Hidden at the heart of Stoner, John Williams’ harsh picture of a brutally flawed life, sits a subtle but persistent element which rescues the novel from its almost unbearable bleakness. Though the book’s course flows through war, death, alcoholism, economic depression, adultery and complete personal and professional failure, and although it is for its unfettered realism that it is now revered, there is somewhere within the text a counterweight which pulls the story back from the edge of despair, and renders its final effect something quite different.
Stoner recounts the full life of one William Stoner, from his upbringing on a dustbowl farm to his death as a greyed academic and through the harsh and unfulfilling years in-between. His early life is a struggle to subsist in the face of poverty, yet his abandonment of his parents for university life is a sorry alternative. His marriage is an immediate and complete failure, spoilt by mental instability and cruel personal warfare. A brief, more fulfilling love affair is ruined purposely by a vindictive colleague, as is a career which stalls at mediocracy. Even his progeny does not escape the poor hand dealt him, his only daughter equally damaged by his abysmal marriage.
Yet although this wide vein of sorrow runs straight through the novel, it somehow does not reach bedrock. It is not Williams’ prose which saves the book; although elegant and perfectly paced, Williams’ style is not of the sort of poetic beauty which, in stories such as Romeo & Juliet, overrides tragedy. Nor is it the emotional sensitivity woven through the novel which allows Stoner’s struggles to take on universal meaning; it is this, after all, which makes them so moving from the first.
What saves Stoner is its central subject. For at its core, this novel is not about the events of Stoner’s life, tragic or otherwise. It is about that life itself, and the steady, unstoppable force of time which marches Stoner through it. The essence of Stoner is sadness, but it is not the cruel, unfortunate sadness borne of suffering and failure. It is the beautiful melancholy inherent in the growing, aging, decaying and dying of the human being.
Stoner comes together as a novel in the final passages which recount, with piercing imagination, the death of its title character. From his deathbed Stoner sees for the final time those closest to him and as he does, he remembers them as they once were. He sees his daughter as a child; his wife when they were young and happy; his friend and himself as young students, with other friends long dead. As he does, the reader is sad not for the unpleasantness of all that has happened, but for the inevitable loss of that past. Had everything gone better, for Stoner, and for his daughter, wife and friends, this sadness, the constitutive sadness of the book, would remain the same.
In literary circles, the term sentimentality is used almost exclusively as an insult, a shorthand for laziness and crudity. In countless books it is certainly no more than this, but it need not be considered essentially so. In times of grief and great emotion even literary critics will suspend their cynicism and indulge in the wistful melancholy remembrance of a lost past which is true sentimentality. As Stoner draws to a close, and we watch a character we have followed from birth steadily but surely disappear, we allow him his indulgence in memory. We even join him. It would, surely, be inhuman to do otherwise.