Stoner by John Williams

A review of the classic literary campus novel Stoner by John Williams.

John Williams’ Stoner is a look into the life of the ordinary with intent to extract fleeting moments of occurrence. The novel spans the life of William Stoner and explores ideas of love, courage, career and parenthood but not in the idealized sense one has come to expect. Instead, the novel takes a perspective that is overwhelmingly human and free from the embrace of exaggerated fiction. Even rare moments of joy for the protagonist become intoxicated with a later air of indifference, reducing everything to a memory that “doesn’t matter,” as you’ll read many times over.

Still, the book is very difficult to put down despite what may be prematurely seen as flaws or faults. Even in the face of the opening paragraph, which tells us outright that Stoner will die and leave behind relatively nothing to show for his life’s work as a teacher of literature, you will still find yourself compelled to continue. It is the reflection of oneself that is entrancing, as we are not witnessing the mythical trials of a god or post-apocalyptic horrors; we are reading the pains of life that we all will inevitably fall into. The novel will leave you hoping Stoner will change things but as time slips past he becomes either indifferent or unaware and committed further by inaction or force. Yet with every page, you will ask just a little more for him to act out and rebel.

It is hard to pin down the overall message of this book as reading into it can lead down many paths; there are ideas of being shoehorned by personal and bureaucratic systems, conforming to social norms or the shame of being different. Whereas most novels highlight the individual who breaks free from society’s chains and stands out, Stoner is for the little people whose quixotic fantasies of imitating literature are never realized.

Those points just add to the reasons why this novel has very few comparisons and to those who aren’t philosophically learned, it will sit alone as a unique read. It might be possible to make vague comparisons to the novel Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre and if not one certainly can take a passage from Nausea to describe the unusual nature of the text and our relation to it.

“When you are living, nothing happens. The settings change, people come in and go out, that’s all. There are never any beginnings.”

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Similar to this idea, the novel is parading a sense of irony where as a reader we gain intrigue but as a participant Stoner finds life dull and unfulfilling. Furthermore, ideas of existentialism run deeply through the veins of the text which makes the comparison to Nausea even more fitting. Maybe one can praise John Williams for helping the reader realize that inaction is taking away what it means to be free and to live. Alternatively, it might all be a coincidence with an unconscious influence from the zeitgeist. Either way, I certainly must credit Williams’ talent in crafting a tale with such majesty that even the life of a fairly mundane man is elevated to a fascinating tapestry rallying behind the trials of mediocrity and insignificance.

Even so, no book is without fault and I could foresee some feeling in the dark with many open-ended questions. There are also characters whose fates are left undetermined, those who one wishes to see punished who are not and who one wishes to see have a happy ending that do not. On occasion, one might refer to this as poor writing but here it is an obvious creative choice that only stands to amplify reality and the importance of time.

This book, therefore, is one I would recommend if you want something that makes you think. It takes many features of classic genres and turns them on their heads by presenting them in such a way that removes the glorification of typical subject matters, leaving only the undeniable experiences of humanity. William Stoner remarkably manages to remain both emotionally distant and intimately relatable which is why I guarantee you, there will be something of yourself in him that will make you reconsider your own life.

A writer.

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