Monday, October 05, 2015

Stoner by John Williams

I want to talk to you this morning about a novel first published in 1965, and then reissued after the turn of the century. Since its first publication, is has become a classic among critics and academicians. It has been called a ‘perfect novel’ as well as ‘the great American novel.’ In both those cases, it was a male critic who awarded it such a distinction. In the remarks that follow, I think it will become obvious why I think it is no accident that this lavish praise has come from men.

The name of the novel is Stoner, and the author is John Williams. It is an excruciatingly sad little novel, superbly crafted and polished, but written in plain, even flat prose matching the flat grey life of the main character, William Stoner. Almost nothing goes right for Stoner, and yet, he himself on his deathbed pronounces his life a successful one. Although usually written in the third person, it is a tale seen exclusively through the eyes of Stoner. Rarely does the author use the first name of his lead character; he is referred to simply as Stoner, and the tone remains impersonal and emotionless even in the most dramatic sections of the book.

Stoner is a farm boy, the only child of a hardworking couple who eek out an existence from hard scrabble land that yields less and less as the years go by. Stoner’s father encourages Stoner to attend a newly formed agricultural college in the hopes that he may learn new techniques to improve the production of their small farm. However, through happenstance, Stoner takes a survey of literature course in his second year of college, and his life is irrevocably altered. The instructor of the course, Archer Sloane, is not a great teacher, but he is a dedicated one, and he informs Stoner that he is to be a teacher even before Stoner realizes it. 
“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” Sloane asked.

“Don’t you understand about yourself  yet? You’re going to be a teacher”  
Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?” 
“I’m sure,” Sloane said softly. 
“How can you tell? How can you be sure?” 
“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”
And he is in love, with learning, but even that love is so muted, so understated that it fails to bring with it excitement or significant shifts in his day to day life.  Stoner continues his undistinguished undergraduate studies, and with Sloane’s encouragement begins an equally undistinguished course of graduate studies, and then a far from spectacular teaching career.

Along the way, Stoner falls in love with a pretty but quiet and socially shy, unsophisticated girl, also a single child of a moderately successful banker and his unremarkable wife. Both Stoner and his new wife are sexual innocents, and from their honeymoon forward, theirs is an almost completely non-sexual and non-romantic relationship. 
Within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping that it would improve. He learned silence and did not insist upon his love. If he spoke to her or touched her in tenderness, she turned away from him within herself and became wordless, enduring, and for days afterward drove herself to new limits of exhaustion. Out of an unspoken stubbornness they both had, they shared the same bed…
They have one child together, Grace, and for a time Stoner finds a closeness with young Grace that he is to find with no one else in his life. His wife changes her appearance after her father’s death, and for a time takes a newfound interest in  Grace, whom Stoner has raised essentially alone up to that point. As Stoner sees it, his wife, Edith, declares war on his relationship with Grace and does all in her power to drive them apart. There are several points in the novel when Grace goes through brief bursts of energy, and in each case, the burst of energy is directed to an undermining of Stoner—undermining his relationship with Grace and attempting to undermine his relationships with his students just as he begins to be a better teacher. Edith seems to be threatened by any signs of happiness in Stoner.

The author’s description of these campaigns by Edith against Stoner’s few periods of happiness are so emotionally violent that I found myself beginning to doubt Stoner’s story. Instead, I began to see a deep vein of passive-aggressiveness in Stoner that he does not see, nor I suspect does the author understand the unbelievable one-sidedness of  his portrayal of their marital warfare. Stoner is drawn as such a pathetic figure, so persecuted by his wife, by a malevolent colleague, by life itself that I found myself ultimately rather disgusted by his weakness and ineptitude. 

I suspect that the meticulous drawing of this misunderstood and unappreciated man has appealed to male readers, drawn on their sympathies precisely because they see themselves in his flat, not sufficiently appreciated life. Eventually, I found myself thinking, “I’d like to hear this story again, but told through the eyes of Edith.”

Despite my suspicions about the lead character and what I see as overblown appraisals of the book, it is superbly told. I would love to read it with others as a psychoanalytic portrayal of a bad marriage.  It is a riveting book despite its overall greyness and flatness, and while not a great or perfect novel, it is one that will stay with me for a long time, and one that I recommend to all serious readers.

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