Book Review: John Williams’ Stoner

Posted July 26, 2013 by Kathy Davie in

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: John Williams’ Stoner


in Paperback edition on June 20, 2006 and has 288 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

A fictional biography of an English literature professor who tried.

My Take

I have to agree with Steve Almond’s assessment of Stoner. Williams does treat his characters with brutal honesty, and it’s a story that is so incredibly depressing. A life that is not so much lived as endured. It is a life that is a series of disappointments, that makes one question why one must live at all. Except for one brief period of actual joy in his life before it’s torn from him by an enemy.

Williams does write beautifully, if depressingly:

“Her needlepoint was delicate and useless, she painted misty landscapes of thin water-color washes, and she played the piano with a forceless but precise hand…”

I do commend Stoner for the stance he takes on Walker, and I can’t believe Lomax was allowed to get away with this…I’m astonished. And, even more depressed. I do love the steps Stoner finally takes to readjust his schedule.

He realized it was the first time [in five years] anyone had spoken his name since he had come there.

Stoner is a decent man who deserved so much better. And the best he received is in Williams’ writing of him.

Williams’ depiction of the time period and the intra-departmental politics was very well done. It certainly brought home to me how very lucky we are to be living now with the relaxed manners of today and our acceptance of mental health—although I’m not sure it would have done any good if Williams had set Stoner in today. Perhaps it might have allowed for a change in Will and Edith’s circumstances, perhaps greater education would have saved them both.

Yes, if you are a writer or simply appreciate excellent writing, I do recommend Stoner. However, be aware that it’s so incredibly depressing that it may be difficult to read. God knows it took me five weeks to get through this…and mostly because I’m stubborn and wanted to understand why, suddenly, Stoner was being promoted everywhere as such a good read.

The Story

It’s a life like most. An unexpected opportunity results in a switch of Will Stoner’s aim in life, and he becomes a teacher of English literature at the university in Columbia.

War breaks out and the inevitable indecisions arise with life proceeding along. It’s after the war that Will meets Edith in an awkward courtship which leads to an horrific marriage. And on down, down, and down.

The Characters

The son of an impoverished farmer and his wife, William Stoner is sent off to University with hopes of what Will can learn at the College of Agriculture. Jim Foote is his mother’s cousin and has a farm where Will works for his room and board. Edith Elaine Bostwick is the daughter of a well-to-do family in St. Louis with an interest in the arts. Emma Darley is Edith’s aunt. Horace and Mrs. Bostwick are Edith’s parents. Grace is Will and Edith’s daughter, committing a slow suicide. Ed Frye is the man Grace marries.

Professor Archer Sloane arranges for Will to teach at the school, and war creates its own demands. David Masters and Gordon Finch are schoolmates and acting instructors in the department with whom he becomes friendly. Caroline Wingate is the girl whom Finch marries. Josiah Claremont is the dean of Arts and Sciences. Hollis Lomax and Jim Holland are a couple of the professors; Rutherford is dean of the Graduate College. Professor Joel Erhardt arrives later to the department. Dr. Jamison works for the University.

Katherine Driscoll audits the class in which Walker is the fool; she is an instructor in the English department while she writes her dissertation. Charles Walker is a pet student of Lomax’s. I do wish we had eventually learned the why of it.

The Cover and Title

The cover is grim with its mustardy yellow background and Will Stoner, hands in the pockets of his ill-fitting suit, contemplating his life.

The title is the man about whom we’ll read, Stoner.