Rating: 5 Stars
First things first, this has nothing to do with drugs. 🙂
This is the story of William Stoner. He’s a farm boy who is sent off to college so that he can study agriculture and apply the knowledge that he’s learned there back on the small family farm. Once there, he takes a mandatory introduction to English literature. He falls under the thrall of language and decides (with the help of a mentor) that he wants to become a teacher. He does so, falls in love, has a child, lives in an unhappy marriage, has a short but passionate love affair, gets caught up in a faculty politics, gets cancer, retires, and dies.
That’s pretty much it. Stoner does not live a big life. He does not live a heroic life. He doesn’t even live a particularly happy life.
And I think that’s kind of the point.
John Williams takes a inconsequential life, and in simple prose, gives it a much richer meaning.
One of the themes of Stoner is duty. In the year 2017, that probably sounds quaint. However, William understands the duties that are expected of him and he quietly, without complaint, shoulders them. He goes off to the university so that he can better help his farmer parents. He has a moment of crisis when he confesses to them that he wishes to stay at the college, studying for his masters, and then to teach. His father, himself a disciple to duty, understands his duty as a father to his son, and grants his permission for Stoner to continue.
William’s marriage to Edith is dreadful. She, mentally unstable and treats him with hate. At no point does William even contemplate leaving her. He understands his duty to her and faithfully fulfills it. Edith, at most times, wants nothing to do with their daughter, Gloria. In addition to his work at the university, William is the parent that feeds and clothes his daughter. In the current time, that is not particularly shocking. In 1965, I’d imagine that this would be treated as some sort of heroic devotion to duty.
Another theme is adherence to some kind of other world idealism. When WWI breaks out, William’s two best friends, Finch and Masters, sign up immediately. However, after careful consideration and with no trace of cowardice, William decides that staying at the university is more important to fighting. He risks his friendship with Finch and Masters, not to mention possible future career impact, in making his decision.
In a similar manner, years later as a professor conducting a review of a student, he feels duty bound to fail the student even though the student is a protege of his department head, Professor Lomax. Lomax takes his revenge out on William in the ensuing decades, refusing to talk to him and denying him a promotion to full professor until William is dying of cancer. In William’s world, accepting a known poor candidate into the ranks of teaching would be a complete abandonment of duty and a betrayal to the higher call of teaching, so even though he knows that he will pay a steep price, he cannot allow the student to pass.
In lock step with his obligations to duty, his life is filled with sadness. He has an unhappy marriage. His child, Grace, growing up in an unhappy house with an unstable mother, lets herself get pregnant just so that she can escape. Her reluctant husband almost immediately goes off and dies in WWII. Grace in turn abandons her child to her in-laws and starts to lose herself to alcohol. Even William’s affair with Katherine, for all of the joy that it gives him, is ultimately forced to come to a premature end due to Lomax, and he then must return back to the duties of his unhappy marriage and middling career.
In this dreariness, there are moments of what can be described as awestruck passion. The first time that William reads a Shakespearean sonnet. When his mentor offers him the career opportunity of teaching. The first time that he sees Grace. The first time that he actually gets his teaching groove on and realizes that he can teach and inspire. His first moment of passion with Katherine. In a dull, dreary life, these moments shoot off like fireworks.
Williams is saying that even in the most dull, monotonous, and nondescript lives there are these moments of passion, joy, or spirit. Lying on a deathbed, looking back on one’s life, a person can remember and re-live these moments. It is these moments that make life worth living.