In the eleven years I’ve been blogging, and the five years preceding that on online forums, I’ve only read one lukewarm response to Stoner. And so, I couldn’t think of a better way to start NYRB fortnight. It was time to see what all the fuss is about.
To summarise: Stoner is a tale of a man falling in love with literature, and its becoming the centre of his life, the lynchpin and refuge when everything else turns sour. Its straightforward narrative is engaging, moving and completely absorbing, which is quite a surprise given that the plot revolves around nothing more exciting than a collegiate career. Yet it’s hard not to root for an unlikely hero, but hero nonetheless, as he battles against the world just to live his literary and academic life in peace.
William Stoner is the son of dirt-poor farmers. They scrape together the money to send him to university to study agriculture. He is expected to return to help his father improve the farm when he has obtained his degree. He has to work hard, and not just at his studies. To earn board and lodging he must labour for the family he is staying with, and they take advantage. But then he discovers literature, his horizons open and changes his course and his purpose in life. His ambition is now to become a professor at the university he attends. It is now his home, and he will know no other. For three years, he hides this from his parents. The first they know of it is following his graduation ceremony.
Stoner tried to explain to his father what he intended to do, tried to evoke in him his own sense of significance and purpose. He listened to his words fall as if from the mouth of another, and watch his father’s face, which received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist. ….
His mother was facing him, but she did not see him. Her eyes were squeezed shut; she was breathing heavily, her face twisted as in pain, and her closed fists were pressed against her cheeks. With wonder Stoner realized that she was crying, with the shame and awkwardness of one who seldom weeps.
There’s no melodrama and yet, their disappointment and heartbreak are palpable. They make no attempt to dissuade their son from reversing his decision. Their stoic example is key to understanding Stoner, I feel, because, he, too, avoids conflict, rarely asserting himself as he negotiates his path through life. He makes for a strange hero – a decent, sincere, quiet chap with a talent for making enemies.
Firstly, his wife. Boy, did he choose badly! There was nothing particularly charming about Edith when he met her, and warning bells should have been sounding when her banking family had no objections to the match, even though he was obviously from a lower social class. I can’t quite work out what personality disorder she had, but cold and manipulative could be her middle names. It became obvious to Stoner on the honeymoon that the marriage was a failure. Those are the polite and gracious words of his reported thoughts. In plain talking, Edith can’t stand her husband, and she sets about making his home life a misery with a dedication that never falters. There is a brief respite (see footnote) when she decides it is time for a child, but once impregnated, hostilities recommence. A truce declared only when Stoner is dying.
And Stoner doesn’t fight back – not once. Despite being intelligent, a loving father to Gracie, and fully aware of the damage the toxicity of his marriage was having on the child. No, his backbone is reserved for his career.
Which is going well – he works himself into a tenured position – until he crosses paths with Walker, a favoured, if incompetent pupil of the faculty head, Lomax. Refusing to award pass marks to Walker, makes an enemy of Lomax for life; Stoner’s intellectual integrity costing him dearly: 20 years of teaching freshman classes, banished from teaching advanced classes and the topics he loves. And yet, he swallows this. It’s not important. This is.
It was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study … it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.
Then Katherine happens. His affair with her the only time in his life when his intellectual and emotional lives harmonise. Of course, it cannot last. Objections and obstacles come, not from Edith (she is remarkably indifferent to it), but from the college and Lomax. It’s an excuse to get at Stoner, nothing else, but Katherine must leave. This seems to be the catalyst for the worm to turn, and, when Stoner finally rebels against Lomax’s persecution, he does it so cleverly that there can be only one response: BRAVO!
But the cycle of life must continue, and soon it is Gracie’s turn to disappoint her parents. But this time the girl is throwing away her opportunities, determined to sally forth to a less than glorious future. “It really doesn’t matter,” becomes her mantra. It’s a statement that Stoner finds himself meditating, and one that becomes tangible in the book that Stoner had authored.
It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of him that he could not deny was there, and would be there.
Stoner’s has defined his identity and preserved his integrity through his academic career. It may not have been illustrious, but it was not destroyed by the petty malices and provocations of his wife and colleagues, nor by tumultuous times. (His career spans both WWI amd WWII.) His triumph is the personal triumph of an ordinary man. That
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 a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers
is just another example of the world not understanding where true value is to be found.
Footnote: This is the only time the novel struck a false note for me. I found this transformation of Edith entirely unbelievable.