William Stoner is born at the end of the 19th century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar's life, far different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a "proper" family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.
John Williams's luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection. William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.
©1965 John Williams (P)2010 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
“A perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, it takes your breath away." (Morris Dickstein, New York Times Book Review )
“A masterly portrait of a truly virtuous and dedicated man.” (New Yorker)
“An exquisite study, bleak as Hopper, of a hopelessly honest academic at a meretricious Midwestern university. I had not known…that the kind of unsparing portrait of failed marriage shown in Stoner existed before John Cheever.” (Los Angeles Times)
I'd listen to the book over and over again if I didn't think it would make me weep in public places.
Stoner is -- well, a singular literary creation.
The reader stands back and lets the book do its job.
I just loved it.
"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.
I found this book to be interesting to a degree, and I cared enough about William Stoner to want to finish it. Imagine a boring, depressing life. Then ask a friend to help you make it more boring and depressing. That's Stoner's life.
In deciding to read "Stoner" I read a comment that it was "the best novel you've never heard of." I now agree. It's up there with Tolstoy's works. If my next paragraph does not totally repel you, you should read "Stoner."
There are reasons you've never heard of it. It's not a pleasant story. There's no action. The first few chapters, about the protagonist's youth, are boring. The most interesting parts are during the protagonist's middle age. (With subtle irony the author made the protagonist an expert in the literature of the Middle Ages). The heroism of the protagonist is through his stoicism, not his efforts or cleverness. He's trapped in an unsatisfactory life.
That said, "Stoner" is one of the most moving novels I've ever read. Haunting. Real. It's about mistakes and lost opportunities, and human frailties and pettiness. It's about coming to an understanding of self and life.
I started this book with doubt -- from description and reviews it sounded underwhelming; and it was banal for the first part of the book. While on the one hand Stoner seems to let life happen to him rather than at least making people and circumstances meet him halfway; he does make decisions that sometimes improve his life, that reflect his principles, that are sensitive to those arround him, that keep life on an even keel which seems to be his preference. In the grand scheme of things, his life did not leave much of a mark, but then, isn't that true for the majority. For at least the last half of the book, I was drawn to listening to the book whenever I could.
The writing is exquisite and crisp. Stoner's inner thoughts, reactions, wishes, emotions were insightful and felt so real.
Not necessarily. Individual preferences in processing stories are different, even our moods can be different. Sometimes I like reading, sometimes I like listening.
Margaret Atwood's Hand Maid's Tale. Not the nature of the story (although both fiction) but the degree of detail, most intimate thoughts of the protagonist, the " naked truth" told, calm yet merciless.
Did a good job articulating author/protagonist's calm, plain narrative dotted with exquisite agonies when he first experiences "Love" not until he was middle aged.
When Stoner started to learn about true human caring and love.
Beautiful in the sense that it's some totally honest, bare, guileless. Ordinary human condition, extraordinarily written.
It is not a spoiler to reveal that Professor William Stoner, the eponymous main character, dies at the end of this novel since that fact is revealed to us at the outset. His demise, as described there, causes so few ripples, such a small wake (and I use the word purposefully), that we must wonder if the narrative of his life can be worth reading. But it is--because this terribly, achingly ordinary life is made to sound extraordinary by the power and passion of the writing invested by John Williams in the character. And this is fitting inasmuch as the only real passion--albeit not the only love--in Stoner???s life is literature.
As in the naturalistic novels of the late nineteenth century, our attention is drawn to the harrowing burdens of Stoner???s existence far more than to his very few glories. He is victimized at so many turns that it is hard to consider him a protagonist, and yet, ultimately, his graceful stoicism and kindness gain in us a certain respect--especially in those of us who have ever asked ourselves if our lives will have made any difference to the world. The novel is a painful answer to that question. But if beauty is truth and if the discovery of truth does make live worth living, then this beautifully-crafted work is worth reading.
Newly retired, I am a reading fiend! I like many types of books, both fiction and non-fiction, with the exception of romance and fantasy
This book stopped me cold in my tracks. It was so much more than I expected.
In summary, it is a brilliant and haunting melancholic tale of a would-be farmer who became an English professor, who was a good man, who could have been truly great but for a certain passivity, and who wound up at the end of his days with many regrets about the choices he made. I came away from this audiobook feeling deeply affected. I feel so much empathy for William Stoner.
The publisher's summary is excellent. It tells you everything you need to know. Robin Field did a fine job of narrating. This very unusual book will be on my all time favorites list.
Say something about yourself!
A sad, interesting story of a dedicated teacher abused by fate. The characterizations are brilliantly written, with Stoner a supreme man of pathos. I'm glad to have found this book.
this book was published in 1965
it sold all of 2,000 copies that year
looking back, we probably shouldn't be surprised
it was later rediscovered by european critics
they had the wisdom to recognize its' true worth
it is a real masterpiece of understated beauty
how does an introverted intellectual live life on his terms ?
how can a man fight the world's pressing him into its' mold ?
how can you recover from betrayal and disappointment ?
the book uses a college professor's career to answer these questions
the steady adversity of midwestern life provides the plot
the book is an extraordinary meditation on an ordinary life
The story is excellent. The absence of constant dramatic twists and turns makes the whole book feel more realistic and human, but the story is constantly engaging. Although the book would be great on its own, the addition of the really good narrator adds to the story's personal nature and sadness.
Although the subtle tragedy of the events that unfold over Stoner's life feels relentless, it frames the moments of joy and beauty so that the story of his life really leaves an impression.
The narration is perfect for the book. At first it seems a bit dull, but very quickly it becomes clear that the voice fits the character of the book and adds to the impact of the story.
Although I never wanted to give up or actively wanted to put it down, it was nice to listen to the book over a week or two. The story covers Stoner's whole life, so it was well suited to taking breaks between listening.
Although slowly paced, Stoner is a building, timeless classic. An uncomfortably honest portrayal of both Stoner's marriage and academic career.
"Very well written"
Slow to start and didn't think I was going to enjoy it. Turned out to be a really good read. Sad story and very thought provoking.
Thanks to audible for the 2 for 1 offers without which I might never have come across this wonderful tale. The prose is rich lyrical and erudite often reminding me of Hesse with its passionate searching for understanding of humanity and what part we have in the world.
The reading was equal to the book, reflecting every aspect of William Stoner's journey through life. Moving and with a modest dignity.
"Bleak with flashes of excellence, well performed"
A dull tragedy which has glimpses of brilliance but could have done with a good strong edit and is just too depressing to meet my tastes. The ending, oddly, is sort of happy, but everyone in the book is SO MISERABLE. I finished it because we were reading it for book club but I certainly didn't enjoy it. It wasn't unrealistic - the writing is actually good and frequently powerful - just terribly sad (and frequently overlong). One finds oneself exasperated and angry for a lot of the book.
The Audible production is excellent, however. The narrator is perfect for the material and is both versatile and subtle.
"Beautifully written ,"
Evokes deep sympathy for all the characters especially Stoner and his wife . Best book I've read for ages. Must listen
"An excellent listen!"
What an excellent find! An uneventful story about an unambitious man - but a character with so much depth that you just have to keep listening to learn how his life unfolds. Wonderfully narrated by Robin Field - his monotone style wouldn't work for some books, but for this it was spot on!
I rarely keep books on my i-phone for a second listen - but Stoner is on there and I anticipate returning to it many times. Recommended!
An account of an ordinary life beautifully read by Robin Field A must read
I have listened to a lot of books but this is just the most amazing book. So simple, emotional and true. Very hard to put in words. An ordinary life not a hollywood one. I cried when I got to the end. Will miss Mr Stoner
Not sure this does compare to anything else. Maybe a little like Willa Cather
The graduate student scene when the student is being quizzed by the 4 profesors. Very tense!
Deeply sad book but immensely true. I did cry
I'm going to be very evangelical about this book -everyone should read it.
Disappointment as the text was quite good, just the reading style was tedious in the extreme
Avoid the audiobook. If you are looking for an account of a boring, aimless and obvioulsy doomed existence try reading it on your kindle.
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