Cover of "Stoner (New York Review Books C...

Cover of Stoner (New York Review Books Classics)

The novel Stoner (1965), by John Williams, chronicles the life of William Stoner, a farm boy sent to college where he falls in love with literature before becoming an adept English professor.  This is in the early part of the 20th century, during which Stoner does not enlist to fight in the First World War.  Drawn to a woman named Edith, he courts and marries her—one of the worst wives in American literature, and not much of a mother either.  The couple have a fragile daughter, Grace.  Gradually Stoner enters an affair with an attractive student, but is also deprived of it before long.  The passage in which he learns of the student’s feelings for him is superbly written.

An unfortunate fact in Stoner is that an academic career is used to support such sordid realities as Stoner’s ugly marriage and the abetment of a deplorable grad student protected by a vindictive colleague.  Human meanness encircles the scholar, although when Grace mentions that things have not been easy for him, he admits, “I suppose I didn’t want them to be.”  He says this before he dies of cancer, a disease which merely becomes Stoner’s last enemy, as Edith and the vindictive colleague are his enemies.  But none of these enemies does he hate.  They create conditions to which he becomes resigned.  Over and above, the novel implies that if a man can be resigned to (non-lethal) human enemies, he can be resigned to inevitable death.

The book’s description of the moments before this death is memorable, set forth in what has been considered a lost classic.