The 50th-anniversary edition of John Williams’s “Stoner” comes garlanded with hyperbole. Bret Easton Ellis calls the novel “almost perfect.” Morris Dickstein raises it to “perfect.” Ian McEwan calls it “beautiful.” Emma Straub dubs it “the most beautiful book in the world.”
The story of William Stoner, a professor of English at the University of Missouri who fails in his marriage and career ambitions, but accepts obscurity and loneliness out of devotion to teaching and love of literature, went unremarked on when it was first published in 1965. In the 21st century, however, it has become a literary phenomenon, first as an unexpected European bestseller and then as an American classic.
Much of that applause hails Stoner as a devoted teacher, an exemplary scholar and an example of all that is noble in the academic profession. As Williams said in a letter to his literary agent in the 1950s: “The point of the novel will be that he is a kind of saint. . . . It is a novel about a man who finds no meaning in the world or in himself, but he does find meaning and a kind of victory in the honest and dogged pursuit of his profession.”
But I am not a fan of “Stoner.” First, along with other female readers, I am put off by Williams’s misogyny. Second, as a professor of English, I am dismayed by the pedantry and narrow-mindedness of his teaching and his treatment of a dissenting student.
The novel is not autobiographical. In contrast to the unadventurous, abstemious Stoner, Williams (1922-1994) was a hard-drinking, four-times-married, successful professor of creative writing, a World War II airman who had flown the Hump in the Himalayas. But his novel is tenderly protective of its passive hero and presents him as helplessly sinned against.
The worst of Stoner’s afflictions is his marriage. He is consistently rejected and irrationally sabotaged by his wife, Edith, who is portrayed as a neurotic harpy. Initially a sheltered society girl, shy and earnest about her duties to her husband, she is so sexually repressed that on their honeymoon she throws up when he embraces her. (They are both virgins.) But then Edith decides she wants to have a baby and abruptly becomes a “wild and demanding” erotomaniac, crouching naked on the unmade bed all day and “clutching and tearing” at his clothes when he comes home. As soon as she is pregnant, she tells Stoner that “she could not endure the touch of his hand upon her.” These inexplicable transformations occur throughout their lives. When their daughter is born, Edith becomes a bedridden invalid for a year, then goes through a series of personality changes, sometimes agoraphobic, sometimes desperately social. She joins a little theater group, designs and paints sets, attempts sculpture and starts obsessively practicing the piano two or three hours a day like a faculty-wife version of Zelda Fitzgerald. At the same time, she pressures him into overspending, separates him from his beloved daughter, takes over his study for her art studio and allows his books and manuscripts to be damaged or destroyed.
When Williams sent a draft of the novel to his agent Marie Rodell in summer 1963, she was uneasy about the wife’s character and wrote back that “Edith’s motivations” need amplification. He made some changes in his account of the couple’s courtship, which he thought made Edith’s subsequent behavior “more believable.” But he makes no effort to explain her feelings; she remains shrewishly and selfishly indifferent to Stoner’s professional travails and personal disappointments. She seems to exist only to torment her husband.
Although Stoner is also presented as a dedicated teacher, he can be punitive and harsh and is unable to admit his own culpability. Williams tells us that despite an almost religious calling to teach literature, Stoner finds it hard to communicate his passion. At last, after decades of trying, he enjoys some “modest popularity” in the classroom. But the fates will not allow him to succeed for long.
When a PhD candidate named Charles Walker pleads for late admission to his graduate seminar, Stoner assents with reluctance. His first impression of Walker is unpleasantly visceral: The young man has a crippled left arm and foot and “shuffles” with a grating sound as he walks. Walker shows up late for the class and interrupts Stoner’s lecture on grammar and rhetoric with annoying questions about the relevance of grammar to great poetry. After a few weeks, Stoner and the other students silence Walker’s interventions, but he finally gets his say in a seminar paper that challenges the premises of the course and critiques the paper of a female student whom Stoner particularly admires.
Stoner is outraged. After class, he charges Walker with dodging the assignment, avoiding research and violating seminar decorum. Startled, Walker protests that he “always thought that disagreement was healthy. I assumed that you were big enough to — .” Stoner goes ballistic. Accusing Walker of “laziness and dishonesty and ignorance,” he threatens to flunk him unless he writes a new paper or hands in the manuscript of his talk to see if “something can be salvaged.” When Walker refuses, because none of the other students have had to submit theirs, Stoner questions his capacity to “have a place in a graduate program.”
What is especially disturbing here is that Stoner recognizes Walker’s intelligence. He feels a “perverse admiration” for his presentation and admits to himself that Walker’s “powers of rhetoric and invention were dismayingly impressive.” Nonetheless, he gives Walker an F for the course and dismisses the matter from his mind.
But that spring, he must serve on the committee for Walker’s oral comprehensive exams, which determine his admission to the doctoral program. In his questioning, Stoner mercilessly exposes Walker’s ignorance of facts and details and insists that he must fail the entire exam: “For him to be a teacher would be a — disaster.” Stoner’s implacable stand antagonizes Walker’s brilliant and charismatic thesis adviser, Hollis Lomax, whose “body is grotesquely misshapen” by a hump on his back. This repeated portrayal of Stoner’s antagonists as physically deformed is, perhaps, one of the novel’s nastiest, most outdated strategies.
When Lomax becomes department chair, he punishes Stoner for decades, taking away his seminars and assigning him low-level courses at inconvenient hours. Stoner cannot look for another job because Edith refuses to move. She is not even bothered when he has an affair with the woman from the seminar, but Lomax finds out and drives the lover from the university. Stoner’s long exile from happiness and fulfillment, stoically endured, makes him a legend on campus.
Now, strangely, he is a moving exemplar for many readers, who see him as an inspiring model of integrity who faces his sad life with unflinching courage and finds redemption in faithfulness to his ideals. They revere Williams’s artistry as a writer of restrained, unsentimental prose that carries great emotional weight. Rediscovered at a time when the humanities are in decline, academic jobs are scarce and teaching takes a back seat to blogging, the novel’s message of humble and heroic service to literature has obvious appeal for sorrowing humanists, too. Stoner, one critic writes, is the “archetypal literary Everyman.”
But Williams’s insistence on making Stoner a blameless martyr, rather than a man with choices, and denying him any ironic self-awareness about the causes of his Job-like misfortunes leaves the novel far from perfect.
Elaine Showalter is a professor emerita of English at Princeton University.
By John Williams
New York Review Books. 336 pp. $19.95