"Stoner:" The Incredible Story of an Unremarkable Life
Perhaps the most underrated novel ever written, John Williams’ Stoner follows the life of William Stoner, an unremarkable man whose life is marked by a series of severe disappointments.
Based in Columbia, Missouri, the character of William Stoner comes from plain, hardworking farm stock. William’s father sends him to the University of Missouri at Columbia to study agriculture, but once in school, William finds himself enamored by the study of literature in his required sophomore class.
Stoner’s life unfolds from there, eventually finding him graduating with his doctorate in literature and beginning his teaching career at the same school he graduated from. Stoner begins his professional life on the eve of WWI, makes an abysmal marriage, and runs in to hardship after hardship in his personal and professional life. Any happiness or inner peace seems cosmically denied to our unlucky protagonist, and yet the reader is utterly unable to turn away.
The New Yorker in its review of Stoner called the novel, “the anti-‘Gatsby’.” While Fitzgerald’s work is often cited as the great American novel, the plot and characters are idealized, romanticized, and elevated far above the experience of the average American. Not so with William Stoner. The tragedy of the novel springs from its relatability, the subtle, slow unraveling of a life led with the best and most noble of intentions.
This relatability, however, makes it understandable why Stoner may not have caught the fancy of the collective imagination. We tend to prefer our entertainment to be the romantic ideal of our common experiences. Our existence has enough pain of its own without vicariously suffering with our literary heroes.
William Stoner’s life declines steadily from unremarkable beginnings and, taken at face value, is a collective pile of bummer. The genius of John Williams, however, is that, while Stoner is indeed a figure worthy of pity, he does not pity himself. He seems content to exist in whatever circumstances happen to be surrounding him at the present time, however horrific or unjust they may be. As a result, by continuing on his steady and relentless way, Stoner retains a dignity as pure and simple as he is himself.
Since Stoner’s profession is that of an English Professor at a University, the novel is heavily steeped in the world of early 20th century academia. The pale light of the burning love for his discipline that first awoke in Stoner as a sophomore does not leave him until his dying day. Though his career is imperfect and unglamorous, the love for knowledge and for learning keeps a steady flame burning deep inside of him amidst all the other things that he loses throughout his life. Stoner’s love affair with his discipline is something that can never be taken from him, and gives him the last thrill of joy he feels before his dying breath.
Stoner is, quite simply, the story of a life. Taken together, the facts of William Stoner’s life equate to complete and utter failure. Yet the resilience, strength and dignity he retains in himself until the very end is what creates this paradoxical brilliance: William Stoner, the most unremarkable of men, through his steady endurance became the most remarkable of them all.