Stoner by John Williams


This novel is set at the University of Missouri in the first half of the twentieth century. William Stoner is a farm boy who goes to the university, falls in love with literature, and stays there for the rest of his life as a professor. His life is pretty sad and pathetic in a lot of ways, and it seems like most of the story is meant to make readers feel sorry for him.

The plot is concerned with Stoner’s love life, and with his academic job and some crazy drama in his department. In both arenas, Stoner is a kind of righteous victim. He refuses to pass an undeserving grad student’s oral exam, and is targeted by the head of his department for the rest of his career (over twenty years). That part of the story is a caricature of the pettiness of academics. In his love life, he has a bad marriage and an affair with a younger woman, which is tragically broken up by his university enemies.

I had a problem with the character of Edith, his wife. I didn’t find her believable at all. She makes no sense as a character. Her choices, especially the choice to marry Stoner and to have a child, come from nowhere and are unexplainable by anything in the text. She’s frigid and vindictive, with no redeeming qualities at all. Their sex life I found especially incomprehensible. Due to extreme sexual repression, Edith is completely unresponsive in bed, to the extent that Stoner is probably a rapist. Since we are meant to empathize so totally with Stoner and find his adulterous affair incredibly romantic, it’s necessary to malign his wife and portray his marriage as essentially dead. But even so, Williams did a poor job creating this character.

Despite the overload of pathos, there are some lovely passages, and Stoner finds his own life worthwhile, which is kind of affirming and optimistic.


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