What’s in a name? In this case, connotations of stony and unyielding. William Stoner, the protagonist of the novel Stoner by John Williams, has all of those qualities, and yet he is also fierce and ardent. Like me, he grew up in Missouri, and has the quiet stubbornness of someone from the “show me state.” Also like me, he could not have been anything other than the reader and teacher he became, although it did not set him on the path to any kind of success other people would envy.
Reading this because of a recommendation from one of the students who works for me, I was amused at the familiarity of Stoner’s response to his first literature class; he was “troubled and disquieted.” The tone of the narration, always calm and methodical, is interesting for the way it shows Stoner’s response in a broader context; the instructor for that first literature class, Archer Sloane, “perceived between his knowledge and what he could say a gulf so profound that he would make no effort to close it.” A few years later, during WWI, Stoner is asked to take over the course; his former instructor says “I thought it might amuse you to begin your formal career as a teacher where you started as a student.” After ten years of teaching, Stoner “felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man.”
Circumstances beyond his control have caused Stoner’s wife and the man who eventually becomes his department head to hate him and work to make his life miserable, and so part of his life becomes living up to his name, seeming as impervious as stone even when he comes up against some particularly difficult wall the two of them have contrived to put in his way: “‘I’ve never wanted to admit it to myself,’ he said with something like tranquillity, ‘but you really do hate me, don’t you, Edith?'”
A student who doesn’t want to do the work for his course eventually provides an opportunity for Stoner’s department head to marginalize him and keep him teaching introductory courses. Any adjunct teacher will sympathize with the way Stoner keeps his head down and does his best with hundreds of new students each year:
“A kind of lethargy descended upon him. He taught his classes as well as he could, though the steady routine of required freshman and sophomore classes drained him of enthusiasm and left him at the end of the day exhausted and numb. As well as he could, he filled the hours between his widely separated classes with student conferences, painstakingly going over the students’ work, keeping them until they became restless and impatient.” Because Stoner has tenure, however, the department head can’t get rid of him, and he eventually wins a small victory “by boredom and indifference.”
Stoner also finds a measure of happiness in an affair with a former graduate student named Katherine, but the department head contrives to destroy it and they finally have to let go, as Stoner puts it, before “the destruction of ourselves, of what we do.”
Nothing that happens to him crushes Stoner’s spirit. When he is almost sixty years old,
“it occurred to him that he…ought to be beyond the force of such passion, of such love.
But he was not beyond it, he knew, and would never be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there. In his youth he had given it freely, without thought, he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him–how many years ago?–by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and he had given it to Katherine, as if it had never been given before. He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance.”
And so Stoner ends as he began, just beginning to comprehend the lines of Shakespeare’s sonnet “That time of year thou mayst in me behold.” He ends with a book in his hand.
For anyone who has ever been “troubled and disquieted” by literature, this is a book of hope, about a reader whose ambitions were unrealized, except in the steadfastness of his love for literature, and perhaps by an occasional glimmer of meaning he might have managed to inspire in some of those hundreds of students.