accessed 3 September 2022.

Doyle, Máire. “Stoner, the Pearl of ‘Lazarus Literature’.” The Irish Times, The Irish Times, 13 June 2017, www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/stoner-the-pearl-of-lazarus-literature-1.3118051. Accessed 3 September 2022.

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