Stoner by John Williams

Stoner is a minor classic by John Williams about the depressing and undistinguished life of William Stoner. I loved the unbelievably brutal, uncaring, and detailed realism that every event and character is treated with. Characters go through everything from a mundane and petty family dispute to the tragedy of World War 1. The characters (mainly Stoner) are forced to cope or otherwise deal with the events in their own ways, watching the characters do this ends decisions end up making themselves and their relationships even more depressing and pathetic.

It explores the existential struggle of Stoner and some other characters, each character's struggle can be seen in everything from their everyday habits to their life-defining events. The book shows every single poor choice the characters make and all the personal flaws they refuse to solve that distance themselves from existential purpose. It is very frustrating to watch characters suffer needlessly as a result of their own unwillingness to achieve something good. Stoner's struggle is extremely relatable in many ways though, thanks to the well-executed realism. This relatability forces the reader to feel the impact of every scene and makes the whole book very engaging to read. It is difficult to discuss the appeal of this book without spoiling it. So I will stop here and give the book a firm recommendation for its accurate, relatable, and tragic depiction of an unfulfilling life.


The story begins with stoner being shipped off to college, his parents hoping to educate him on agriculture so he can return to their farm to help out. This takes a turn when Stoner acquires a taste for literature and decides to study it instead of agriculture. As a result of this choice he becomes somewhat dependent on the academic system, he and his friends realize they would not be able to succeed outside of academia. This dependence narrows his opportunities for personal fulfillment but also strengthens his dedication to his studies, as we will see later.

An academic friend of Stoner's dies in World War 1 and stoner is forced to feel guilty for not enlisting with him. Stoner then marries a woman named edith who clearly has severe emotional issues, she treats stoner with extreme disinterest at best and malice at worst. She will show interest in him only if her unstable mood enables it, or if he is the key to something she wants, namely a child. Their daughter is born and stoner finds much fulfillment in taking care of her but eventually edith isolates Stoner from his daughter out of some sort of jealousy and distorted protective drive. Stoner accepts all of this mistreatment, instead of changing his environment to improve his life he chooses to tolerate it as it is. Due to this he is forced to find fulfillment outside of marriage and family. He cheats on his wife with a colleague and finds it quite fulfilling but the relationship inevitably ends. It isnt a permanent solution.

He becomes very motivated to improve his teaching and even publishes a book. He becomes well liked by students at the university but corruption and his incompetence at campus politics get in the way of that when he tries to fail an underperforming student that a corrupt higher-up is biased towards favoring. He fails this student at great risk to his own standing in the university, this is one of the only great displays of agency from stoner and is a powerful moment. This shows that his passion for literature is uncompromising, unlike his marriage and his other pursuits.

In the end the only thing that can break Stoner out of his lack of existential purpose is him getting cancer and realizing his time is limited. Reminding us how much of a waste his life really has been. But he's forced to become content with it and achieves some level of tranquility just before dying by realizing how much he appreciates his academic work in literature. He becomes a bit of an existential hero despite his failings as he grasps a copy of his book in his last moment of consciousness.