Friday, May 1, 2015

Fiction | The Quiet Passion of an Academic

John Williams' Stoner has been loved and recommended by many readers whose opinions I trust. Its quiet, haunting portrait of a farm-boy-turned-academic has awed many readers with its purposeful prose, carefully revealing the everyday monotonies that define an average life.

William Stoner's life is one that begins at the end of the 19th century in Missouri. His parents are the stoic, hardened farmer type, and his upbringing was devoid of the typical small pleasures and comforts of childhood and adolescence. William enrolled in the state university on track for a degree in Agriculture to eventually take over the family farm, but his plans changed after taking one literature class, chosen simply as a way to fill his mornings.

He began to resent the time he had to spend at work on the Foote farm. Having come to his studies late, he felt the urgency of study. 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.

Time in Stoner passes quietly, mirroring the life and experiences of its main character. As William's life "settles" and his choices are cemented, we get the impression that his life is one of rather disappointment. The relationship he had with his parents (though lacking by most familial standards) is strained after his entry into a marriage with a "proper" family. His career, once full of passion and for which he abandoned all previous plans, flatlines with little hope of growth. And said wife becomes an aloof and indifferent nuisance that inhibits any prospect of joy that William may find in other aspects of his life.

By the latter part of his life, William finds himself very much alone, fated to that same quiet stoicism he tried very much to avoid. The passions that led him to make impulsive decisions—to changing his life's direction, to following his heart, to making noise instead of recoiling into silent solitude—were ultimately never very rewarding. Perhaps his passion only lasted as long as his decision-making; perhaps it was the luck of the draw; or perhaps he was destined to be his parents' child, impassively accepting what life throws his way.

It takes a passionate reader to appreciate the beauty in Williams' words because they are so gently stated. Some consider it beautiful; some may find it boring. Regardless, it's a portrait of a character that must've certainly been common in a time when options were fewer and one's actions or decisions felt unbreakable, enduring.

Thank goodness times have changed.

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