John William’s novel Stoner

I just finished reading Stoner by John Williams. I can’t give a full account of how I feel about it since there hasn’t been enough time to fully process the story, but I do have a few quick thoughts.


In keeping with a plot that covers most of a man’s life, Stoner is kind of like other stories such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Citizen Kane, or Forrest Gump. On the other hand, it’s essentially the anti- Forrest Gump. Whereas Gump travels the world and only resides at his southern home from time-to-time (until the very end), the character of William Stoner stays in the same town for his whole adult life. Stoner is born, he lives, and he dies. The plot is comprised of his personal life and university life as an assistant professor. This sounds like a horribly boring novel, but it’s not. Stoner is a really entertaining read, but what keeps the pages turning isn’t just its entertainment value, it’s the nuggets of truth dispensed throughout the pages.

Consider the following excerpt, which for anyone who enjoys reading is completely familiar:

…there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.

Or this:

The True, the Good, the Beautiful. They’re just around the corner, in the next corridor; they’re in the next book, the one you haven’t read, or in the next stack, the one you haven’t got to.

I especially like young Stoner’s fellow instructor’s view of professors and university life, which is probably the best explanation of people who enter academia:

And so providence, or society, or fate, or whatever name you want to give it, has created this hovel for us, so that we can go in out of the storm. It’s for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge, not for any of the reasons that you hear.

And this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of Stoner’s life. He enters a loveless marriage, draws the ire of a coworker who becomes his boss and mortal enemy, has a love affair, finds a true passion for teaching, and–as I’ve said before–dies. This may sound like a horribly depressing novel, but it’s not. By the end, when Stoner’s life is drawing to a close, the reader is filled with a sense of tranquility.

Stoner never bears a grudge. In fact, I think he’s all too willing to forgive. He sticks by his morals, no matter what pain may come his way. Any difficulties thrown in his path are dealt with a stoicism that would have made Seneca proud. Stoner shows that loving your occupation and becoming good at it can fill a person with happiness.

If, Lord willing, we are given long lives, we will probably leave this world in much the same way Stoner does. In reading this novel, a person is shown how important it is to love as much as possible right now, and–in the end–any slights that come our way are truly insignificant.

Good ol’ Huck

Ernest Hemingway declared “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” If I may be so bold, I’d add that one of the most powerful internal conflicts in American literature is featured in one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.

In Chapter 31, Huck comes to the conclusion he won’t aid Jim. At first, he experiences a sense of relief he’s not “going to hell” for helping free a runaway slave. Soon, his conscience goes to work on him. Here’s the excerpt:

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”- and tore it up.

Huck makes a choice–one he believes to be right even though he thinks hell is the consequence.

I come back to this part of the novel from time to time and marvel at Huck’s moral compass. In every age, there are injustices against which we need to fight. Huck sees clearly through the immorality of his generation and makes the right choice, even though everyone around him has said (one way or another) it’s the wrong one.

This is an example of literature reminding us to be vigilant–we must search for what is just. Sometimes, like Huck, we find it through our conscience. Other times, men and women with eyes like Huck show us. As George Orwell said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

It’s not prudent to assume we have all the answers. What will civilization say about us 100 years from now? is a question to be pondered in the face of the zeitgeist. Also, how should we treat fellow human beings? What is kindness and how is it truly shown? What are the sacrifices we should make?

We can hope to possess Huck’s eyes and heart in the midst of our present situation.