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Stoner
Reviewed by Diana Martin, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2010;167:1537-1538. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.10081226
View Author and Article Information
Washington, D.C.

Book review accepted for publication August 2010

The author reports no financial relationships with commercial interests.

Accepted August , 2010.

Copyright © American Psychiatric Association

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Stoner is a straightforward, seemingly simple book: the story of one man's life. You can read a summary of all the significant events on the back cover. Born on a farm in the 1890s, William Stoner becomes a teacher of English at the University of Missouri in 1910, where he never rises above the rank of assistant professor. His marriage is bitterly disappointing. He has one brief affair, an oasis of pleasure in an otherwise austere life. This respite lasts for a few months, only 26 lyrical pages of the novel. He dies of cancer at age 63, with no record of particular accomplishments, and is soon forgotten. The story of his life is as bleak as his childhood spent toiling on the farm. So why is this book so deeply moving?

Partly, the answer is that the writing is clear, honest, and respectful. The story of Stoner's life, written by John Williams in 1965 and reissued in 2006, is told in precisely detailed language that fully engages the reader. We care about Stoner and the people he cares about; we believe in their humanity. But the excitement that sweeps us forward is the gathering certainty, conveyed by the clarity and conviction of the writing, that there is some pattern to be revealed, some meaning to this story that we can only dimly perceive. The revelation, both for Stoner and for the reader, is the climax of the book, which produces an intense experience of insight. The everyday surface of what we have been reading is stripped away, and an apprehension of an inner truth transforms our understanding of Stoner's life and, for a moment, of life itself. All good books yield some kind of insight, but Stoner in particular propels us into the experience of it.

The first 10 pages tell the story of Stoner's childhood. He is an only child of hard-working, unimaginative folk who lack the vocabulary for emotions or abstract ideas. "At thirty his father looked fifty; stooped by labor, he gazed without hope at the arid patch of land that sustained the family.…His mother regarded her life patiently, as if it were a long moment that she had to endure" (p. 4). His father sends Stoner to the University of Missouri to major in agriculture, and he plows unreflectively through his first-year classes, just as he has unreflectively plowed literally and figuratively, through the first years of his life.

In his second year at the university, Stoner unexpectedly discovers the first, transformative love of his life. An English professor reads out loud a Shakespeare sonnet. Stoner is broad-sided. Fourteen lines have opened an unknown world. Williams' writing, like Stoner's consciousness, becomes intensely concentrated in the moment. Every detail that Stoner sees—the light "slanting from the windows," the faces of the students around him, his own hands—becomes infused with significance. The precision of the description makes the reader feel intensely Stoner's heightened sense of himself and his surroundings, his first intimation of an internal reality. The experience gives him a compass from which he never wavers.

His marriage to an immature woman incapable of loving him becomes a lonely slog to be endured. His wife is described through small, telling details. There is no judgment or explanation here. We see Edith. She is insecure and brittle, a woman of her time, with no scope for her energies or imagination outside the home. Raised to be a little girl forever, she can neither understand nor reciprocate Stoner's feelings. She struggles desperately for a sense of herself, which she can only define in opposition to him. Edith is always trying to invent a new persona, whereas he, committed to a life of teaching and study, is unaffected by the eyes of the world. He leaves the farm, despite his father's plans; he takes a deferment from service in World War I, despite tremendous societal pressures. In an absorbing episode in the book, he stays true to his academic standards, despite forfeiting his chance of professional advancement. We can understand why Edith is jealous: she lacks an inner compass.

On the other hand, 20 years into the marriage, she is not jealous, only indulgent and a little contemptuous of Stoner's brief relationship with Katherine Driscoll, a gifted graduate student. Katherine is the only person to understand Stoner's commitment to the life of the mind. He gives himself to her fully, as he once gave himself to Edith, as he continues to give himself, unstintingly, to his work. When Katherine leaves, he returns to his lonely life, prematurely aged like his father, outwardly stooped, inwardly still deeply committed to his chosen path.

Not coincidentally, the sonnet, Number LXXIII, that first awakened his love of literature, is about the heightened perceptions that the imminence of death can give. When we come to the last section of the novel, which describes Stoner's terminal illness, we seem to rise with him to just such a higher plane of perception. Through his eyes, we see every nuance of color and shadow in the room where he lies, and with him, in this new, clear light, we begin to understand the inner trajectory of his outwardly unsuccessful life. The intensity and flow of the writing at the end of the book breaks on the reader with the same sense of profound insight that Shakespeare's sonnet brought to Stoner 40 years before. In this transcendent light, we finally recognize what we have been witnessing all along: a life of passion and integrity.

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