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
Cover artistEllen Raskin
CountryUnited States
GenreCampus novel
Set inColumbia, Missouri
PublisherThe Viking Press
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardcover)
LC ClassPZ3.W6744 St PS3545.I5286

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

Despite receiving little attention upon its publication in 1965, Stoner has seen a sudden surge of popularity and critical praise since its republication in the 2000s.


William Stoner is born on a small farm in 1891. After high school, the county agent advises he go to agriculture school. Stoner enrolls in 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 him, and he quickly falls in love with literary studies. Without telling his parents, Stoner quits the agriculture program and studies only the humanities. Archer Sloane, a professor, suggests to Stoner that his love of knowledge means that he should become a teacher. When his parents come for his graduation, Stoner tells them he will not be returning to the farm. He completes his MA in English and begins teaching. In graduate school, he befriends fellow students Gordon Finch and Dave Masters. Masters suggests that all three are using graduate school to avoid the real world, and that the academic life is the only life available to all three and they would be failures outside of it. World War I begins, and Gordon and Dave enlist. Stoner decides to remain in school during the war. Masters is killed in France, while Finch sees action and becomes an officer. When Stoner completes his PhD work, he is hired by the University, against its usual policy, because the war has reduced the number of faculty. When the armistice is signed, a party is held for the returning veterans, where Stoner meets an attractive young woman named Edith. Edith acts withdrawn to Stoner's advances, though agrees to his repeated visits. Very soon he proposes marriage. When her parents consent to the marriage, Edith tells Stoner she will try to be a good wife to him, and they marry a few weeks later. Finch returns from the war to the University, which gives him an administrative position and a small sinecure because of his war service.

Stoner’s marriage to Edith is bad from the start. It gradually becomes clear that Edith has profound emotional problems and treats Stoner inconsiderately throughout their marriage. Edith tries sporadically to be a homemaker and hostess, alternating between periods of intense, almost feverish activity and longer periods of indolence, indifference, and bouts of illness. After three years of marriage, Edith suddenly informs Stoner that she wants a baby. When she gets pregnant, she once again becomes uninterested in him. When their daughter Grace is born, Edith remains inexplicably bedridden for nearly a year, and Stoner largely cares for their child alone. At the university, Stoner has reworked his dissertation into a published book and 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 that Stoner fears they cannot afford. Despite the additional teaching he takes on to pay off the loan, he gradually enters a happy period: He grows close with his young daughter, who spends most of her time with him in his study. Because of the larger house, Stoner's study is his retreat, which he decorates, builds furniture for, and cleans. Returning from a few months with her mother in St. Louis after Black Friday and the suicide of her father, Edith reveals that she has decided to reinvent her manner, dress, and attitude. For short periods, Edith throws herself into outside activities like community theatre, though these interests never last long. She becomes alternately inattentive and oppressive in her relationship with Grace, and Stoner gradually realizes that Edith is waging a campaign to separate him from his daughter emotionally. Edith periodically disrupts Stoner’s study, eventually throwing him out of it so she can take up sculpture, which she never does. Stoner is increasingly forced to spend his free time working at the university instead of at home. For the most part, Stoner accepts Edith's mistreatment. He begins to teach with more enthusiasm, but still, year in and year out, his marriage with Edith remains perpetually unsatisfactory and fraught. Grace becomes an unhappy, secretive child who smiles and laughs often but is emotionally hollow.

At the University, Finch becomes the acting dean of the faculty. Stoner continues to become a better teacher and wins admiration from students, though his grasp of school politics is meagre and his colleagues mostly ignore him. He feels compelled by his conscience to fail a student named Charles Walker, a close protégé of a colleague, Professor Hollis Lomax. Stoner fails Walker first in a graduate seminar and then soon afterwards on Walker’s preliminary orals. Unlike Lomax, Stoner does not believe 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 graduate work. Thereafter, Lomax takes every opportunity to exact revenge upon Stoner for his intransigence on the Walker matter. Lomax begins assigning Stoner to teach the least desirable introductory classes, despite Stoner being 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 romantic love affair. Ironically, after the affair begins, Stoner’s relationships with Edith and Grace also improve. At some point, Edith finds out about the affair, but does not seem to mind it. When Lomax learns about it, however, he begins to pressure on Katherine, who also teaches in the English department. Stoner and Driscoll agree it best to end the affair so as not to derail the academic work they both feel called to follow. Katherine quietly slips out of town, never to be seen again by him.

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, he sees students leaving the university to fight in war. Stoner begins presenting advanced material to incoming first-year students. Lomax is limited in his ability to counter this, as general University policy involves each teacher having absolute authority over their coursework. After Finch, who by now has become a full dean and is one of the most powerful people on campus, laughs at Lomax's attempts to sabotage Stoner, Lomax finally relents and begins to assign Stoner advanced classes again. Stoner, older now and hard of hearing, though still a better teacher than most of his colleagues, is beginning to become a legendary figure in the English department. He begins to spend more time at home, ignoring Edith's signs of displeasure at his presence. Grace, meanwhile, 17 and a high school senior, 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, and forces Grace to enroll at 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 drinking problem.

As Stoner’s mandatory retirement age is approaching, he wishes to continue teaching as long as possible, though Lomax offers him a promotion to retire early. Stoner learns that he has cancer and must retire immediately. As Stoner’s life is coming to an end, his daughter Grace comes to visit him. Deeply unhappy and addicted to alcohol, Grace half-heartedly tries to reconcile with Stoner, and he sees that his daughter, like her mother, will never be happy. When Grace leaves, Stoner feels as though the young child that he loved died long ago. Gordon Finch visits Stoner almost daily, but when Stoner brings up Dave Masters, Finch withdraws internally from the dying Stoner. Stoner thinks back over his life. The pain medication that he is taking sometimes makes it difficult to think clearly. He thinks about where he failed, and 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 believes that he is wrong to think of himself as failing. During an afternoon when he is all alone, he sees various young students passing by on their way to class outside his window, and dies while touching a copy of the one book that he published years earlier as a young professor.


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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