William Stoner left the very humble family farm on which he was raised to attend the University of Missouri in Columbia. It had been suggested to his father that he might study agriculture and advance the family business (which was actually more subsistence than business), but Stoner found his mind's content in a sophomore literature survey and went on to finish his doctorate in English and teach at that same university for the rest of his life. At the opening of the novel, we are told that Stoner has died and has left no substantive mark upon the university to which he devoted his life:
"Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound that evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers. "
And then Williams spends the rest of the novel writing quietly and precisely against the image of an insignificant life that this quote suggests. Stoner lived the life of the mind as he wished hampered not by any limitations of his talents but by an ethical decision that created a departmental feud that impacted him professionally. On a personal level, Stoner knew love but was unable to keep it because of an ill-considered choice of a first love, his wife.
The evolution of Stoner's thoughts around his profession and the life of the mind transition from the appealing but youthful and not unique global consideration of the books before him...
“Sometimes, immersed in his books, 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.”
... to a more profound epiphany of how his life is shared with those he teaches:
"He spoke more confidently and felt a warm hard severity gather within him. He suspected that he was beginning, ten years late, to discover who he was; and the figure he saw was both more and less than he had once imagined it to be. He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man. It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence."
Stoner's love for Katherine, a doctoral candidate who sits in on one of his graduate seminars, grows awkwardly and fiercely out of a common passion for the written word. In some ways, they see each other personally first through their work. I read somewhere I can't remember that their relationship was unconvincing and that Stoner had need of a vessel to hold the love he had been unable to find and express with his wife just as he has found a vessel in the university which held his need of a retreat from the world. But that is an idea I find unconvincing given Stoner's reaction to Katherine's book, dedicated "To W.S.," years after their affair had ended:
"It was as good as he had thought it would be. The prose was graceful, and its passion was masked by a coolness and clarity of intelligence. It was herself he saw in what he read, he realized; and he marveled at how truly he could see her even now. Suddenly it was as if she were in the next room, and he had only moments before left her; his hands tingled, as if they had touched her. And the sense of his loss, that he had for so long damned within him, flooded out, engulfed him, and he let himself be carried outward, beyond the control of his will; he did not wish to save himself. Then he smiled fondly, as if at a memory; it occurred to him that he was nearly sixty years old and that he ought to be beyond the force of such passion, of such love. But he was not beyond it, he knew, and would never be."
Beautifully written in its own right, and at this point of the book, just staggering in its emotional impact. But that is the whole of this novel. Simple, precise, without artifice or manipulation, stirring. And a new addition to all-time favorites. Highly recommended.