Stoner (novel)

Stoner is a 1965 novel by the American writer John Williams. It was reissued in 1972 by Pocket Books, in 2003 by Vintage[1] and in 2006 by New York Review Books Classics with an introduction by John McGahern.[2]

First edition
AuthorJohn Williams
CountryUnited States
PublisherViking Press
Publication date
813/.54 22
LC ClassPS3545.I5286 S7 2003

Stoner has been categorized under the genre of the academic novel, or the campus novel.[3] Stoner follows William Stoner's undistinguished career and workplace politics, his marriage to Edith, his affair with his colleague Katherine, and his love and pursuit of literature.


William Stoner is born on a small farm in Mid-Missouri in 1891. After high school, Stoner expects to continue working on the farm, but the county agent advises that he go to agriculture school, instead. Stoner enters the University of Missouri, where all agriculture students must take a survey course in English literature during their sophomore year. The literature he encounters in this introductory course, such as Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, opens a gateway to a new world for Stoner, and he quickly falls in love with literary studies. Without telling his parents, Stoner quits the agriculture program and studies only the humanities. A professor suggests to Stoner that his love of knowledge means that he will be a teacher. When his parents come for his graduation, Stoner tells them he will not be returning to the farm. Stoner completes his MA in English and begins teaching. His teaching is uninspiring, but he still enjoys the classes he takes. In graduate school, he befriends fellow students Gordon Finch and Dave Masters. Masters suggests all three are using graduate school to avoid the real world. World War I begins, and Gordon and Dave enlist. After some soul-searching, Stoner decides to remain in school during the war. When the armistice is signed, a party is held for the returning veterans, where Stoner meets an attractive young woman named Edith. Stoner begins to call on Edith, who is visiting from out of town. When Stoner calls on her, Edith acts very distant and withdrawn. Stoner feels they are still strangers, but he has fallen in love with her. Very soon he proposes marriage. When her parents consent to the marriage, Edith insists that they marry soon. Edith tells Stoner she will try to be a good wife to him, and they marry a few weeks later.

Stoner’s marriage to Edith is bad from the start. It gradually becomes clear that Edith has profound emotional problems. She treats Stoner inconsiderately throughout their marriage. Within a year, Stoner loses all hope the marriage will ever improve. From the start, Edith appears uninterested in sex. Their first party at home ends in a sudden emotional outburst from Edith. For a while, Edith no longer wants to leave the house. Stoner begins to spend more time at work. He sleeps in a different room from Edith and their sex life is nearly nonexistent. After three years of marriage, Edith suddenly informs Stoner she wants a baby. For two months, she is absolutely voracious about sex with Stoner. When she becomes pregnant, she once again is uninterested in intimacy. When their daughter Grace is born, Edith remains inexplicably bed-ridden for nearly a year. By now, Stoner has reworked his dissertation into a published book and he is promoted to associate professor with tenure. Without consulting Stoner, Edith accepts a $6,000 loan from her father to buy a house, a loan which Stoner fears they cannot afford. Stoner also gradually realizes that Edith is waging a campaign to separate him and his daughter. For short periods, Edith throws herself into outside activities like community theater. She is alternately inattentive and oppressive in her relationship with their daughter. She periodically disrupts Stoner’s work space in the home. He is forced increasingly to spend his free time working at the university instead of at home. For the most part, Stoner accepts this poor treatment from Edith passively. The next few years are happy for Stoner despite the house debt and his poor relationship with Edith. Edith and he have reached a temporary stalemate. Stoner gradually realizes how centrally important Grace is to his life. He begins to teach with more enthusiasm, but still, year in and year out, his marriage with Edith remains perpetually unsatisfactory and fraught with problems.

Midway in his career, a situation arises in which Stoner is forced to offend a formidable colleague, Professor Hollis Lomax. Stoner feels compelled by circumstances to fail a student named Charles Walker, who was a close protégé of Lomax. Stoner fails Walker first in a graduate seminar and then soon afterward on Walker’s preliminary orals. Unlike Lomax, Stoner does not think that Walker’s verbal agility sufficiently compensates for his sparse knowledge of the literary canon. In addition, Stoner finds Walker to be lazy and dishonest, thus unsuited to the profession. Stoner does not wish to fail Walker, and Lomax pressures him not to do it, but Stoner believes it is the right thing to do. Thereafter, Lomax takes every opportunity to exact revenge upon Stoner for his intransigence on the Walker matter. Lomax begins only assigning Stoner to teach the least desirable introductory classes, though Stoner is actually by then one of the senior faculty members in the department. Around this time, a collaboration between Stoner and a younger instructor in the department, Katherine Driscoll, develops into a very romantic and passionate love affair. The relationship begins when Stoner agrees to help Katherine with her dissertation on the Roman grammarian Donatus. This romance between Katherine and him is the happiest period of Stoner’s life. Ironically, after the affair begins, Stoner’s relationships with Edith and Grace also improve. Knowledge of the “secret” affair somehow becomes general in the small university town. At some point, Edith finds out about the affair between Stoner and Driscoll, but she does not seem to mind it. When Lomax learns about it, however, he begins to bring pressure on Katherine, who also teaches in the English department. For the vindictive Lomax, this pressure on Driscoll is one more way to exact revenge on Stoner. Stoner and Driscoll agree it is best to end the affair so as not to derail the academic work they both feel called to follow. So, Katherine quietly slips away from town, never to be seen again by him. Katherine’s departure marks the end of the only extended period of unalloyed joy in Stoner’s life.

During the summer after Katherine leaves town, Stoner becomes ill and seems to age rapidly. As world events like the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War proceed apace, Stoner rededicates himself to his work. Once more, Stoner sees students leaving the university to fight in war. For years, Lomax has assigned Stoner no advanced classes to teach. Finally, Stoner begins presenting advanced material to incoming first-year students. Lomax finally relents and begins to assign Stoner advanced classes again. Stoner, older now and harder of hearing, is beginning to become a legendary figure in the English department. Stoner begins to spend more time at home, ignoring Edith's signs of displeasure at his presence. Edith turns her attention to trying to change Grace. After about a month, Edith abandons her assault on Grace. Grace gains almost 50 pounds before her 13th birthday, but at 17, as a high school senior, loses weight and begins to socialize more. Stoner has been saving money for Grace to attend an Eastern college, but Edith will not hear of Grace going away to college. Instead, Grace enters the University of Missouri. The following year, Grace announces she is pregnant. Her mother takes Grace’s pregnancy very badly, but Stoner is supportive. Grace marries the father of her child five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Grace’s husband enlists in the army, and dies before the baby is born. Grace goes to St. Louis with the baby to live with her husband's parents. She visits Stoner and Edith occasionally, and Stoner realizes that Grace has developed a serious drinking problem. Stoner’s mandatory retirement age is now approaching. Stoner wishes to continue teaching as long as possible, though Lomax offers him a promotion to retire sooner. Stoner soon learns he has cancer and must retire immediately. As Stoner’s life is slipping away, his daughter Grace comes to visit him. Gordon Finch visits Stoner almost daily, but Gordon withdraws internally from the dying Stoner. Stoner thinks back over his life. The pain medication he is taking sometimes makes it difficult to think clearly. He thinks about where he failed. He wonders if he could have been more loving to Edith, if he could have been stronger or if he could have helped her more. Later, he thinks he is wrong to think of himself as failing. Then, soon after the cancer is discovered, he dies while touching a copy of the book he published years earlier.


The novel focuses on William Stoner and the central figures in his life. Those who become his enemies are used as tools against him who separate Stoner from his loves. New Yorker contributor Tim Kreider describes their depictions as "evil marked with deformity."[4][5][6]

  • William Stoner: The novel's main character, called "Stoner" throughout the book, is a farm boy turned English professor. He uses his love of literature to deal with his unfulfilling home life.
  • Edith Bostwick Stoner: Stoner's wife, a neurotic woman, is from a strict and sheltered upbringing. Stoner falls in love with the idea of her, but soon realizes that she is bitter and has been long before they were married.
  • Grace Stoner: Stoner and Edith's only child, Grace is easily influenced by her mother. Edith keeps Grace away from and against her father as a sort of "punishment" for Stoner, because of the couple's failing relationship.
  • Gordon Finch: Stoner's colleague and only real ally and friend, he has known Stoner since their graduate school days, and becomes the dean of the college of Arts and Sciences. His affable and outgoing demeanor contrasts with that of Stoner.
  • David Masters: Stoner's friend from graduate school, he is killed in action during the Great War, but his words have a continuing impact on Stoner's worldview.
  • Archer Sloane: Stoner's teacher and mentor growing up, he inspired Stoner to leave agriculture behind and begin studying English literature. He is old and ailing by the time Stoner is hired at the university.
  • Hollis Lomax: Sloane's "replacement" at the university, Stoner and he began as friends, but Stoner eventually sees him as an "enemy". Stoner and Lomax do not see eye-to-eye in their work life. He is described as a hunchback.
  • Charles Walker: Lomax's crippled mentee, he is an arrogant and duplicitous young man who uses rhetorical flourish to mask his scholarly ineptitude. He also becomes an enemy to Stoner.
  • Katherine Driscoll: A younger teacher, she has an affair with Stoner. University politics and circumstantial differences keep them from continuing a relationship.


In the novel's introduction, John McGahern says Stoner is a "novel about work." This includes not only traditional work, such as Stoner's life on the farm and his career as a professor, but also the work one puts into life and relationships.[7]

One of the central themes in the novel is the manifestation of passion. Stoner's passions manifest themselves into failures, as proven by the bleak end of his life. Stoner has two primary passions: knowledge and love. According to Morris Dickstein, "he fails at both."[8]

Love is also a widely recognized theme in Stoner. The novel's representation of love moves beyond romance; it highlights bliss and suffering that can be qualities of love. Both Stoner and Lomax discovered a love of literature early in their lives, and it is this love that ultimately endures throughout Stoner's life.[9]

Another of the novel's central themes is the social reawakening, which is closely linked to the sexual reawakening of the protagonist.[3] After the loss of his wife and daughter, Stoner seeks fulfillment elsewhere, beginning the affair with Katherine Driscoll.

Edwin Frank, the editor at NYRB Classics responsible for the 2005 reissue of the novel, suggests that Stoner contains many existential elements. "I don’t think it’s a mistake to hear Camus behind it," Frank suggests, "this story of a lone man against the world choosing his life, such as it is. I sometimes say the books a bit like an Edward Hopper painting, wooden houses casting stark shadows on blank green lawns."[10]


John McGahern's Introduction to Stoner and Adam Foulds of The Independent praise Williams' prose for its cold, factual plainness.[9][11] Foulds claims that Stoner has a "flawless narrative rhythm [that] flows like a river."[11] Williams' prose has also been applauded for its clarity, by both McGahern and Charlotte Heathcote of The Daily Express.[6][9] In an interview with the BBC, author Ian McEwan calls Williams' prose "authoritative".[12] Sarah Hampson of The Globe and Mail writes that Williams' "description of petty academic politics reads like the work of someone taking surreptitious notes at dreary faculty meetings."[13] Williams' prose has also been lauded for its precision, making the novel's emotions universally relatable.[6][13]


John Williams had a similar life to that of his character in Stoner. He was an English professor at the University of Denver until he retired in 1985. Like Stoner, he experienced coworker frustrations in the academic world and was devoted to this work, making his novel a reflection of parts of his own life,[14] though in the preface to the novel Williams states that it is entirely "a work of fiction"[5] and bears no resemblance to any people or events he experienced in his time at the University of Missouri.

The life of academic poet J. V. Cunningham also seems to have partially inspired the novel.[15]


Stoner was initially published in 1965 and sold fewer than 2,000 copies.[16] It was out of print a year later, then reissued as a mass-market paperback in 1972 by Pocket Books, reissued again in 1998 by the University of Arkansas Press and then in 2003 in paperback by Vintage and 2006 by New York Review Books Classics. French novelist Anna Gavalda translated Stoner in 2011, and it became Waterstones' Book of the Year in Britain in 2012. In 2013, sales to distributors tripled.[13] Although Stoner was not a popular novel when it was first published, there were a handful of glowing reviews such as that from The New Yorker on June 12, 1965, in which Williams was praised for creating a character who is dedicated to his work but cheated by the world. Those who gave positive feedback pointed to the truthful voice with which Williams wrote about life's conditions, and they often compared Stoner to his other work, Augustus, in characters and plot direction. One piece of negative criticism came from Williams' own publisher in 1963, who questioned Stoner's potential to gain popularity and become a best seller.[17] Irving Howe and C.P. Snow also gave praise to the novel when it was first published, although sales of the novel did not reflect this positive commentary. It was not until several years later during Stoner’s republication that the book became more well-known. After being re-published and translated into a number of languages, the novel has "sold hundreds of thousands of copies in 21 countries".[18]

Williams' novel is jointly praised for its narrative and stylistic value. In a 2007 review of the recently reissued work, scholar and book critic Morris Dickstein acclaims the writing technique as remarkable and says the novel "takes your breath away".[19][8] Bryan Appleyard's review quotes critic D.G. Myers saying that the novel was a good book for beginners in the world of "serious literature".[19] Another critic, author Alex Preston, points out that the novel shows the depressing progression through a person’s life that was written by "the dead hand of realism".[5] In 2010, critic Mel Livatino noted that "[in] nearly fifty years of reading fiction, I have never encountered a more powerful novel—and not a syllable of it sentimental."[20] Writer Steve Almond wrote a review of Stoner in The New York Times Magazine in 2014. Almond claims Stoner focuses on the "capacity to face the truth of who we are in private moments" and questions whether or not any of us are truly able to say we are able to do that. Almond states, "I devoured it in one sitting. I had never encountered a work so ruthless in its devotion to human truths and so tender in its execution."[21] Sarah Hampson of The Globe and Mail sees Stoner as an "antidote" to a 21st-century culture of entitlement. She says that the novel came back to public attention at a time when people feel entitled to personal fulfillment, at the cost of their own morality, and Stoner shows that there can be value even in a life that seems failed.[13] In 2013 it was named Waterstones Book of the Year and The New Yorker called it "the greatest American novel you've never heard of."[22] Writing in the Washington Post in 2015, literary critic Elaine Showalter was less enthusiastic, noting that she, "along with other female readers, [is] put off by Williams’s misogyny." [23]


In 2015, a film adaptation of the novel was reportedly in production by Blumhouse Productions, Cohen Media Group and Film4. Casey Affleck is set to star as Stoner.[24]


  1. ^ Barnes, Julian (2013-12-13). "Stoner: the must-read novel of 2013". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-11-02.
  2. ^ John Williams, Stoner, New York: New York Review Books, 2003.
  3. ^ a b Wiegenstein, Steve (1990–94), "The Academic Novel and the Academic Ideal: John Williams' Stoner", The McNeese Review 33.
  4. ^ Kreider, Tim (2013-10-20). "The Greatest American Novel You've Never Heard Of". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2015-11-02.
  5. ^ a b c "Stoner by John Williams". Alex Preston. 2013-12-13. Retrieved 2015-10-28.
  6. ^ a b c "Book Review: Stoner by John Williams". Retrieved 2015-10-28.
  7. ^ Williams, John (2003). Stoner. New York Review Books. p. xii. ISBN 978-1-59017-199-8.
  8. ^ a b Dickstein, Morris (2007-06-17). "The Inner Lives of Men". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-10-28.
  9. ^ a b c McGahern, John, Introduction. Stoner. By John Williams. New York: New York Review Books, 2003. Print.
  10. ^ "How the NYRB Chooses Its Reissues: The Story of Stoner". Literary Hub. 2016-04-04. Retrieved 2019-03-26.
  11. ^ a b Foulds, Adam (2013-12-06). "Stoner, By John Williams: Book of a lifetime". The Independent. Retrieved 2015-10-28.
  12. ^ "Novelist McEwan praises Stoner - BBC News". BBC News. 2013-07-05. Retrieved 2015-10-28.
  13. ^ a b c d Hampson, Sarah (2013-12-07). "Stoner: How the story of a failure became an all-out publishing success". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 2015-10-26.
  14. ^ David, Milofsky (2007-06-28). "John Williams deserves to be read today". The Denver Post.
  15. ^ Myers. "Defeats and Victories Not Recorded in the Annals of History". Commentary. Retrieved 7 November 2019.
  16. ^ Rabalais, Kevin (2014-04-05). "Literary rebirth". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2015-11-02.
  17. ^ Barnes, Julian. "Stoner: the must-read novel of 2013". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-10-31.
  18. ^ Ellis, Bret Easton. "John Williams's great literary western | Bret Easton Ellis". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-10-28.
  19. ^ a b "Bryan Appleyard » Blog Archive » Stoner: The Greatest Novel You Have Never Read". Retrieved 2015-10-28.
  20. ^ Mel Livatino, "A Sadness Unto the Bone - John Williams's Stoner, The Sewanee Review, 118:3, p. 417.
  21. ^ Almond, Steve (2014-05-09). "You Should Seriously Read 'Stoner' Right Now". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-10-28.
  22. ^ "Stoner by John Williams awarded Waterstones book prize". BBC. 2013-12-03. Retrieved 2013-12-03.
  23. ^ Showalter, Elaine (2015-11-02). "Classic 'Stoner'? Not so fast". Washington Post. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  24. ^ Barraclough, Leo (2015-05-15). "Cannes: Blumhouse, CMG, Film4 Team on 'Stoner' (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved 2015-10-28.

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