In the first few paragraphs of John Williams' novel, Stoner, we learn that the title character was born to rural farmers, taught English literature at a University and died rather quietly at age 64. By putting all of his cards on the table early Williams leads us to understand that this is not a dramatic story. Drama, however, is inessential if a character is drawn well enough. In such circumstances it doesn't hurt either if a modest life is explained in luminous prose. Williams succeeds on both counts and perhaps his sympathetic portrait is as good as it is because the omniscient voice is marked by its precision and economy. Williams may have published Stoner in 1965 but the novel has the serenity of late Victorian storytelling rather than the breezy tongue-in-cheek style of so many of his contemporaries.
The story is simple. William Stoner, a dirt poor Missouri farmer tends his father's fields for a share of diminishing returns. When he is 18 he receives an opportunity to escape destiny and destitution attending a university in the nearby town of Columbia. Though he matriculates as an agronomics student he falls under the spell of his English professor, Archer Slone, and embeds himself within the fixed course of academia, receiving his degree, his masters, his doctorate, and finally a teaching position. His life, once isolated by the strict demands of land becomes just as restricted by his love of English Renaissance poetry, an esoteric interest that he cannot share with his wife, Edith, an attractive yet frail blonde from a more successful family. There is no way that Stoner can merge his old life with his new. Stoner's family understands the irreconcilability of this:
“His mother was facing him, but she did not see him. Her eyes were squeezed shut; she was breathing heavily, her face twisted as if in pain, and her closed fists were pressed against her cheeks. With wonder Stoner realized that she was crying deeply and silently, with the shame and awkwardness of one who seldom weeps.”
But as exclusive the collegiate universe is to Stoner's parents it's just as difficult accommodating Edith. She and Stoner do not ever truly understand each other and being mutually inexperienced in life, they struggle to fill their middle class masks while also failing spectacularly at the lovemaking that produces their only daughter, Grace. Williams can write extreme melancholy and human awkwardness with the best of them as he does here describing the Stoners' sex life: “If she was sufficiently roused from sleep she tensed and stiffened, turning her head sideways in a familiar gesture and burying it in her pillow, enduring violation…”
Their marriage is an unhappy one but Stoner is not necessarily unhappy himself. He genuinely loves his work, even if he never got over his childhood clumsiness and whose bearing is marked by "stooped shoulders." As a scholar he enjoys the challenge of rigorous academic interpretation, helping students on their dissertations and publishing his own specialized and obscure monograph. Though he may feel lost outside the campus, Stoner thrives in his work environment, perhaps --as explained by one of his only friends, Dave Masters, an intellectual killed in the First World War-- because he could do no better anywhere else: "It (the university) is an asylum…a rest home, for the infirm, the aged, the discontent, and the otherwise incompetent…”
Events in the novel debunk this assertion, setbacks which if not destroying Stoner, strips him of what might have been a happier life. A petty rivalry between Stoner and Holly Lomax, a gnome of a person obsessed with his crippled leg, stymies his career. Lomax runs the English department, assigning Stoner the least desirable classes and inconvenient scheduling. And when Stoner's uneventful life becomes thrilling when he falls in love with Katherine Driscoll, an intelligent and intriguing graduate student, gossip among faculty and students is the seed for a scandal that dooms the only true happiness Stoner had ever experienced. Indeed, the university members who pride themselves on living outside the social contract prove themselves to be outsiders by pretense only. The asylum never actually existed or for Stoner, it retreated to a small basement room that existed on borrowed time, a small, dark ordinary place but made magical by a secret love, shared intimately and solely with his lover:
But there is no duality of living, there are just moments and in these moments one is either safe or exposed, either happy or distraught. Stoner the academic never loses the posture of Stoner the farmer. The wife he tolerates is the one he once fell madly in love with. If there are any compartments, they are manmade, invented by a reasoning, imaginative mind to organize the world into a more satisfying existence. Doing so, however, entails the peril of losing that safe, trusted place.
"Office in a Small City"
“It was a world of half-light in which they lived and to which they brought the better parts of themselves—so that, after a while, the outer world where people walked and spoke, where there was change and continual movement, seemed to them false and unreal. Their lives were sharply divided between the two worlds, and it seemed to them natural that they should live so divided.”