Reading ‘Stoner’ by John Williams: the Empathy of Ennui and Endurance


Reading John Williams’ Stoner has been an emotional experience. I initially struggled with the pervasive sadness and darkening tone, the latter a relentless characteristic of the narrative whilst the theme of a personal pathos was one that other writers have championed as its paradoxically ‘beautiful’ appeal, expressed as such on the back cover blurb of my Vintage Classics edition:

A terrific novel of echoing sadness – Julien Barnes

democratic in how it breaks the heart… – Colum McCann

A brilliant, beautiful, inexorably sad, wise and elegant novel – Nick Hornby

I have read and enjoyed novels of greater tragedy, thinking immediately of quite different examples like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage – sticking in my mind as being powerfully affecting, though both read in my youth – and there are many more that I have read then and obviously as an adult when I could increasingly relate to the human experience reflected. There are clearly thousands and thousands of other lasting examples.

I say ‘enjoyed’ as one does, but it is an ironic observation about texts like these and Stoner, and I have used the expression automatically but also because of this singular exchange from John Williams which was made in a 1985 interview with Brian Wooley who asked him

And literature is written to be entertaining?

to which Williams replied

 Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid.

Terms like ‘entertaining’ and ‘joy’ do not readily equate with the emotional experience of reading Stoner. There are moments of minor triumph that do prompt the latter, though this is a relative response, and the utterly transient nature of any happiness or ‘joy’ is despairing, certainly at first. It is later in the story simply inevitable.

But this concern with upbeat tags is in many ways peripheral because we understand such paradoxes and ironies are the substance of engaging with great literature. My personal response echoes these uncertain considerations: the first is more noticeably marginal in explaining my overall experience; the second is deeper.

I came to reading Stoner after devouring four Jim Thompson noir novels – and before that a Larry Brown short story collection – so their exaggerated storylines of brutality, deception, gratuitous experiences [sexual and violent, often combined], revenge, and even surreal conclusions are worlds away from John Williams’ book set mainly in the University of Missouri and its immediate environs and spanning the two World Wars. It therefore took a while to incline myself both intuitively and through the power of William’s storytelling to the comparatively mundane if nonetheless profound experiences of William Stoner. Where the pulp noir provided an often vicarious thrill, Stoner transferred an empathy of ennui.

My deeper experience was one of growing identification. I know the immediate connection I am about to make is tenuous, but that is how great literature truly engages – when we see/understand something of ourselves in what we are reading. Accepting the superficiality: William Stoner moves from a farming background to education and teaching, the latter discovered through a growing appreciation of literature he learns when first attending university to study agriculture. I came from working on a farm that I thought would be a lifelong career to also study and become a teacher.

I said it would be tenuous and superficial. But I am not ashamed to say that I felt goose-bumps [a classic literary connection…] when I read the following, very early in the story. Having now changed from studying agriculture to literature, Stoner is having a discussion with Archer Sloan, an instructor at the university at the time, and a mentor as well as friend of sorts – not that Stoner really has many friendships – who tells him an important revelation:

“But don’t you know Mr Stoner?” Sloan asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”

Suddenly Sloan seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Sloan said softly.

“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”

 “It’s love, Mr Stoner,” Sloan said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”

And of course he means in love with literature. Stoner does become and remains an English teacher, later assistant professor, throughout his whole life. He is industrious – a main theme in the story – and at times influential and even animated, but we are never given the impression that he is inspirational. This is not a story upon which Robin Williams as teacher John Keating in Dead Poets’ Society could be based.

There is of course much more with which I identify, especially as the older reader I am now and experiencing a life that has had its own demands for stoicism and acceptances – certainly no more than many have to accommodate in their lives, but enough.

Williams is fated to his enormous share of failures, most not of his making, and many caused by those who should be closest to and supportive of him. Even his marriage is doomed, and the following is an example of that relentless narrative describing inevitable problems and decline:

And so, like many others, their honeymoon was a failure, yet they would not admit this to themselves, and they did not realise the significance of the failure until long afterward.

They arrived in St Louis late Sunday night. On the train, surrounded by strangers who looked curiously and approvingly at them, Edith had been animated and almost gay…

Almost gay! This is the story of Stoner’s life, to only become occasionally and fleetingly happy, though this is not even about him. There is a tenderness in the way Williams does continue here and describe the inability to consummate their marriage that night, a portrait of a stereotypical anxiety and naivety from two virgins, and we as readers empathise as we will do on many more occasions. But Edith’s later evil treatment of William, especially the way she alienates their daughter from him as well as appropriating and altering anything originally belonging to William and having offered him some limited comfort and security, is one of the major and withering battles he has to fight and ultimately lose. He also loses because he simply acquiesces to the mistreatments. It is a manifestation of both his stoicism and his temerity.

The single sustained joy in Stoner’s life is his love for and affair with Katherine Driscoll, but this lasts no more than a year, if that. When we read of their shared passion it is such a genuine delight at that precise point, but we know it is doomed. From the very beginning. And it is ended mutually, but this has been brought about by the interference of another evil character in the story, Hollis Lomax. He, along with a student Charles Walker – and to some but lesser degree his daughter Grace – also conspire to ruin Stoner’s life, and we are naturally, painfully angered by this which is what engages so powerfully despite the inevitabilities of their victories. Maybe more so because we know the outcome and thus have our anger neutered by this.

It will be obvious from all I have written what an emotive experience reading Stoner is. To do so we have to acquire an emotional endurance which is the essence of Stoner himself, and this is our painful empathy. As I have said, and for slight but also deep reasons, it took me some time to make this acquisition. As with any literary tragedy, the qualities that make it bearable and indeed uplifting are in its expression, and whilst not particularly poetic, there is a consistent honesty in the narrative, and the measured way in which this is sustained becomes itself a calm, palpable tone and we are wrapped within it, suffering too but completely controlled by its sense of normalcy.

There is wisdom too. Stoner’s personal suffering is framed within the two World Wars and that universal suffering. Although never occupying much in the storyline, death and destruction become a backdrop, and Stoner loses one of his only two friends Dave Masters to the First World War, and he witnesses the further diminution and ultimate death of Archer Stone after the Second World War.

With Stoner’s epic endurance in life comes a personal wisdom and it is this which presents nobility transcending his stoic suffering. It is this nobility which we as readers take as the reward for our enduring the moments of strain in reading. Williams presents this throughout the novel but also in the following with a calm formality that belies its significance. I can’t quite see the expression or the knowing as ‘beautiful’. But I do accept it as hugely rewarding to have witnessed and lived with during reading:

In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.

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