“I thought I could do it quietly without upsetting anyone.”
How much of life do you lose if you never impose on anyone else? How much selfishness should you indulge in, drag others into? Can you ever really be alive by always being polite, never being a bother, letting life carry you along like driftwood? These were some of the questions, and hard truths I had to face while reading this remarkable novel. And I use the word remarkable not because I want to toss a superlative around, but because the book is remarkable. In fact I think a case could be made for this almost forgotten novel to be considered in the conversation of Great American Novels.
Stoner is a unique literary ‘hero’. He is an American mid-western farm boy from a hardworking, moral farm family. In a Steinbeck novel the Stoner’s would be backdrop, the sort of family he’d mention in passing as being one of the unspoken for millions America is made up of: the hard working, quiet, self sufficient, good and decent Americans who are the salt of the earth. Yet William Stoner is different; he’s a man apart. Though he knows farm life, he’s not particularly attracted to or interested in it, he only does it because life has, until yet, not offered him anything else. But when he’s given the chance to go to college he discovers he has a passion you wouldn’t normally attribute to the farm: a love of literature. He discovers he is not a man meant to bend his back all day, but to use his mind instead.
This discovery occurs suddenly, without warning and from a man long dead. It is William Shakespeare who almost literally speaks to him. “Do you hear him?” Professor Sloane asks him in class. Shakespeare speaks to you across three centuries. Shakespeare has imposed himself on Stoner, has grabbed hold of him, and changed his life.
But this is not the story of a man necessarily bettered by the experience of discovering education and art. Though Stoner decides to pursue a life of education and teaching, you sometimes wonder what his life would have been like had he not made this discovery. Would he have wound up like his parents, perhaps, but when WW1 broke out he may have gone over to France and not come back, or come back a changed man. There’s a lot of potential ‘what ifs’ at the beginning of one’s life.
And this book is all about potential.
That’s why it’s so startling at the end of the novel when he realizes he’s 60 years old. Though we’ve lived his life through the course of the novel through all his failures, and modest successes, we are hit with the cold reality that there is just not anymore time left. He’s made all his choices and, as he keeps repeating “What did you expect?”
Yet this is not a cynical or angry novel. Even in moments of quiet, suffocating despair, of years of a failed marriage, failed relationships, failed career opportunities, this is not a book about a man who is just a sad case for us to pity. William Stoner is like so many very real people, he’s a person trying to get by in the world, trying to do some good, but not quite able to bridge the gap between his own internal passions and heat with other people’s heart and their warmth. He’s closed off, he lives in his own mind, and he always looks for reasons why he can’t act, why he shouldn’t say or do a thing because he doesn’t feel it’s right, or his place to do so. He is not a bold man, but rather a man who works hard, does the best he can with what he has, and then, in the end, must accept those choices.
Artistically the novel is a marvel. From the sparse and clear writing, to the near meta-fictional exploration of how literature and books can help us explore the human condition while at the same time needing to withdraw from humanity to experience these books. In the end he holds his own book in his hands and though the contents of that book might not paint a clear picture of the author, it does, as least, offer proof that he existed and contributed even just a little bit to the human species. Or in the dedication of Katherine’s book, the initials W.S. are all that is left between the two of them, a fragment, but at least something.
There is continually subtle word play, the use of a line such as “He felt a distant closeness to her”, distant closeness in opposition but right next to each other, or him describing his marriage as a stalemate, is he the mate who is stale, is she, are they both? There is the repeated imagery of masks and mask like faces, which in less talented hands would have been a bit heavy handed, but here fits the characters and the tone. Even when the novel pushes the boundaries of imagery, such as with his description of the poignancy of a lone grave enhanced by the vastness of a desert, it never feels out of place or forced. Every word is necessary.
And structurally the novel is near perfect in that this is a first person account written in the third person. We are close to Stoner but never too close, we are always kept at a distance. The narrator is most likely Stoner himself since only twice do we ever get a POV shift, both times with his wife in acts of self discovery, as if their will and imposition spills over into the narration and forces us to have to come to terms with another human being.
This is the true art of the novel, the life we live with Stoner, the slow wearing down upon him, his reasoning for acting, or more often not acting, and the understanding we get of this person who to an outsider would seem a cantankerous and impossible man to know. We learn a little about what it means to be William Stoner, and perhaps, to better see the world through the intentions of the people around us.
The novel is sad but never pessimistic – it’s realistic in the best possible use of the word. This is the sort of book a writer like Raymond Carver would immediately relate to and even write about. William Stoner is a sort of mythical American every-man, a man of the earth who is also educated, a man of many faces whose expression never changes, a man never quite sure of his place in the world but is willing to work damn hard to keep what he does have. Stoner was remarkable in that he was completely unremarkable.
We even get in the end the book’s, and perhaps our own culture’s unspoken philosophy about the meaning of life when he is with the doctor, “it was foolishness, he knew, but he did not protest, it would have been unkind for him to do so.”
Stoner is very much a book that will appeal to people who love books and love book learning, however, there is a warning here I believe, and that is the more we learn, the more we try to know, the more we will discover how little we actually known and understand and that there will never be enough time to read and to learn all we need to know because the rabbit hole never ends. Perhaps we would be better off putting the books down and going outside and imposing ourselves on the world. Perhaps Stoner could be read as the great anti-book, or, at least in a meta sense, a slight nod towards American anti-intellectualism; too much knowledge could be bad for you.
At the very least, the book is pretty clear about never being able to ever understand another human being by just reading books about them. Stoner read his whole life away and barely made an impression on any human he ever met aside from his wife, Finch, Lomax, and Katherine Driscoll. Perhaps if he’d found a place to put down his cap and gown from his college graduation he might have lived more.
Yet in the end these are the choices of his life and we are reminded of our own choices, our own mortality and our potential. It would be easy to feel a bit defeated at the end of the novel, to think life is just sort of pointless and full of misery, and in a way it is, but it isn’t, too. In the final pages we watch Stoner hearing the teenagers laughing as they walk across his lawn, barely touching the ground, and we long to be with them, not him. We long to live better, but we also understand our limitations.