Stoner - John Williams (1965)


First published in 1965, ‘Stoner’ is author John Williams’ second novel. Garnering poor sales upon its release, it received a generally positive critical reception. It was then out of print for 33 years until 1998 making it something of a lost classic.

The opening passages of Stoner speak of the lasting impression and legacy left behind by the books main character, the titular William Stoner, as viewed by his colleagues at the University of Missouri.

It outlines a decidedly unremarkable life of mediocre achievement and little worth, with those that new him thinking of him very little, if at all. What follows is a novel that breathes beauty and meaning into this ‘unremarkable’ life.

Set predominantly in the first half of the 20th century, Stoner covers the commonplace events of William Stoner’s life such as his career as a university lecturer, his marriage, friendships, and academic pursuits and gives them the weight and importance of an epic spanning several decades, 2 World Wars, and the Great Depression.

Stoner explores what it means to live a successful or full life, be that through success at work, love, friendships or knowledge and asks, how do we measure that success?

One of the main themes of the novel is Stoners love of literature and the pursuit of knowledge. Literature holds a transcendent, almost spiritual power over the character, it is his first true love and the only constant in his life.

Stoner devotes himself to expanding his appreciation of the written word without ego or interest in personal gain, and it is this purity of intent regardless of outcome that is central to the character of Stoner and the novel.

As a teacher Stoner may devote himself to passing his love of literature onto his students, but never really feels he manages to translate that passion into his classes. As a husband he is devoted and attentive, but estranged from his wife almost from the beginning and has a loveless marriage, but perhaps it is simply in living with passion that success is measured.

Stoner could be viewed almost as a love letter to life itself, creating a portrait of a humble and hardworking man with a seemingly failed life, that was none the less, full.

As Stoner himself muses on his life in old age ‘it was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, it’s specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.’

There is an undeniable irony in the fact that a novel that deals so heavily with the joys of working for the love of it regardless of outcome, could be largely overlooked during its authors lifetime, Stoner did not come out of print until 4 years after John Williams’ death. Viewed through a contemporary lens, in an age of selfies and social media ‘likes’, Stoners message of humble dedication to work, both in life and love is a breath of fresh air.

Beautifully written and at times heartbreaking it is a rallying cry for any reader who feels that their life is without achievement. You don’t need to set the world on fire to burn bright.

Adam Volkmer (Collingwood Chapter)