It doesn’t happen often that a character pulls at my emotions as much as John Williams, Stoner did. The ending was so painful I had to close the book before it was finished, and come back to it a few days later to give Stoner a proper goodbye.
This is fundamentally a story about the cost of love and the sacrifices and compromises involved. It is about a young man from a hard-working farming family who enrols in an agricultural college program only to fall in love with literature. He must leave his farming world to embrace his new love. He falls in love with the image of a gentle girl and ends up in a loveless marriage. His career as an English professor is stunted when he can’t embrace the politics of the university.
Stoner is an ordinary man trying to confront the caprices of love. At the death of his father, he ponders whether life is worth living.
“He thought of the cost exacted, year after year, by the soil: and it remained as it had been— ... Nothing had changed. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labour, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed.”
As he reflects about how fruitless his father’s life had been, Stoner himself thinks back about all his years of joyless teaching. It is only when he defies the status quo and brings his love of literature into his teaching methods that he feels the spring come back in his step. His dying reflections about his life comes with a crucial question— “What did you expect?”—which left me asking the very same thing.
A profound and essential read!