By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by: Robin Field
John Williams’ book, Stoner, is not a page turning delight; partly because of the monotone delivery of Robin Field but principally because of the somber story of a life adrift. Stoner seems almost like an autobiography of an author in a mid-life crises. Though published in 1965 when Williams would have been in his early forties (Williams died at age 71), the story is about the adult life and death of a man who cannot take control of his life; i.e. a man who drifts through life, a life managed by others.
William Stoner is a farm boy who becomes a tenured professor of medieval literature. Stoner’s decision to leave home is his father’s. His father suggests he go to college to learn about the science of agriculture with the inferred goal of improving the family’s farming practices.
However, Stoner’s life is re-directed. Stoner becomes a teacher; largely driven by a cynical professor at the university who recognizes Stoner’s drift in life, a life compelled by circumstance more than choice. The cynic notices that Stoner has changed his major from agricultural science to literature and counsels him to become an assistant professor because he is suited for a life of literature, study, and teaching. Stoner realizes he does not wish to return to farming. He changes the course of his life based on the cynic’s observation and direction.
Stoner has two student friends at the University. One is a younger version of Stoner’s professor/adviser that suggests Stoner and their mutual friend need the university to keep them safe from the outside world. According to Stoner’s young friend, their mutual friend is a “go along to get along” follower that is unlikely to be happy outside of the protective environment of academia. This is just before WWI.
Boredom in the case of the young friend, and patriotic fervor in the case of the second friend, drives Stoner’s two friends to enlist. Stoner is unsure of what he should do and calls on the cynical professor for advice. The cynical professor tells Stoner it is up to him but suggests faculty and students leaving for the war threaten the future of education. Stoner chooses to stay at the University based on the implied direction of the cynic.
The war ends. Stoner discovers his friend, who joined the army out of boredom, is killed in France. The second friend returns to the University and, as a veteran of the war, becomes part of the school’s administration. The second friend, as foretold by the young friend lost in the war, leaves the helter-skelter of society for the shelter of academia.
After the war, Stoner meets his future wife at a University function. She is a demure beauty that seems oddly ill at ease. Stoner turns to his friend, the returning veteran, to ask if he would introduce the tall young woman to him. His friend laughingly agrees and makes the introduction. The woman is the daughter of a wealthy banker that supports the school. She is an only child of a dysfunctional family that abjures intimacy. Stoner is unsure of what to do but meets her parents and is swept up by the odd circumstance of a family that did not know what to do with their adult daughter. They agree to allow Stoner’s pursuit of marriage. The marriage occurs for the wrong reason; reason based on the daughter’s decision to escape from her family, rather than pursue love of a husband.
Stoner marries the young woman and finds there is no love; there is no intimacy. His wife replaces sterility of relationship with her parents with relationship to Stoner. Stoner is quiescent and unable to change the course of events because he cannot decide. He remains adrift in life. Williams adds to Stoner’s tragedy with a decision by Stoner’s wife to have a daughter with her husband. Stoner agrees. The daughter becomes an alcoholic. Stoner makes decisions by making no decision. Stoner becomes involved with a graduate student to escape the sterility of relationship with his wife but, even in the extramarital affair, decisions are made by others rather than by Stoner. The affair is ended by his lover. Stoner remains adrift.
Only one incident in William’s story shows Stoner capable of making a decision. Only in the narrow context of his academic career does Stoner show any inclination to take a stand. Stoner prevails in an argument with the Dean of his department by deciding to teach what he wants to teach rather than what he is assigned to teach. The irony of this one decision by Stoner is that tenure, with few exceptions, protects teachers from being fired. The prescience of Stoner’s student friend, who died in the war, is fully revealed.
Williams’ story is frustrating for reader/listeners who view life differently than Stoner. In one respect the book seems like a mid-life crises apology; in another, it seems a simple story of a cloistered, protected life of a person adrift, who does not care about living, or for that matter, dying. (A lesser point of the story is that Williams shows how academic tenure is both good and bad. It protects both good and bad teachers.)