Stoner by John Williams

Douglas Forsythe, Poet, Columnist

The dusty halls of academia provide refuge for the broken outcasts of society, but may bring more ruin upon those held within. There couldn’t be a more accurate phrase to encapsulate Stoner, a novel by John Edward Williams that has seen recent praise on the internet and overseas within the last decade despite having been written all the way back in 1965. The novel follows the character of William Stoner, from whom the title is derived. Starting out as a farm boy, Stoner soon goes to the University of Missouri to study agriculture and help his parents when he’s done. Yet it is in a mandatory English class that he finds his true passion and thus begins a path of study which leads him to become an English Professor. 

The novel focuses heavily on his career, with a heavy emphasis on how despite his passion for teaching, Stoner cannot manage to hold his personal or professional life together. The story’s focus shifts repeatedly between several issues, including his crumbling marriage, clashes with colleagues, and a particular student seemingly hellbent on attacking his work. Soon, even his own daughter grows distant from him, and by the end, he dies a broken man. He may have been able to find solitude in the hymns of Homer and the sonnets of Shakespeare, but his life is a tragedy, though one of little significance.  

Despite the general good quality of William’s prose, he clearly doesn’t have the ability to write women in a decent manner. Most of his female characters are unstable villains, generic love interests, or shells of actual characters, often having no dialogue at all. It is also worth mentioning his depiction of the villains in the novel. All of them, without any exception, have some form of physical deformity. Hunched backs, limps, etc, are all present. While their intellects are intact, and one of them is held in high regard by Stoner despite their conflict, they still demonstrate an old-fashioned trope, even at the time the novel was released.

Though the novel has these flaws, it is still a very good read. Finding praise from French literary circles and internet communities, it is a cult favorite among fans of literature and dark academia. I give it 4/5 stars.