By Connor Deith
For most people, John Williams is the name of the musical genius behind the Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter soundtracks. In fact, there’s an entire Wikipedia page called ‘John Williams (disambiguation)’ dedicated to the less famous men of history who share the same name. How very apt, when considering John Williams’s (disambiguation) Stoner, the story of an English professor in the American Midwest who, despite his distinguished title, fails in virtually every other aspect of his life. His marriage is a failure, his spontaneous affair with a promising student is destroyed by his many resentful colleagues, and he is not held in any great esteem by those who knew him: ‘His name is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves’. With this in mind, upon finishing Stoner, I couldn’t help but feel awestruck at what seemed to be a magnificent study of the mundane and the hopeless.
Williams demonstrates how even those with the most uninspiring lives imaginable can still have a meaningful story to impart in wonderfully concise prose that contrasts with the solemnity of the narrative. It was almost as if I’d read a ‘how to’ guide on how not to live your life. That is to say that the life of William Stoner is one where nearly everything goes horribly wrong precisely because he consciously lets these things happen. Stoner starts out as being passive to the extreme in most regards. It is only when he discovers the illusive world of English literature and the wealth it has to offer that he takes the opportunity to immerse himself in his new-found obsession in order to become a more rounded character. His academic pursuits are noble, up until the point where he reaches the pinnacle of his profession by becoming a professor; this is when we observe his regression into stasis once again. He becomes infatuated with a woman called Edith upon meeting her at a formal dinner party, who later becomes his wife. However, their marriage descends into years of rivalry that spawns from the fact that they never loved each other on a meaningful level. His professional life is undermined by colleagues and students alike who refuse to fully appreciate his intellect due to his unimpressionable demeanour and humble background as a deadbeat farmer’s son. These particular strands of unbearable hopelessness continue throughout the novel, epitomised by the following phrase when we find Stoner in a state of bitter nostalgia: ‘He was forty-two years old, and he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember’.
All this makes me question why I found the book so enjoyable, and why I would recommend it to any ardent reader. It has been said that Stoner is very much a ‘reader’s novel’, in that it evokes within oneself a memory of what first got them invested in literature. It emphasises the importance of reading and the beauty that can be found in a meaningful novel. I certainly felt the same, yet I still found another message. It conveyed to me a sense of purpose, that there truly is a meaning to life. Your duty is simply to find it for yourself, and once you do, you must run with it and let it consume you until you achieve something, anything, in order to avoid ending up like our poor protagonist. That, in my opinion, is the beauty of Stoner.
This article was published in our November 2016 issue.