William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a “proper” family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.
I've heard mention of this book for a few years now, and it often seems to be on those "must read before you die" kind of lists, so when I came across a copy recently I thought I would finally give it a go.
The story starts in the early 1900s, with the character William Stoner, a farm boy from Missouri. His parents are financially struggling but decide it might be wise to send him to the state university, which has just started up an agricultural degree program. William qualifies for a scholarship and while attending school, takes an English course which ends up changing the trajectory of his life. Originally, the plan was to obtain his agricultural degree, using the knowledge to come up with ways to turn a better profit on his parents' farm, improving the family finances. But in this English class, his professor calls on Stoner, posing a question to him regarding a Shakespearean work. Stoner doesn't know the answer to the question presented to him, and the professor ends up embarrassing him over it. Hating that feeling of shame, Stoner redirects his education to becoming an English Lit major (keeping the degree change a secret from his parents, btw).
After months of dedicated study, Stoner is given a position at the college as a student instructor to freshman students. It's during this time that he meets socialite Edith. Though she comes from a family of money, Edith has kind of a depressing home life. Edith's father himself comes from a family of money, only increasing the family fortune in his own adult life. When he met Edith's mother, he was looking to marry a girl from a good family, furthering his social respectability. Edith's mother came from a family of good background but dwindling wealth, so her interest in the marriage is largely fortune-influenced. When Edith's mother becomes pregnant, a son is hoped for... so, unfortunately Edith comes into the world already being a disappointment to the family. It seems everything else in her life only contributes to that bad start. By the time Stoner comes into her life, she's still very young but already very broken by life in general. She has no romantic interest in him, but for reasons I'm still not quite sure I entirely understand, she accepts his marriage proposal, vowing "I will try to be a good wife to you, I will really try." Almost like she knows it's a lost cause going in.
Well, I as the reader never really saw or felt her really trying. From the very start of the marriage, she acts like she's quite put out by even his presence. She is just a constant cloud of moody, mopey, resentful nastiness towards her husband, frequently holding it up to him that he ruined her chance to go to Europe before they were married. Stoner, trying to be the good husband despite her sourpuss self, takes up a second job in hopes of saving enough money up to give his wife this trip to Europe she keeps guilting him with... little difference it ends up making!
While he's trying to make this European vacation a reality, she changes course and decides she wants a baby, like NOW. Poor Stoner, so confused, asks umm... what about Europe? Without explanation or even allowing much discussion on the matter, she's just like "Nope, I want a baby now. You need to get on this." Again, he goes along with the craziness, a little peeved she won't hear his thoughts but thinking maybe a child would bring some balance to the relationship. Edith in heat is only amplified crazy. And I do mean in heat, her interest in him turns so insanely animalistic, wanting to be on him nearly non-stop, until she knows for sure that she is pregnant. Then she goes back to finding his physical presence nearly gag-inducing, only allowing him to have one cup of tea after dinner with her. That's the whole of their married life. Everything else is them pursuing separate interests and poor Stoner is emotionally flailing trying to make it work. When Edith gives birth to a baby girl, she barely gives the infant the time of day, leaving Stoner almost entirely responsible for keeping the child alive and loved, until the daughter is around 7 or 8 when Edith decides she wants a dress up play thing for a daughter. It's also around this point that the story takes a dark psychological turn. Edith begins to find subtle ways of keeping Stoner away from his daughter while also slowly forcing him to move his home office and sleeping quarters to the enclosed porch of the house. WTH?!
As if that weren't enough, Stoner is not only bullied by his wife but also develops a feud over a student with a colleague in the English Dept. who is promoted to the Department Chair. When Stoner finds a glimmer of happiness in a friendship, and later a love affair, with a former student, this colleague makes it his mission to use the relationship as a way to try to professionally ruin Stoner. Near the end of the novel, when Stoner develops a plan to finally fight back against one of his harassers, the story (I found, anyway) becomes a little reminiscent of James Hilton's Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
There was something very intriguing about Williams' writing style here, but I have to admit, the story dragged some for me near the end. There was also something about the character of Stoner that just bugged me. Maybe it was just the fact that this character's life largely just seemed to be one big bundle of suck. And he seemed to be such a doormat most of the time! It feels like it takes him forever to find a modicum of self-confidence or will to stand up for himself, fight back, even just to say "Umm, no, y'all are jacked and I'm not doing that..." Anything.
I'm glad I can finally say I looked into this one and scratch it off the ol' classics TBR, but damn, left me in such a downer mood afterwards. :-(