“But bad as we are, we’re better than those on the outside, in the muck, the poor bastards of the world.”

One of the things that interested me most about Stoner—at least, potentially—was its being about a child of farmers, raised to be a farmer himself, who goes on instead to perform a serious feat of class mobility and turns up an English professor.

Rohan Maitzen described Stoner’s parents in her post on the novel last year as people who “notably” “misunderstand and thus inhibit him.” I would agree that they fail to understand him, but I see in fact a surprisingly small amount of inhibition here. In fact, none. Much more notable to me is how quickly Stoner moves on and away from his parents and their lives. When he decides to change his major, he doesn’t tell them. This is understandable, given the fact that they will probably disapprove, and in some sense they are only giving him up as a farmhand to send him away to become a better one. Still, his failure to inform them at all of his change in plans—which is a drastic change, as he will not be returning to the farm at all—until his after commencement seems unduly harsh. They are, in fact, expecting him to return home with them then and there, and he lets them know that not only will he not be coming, he will be staying at school for several more years, and that everything is very different. Their reaction is stoical:

Finally his father moved in his chair. Stoner looked up. His parents’ faces confronted him; he almost cried out to them.

“I don’t know,” his father said. His voice was husky and tired. “I didn’t figure it would turn out like this. I thought I was doing the best for you I could, sending you here. Your ma and me has always done the best we could for you.”

“I know,” Stoner said. He could not look at them longer. “Will you be all right? I could come back for a while this summer and help. I could—”

“If you think you ought to stay here and study your books, then that’s what you ought to do. Your ma and me can manage.”

Stoner’s guilt here is evident, but he doesn’t seem to feel much of it for most of his life. He almost never visits his parents, beginning to do so only after his father dies, and doesn’t seem to devote much thought to them either.

He is in a new class now: the academic one. The chapter that immediately follows the quote above describes Stoner’s relationship with his two best friends, Gordon Finch and Dave Masters, for the first time. They are fellow instructors and PhD candidates. Masters is brilliant and Stoner admires him very much. He asks, one day, whether “you gentlemen have ever considered the question of the true nature of the University?” Masters tells them each what he assumes they think (and he has them pegged). In Stoner’s case, the University is “a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free will and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, the Beautiful. They’re just around the corner, in the next corridor….” Stoner’s views are colored by his upbringing and his very new entry into the wider world, especially into that of academia. Masters has a different idea, one that Stoner will come to adopt:

“But you’re both wrong,” he said. “It is an asylum or—what do they call them now?—a rest home, for the infirm, the aged, the discontent, and the otherwise incompetent. Look at the three of us—we are the University. The stranger would not know that we have so much in common, but we know, don’t we? We know well.”

On Stoner in particular:

“Nor do you escape, my friend. No indeed. Who are you? A simple son of the soil, as you pretend to yourself? Oh, no. You, too, are among the infirm—you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky. You’re bright enough—brighter anyhow than our mutual friend. But you have the taint, the old infirmity. You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. …[Y]ou’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. …You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong. And you have no place to go in the world.”

Don’t take this for a second as any sort of anti-intellecutal indictment of the academy; and Masters sees himself just as infirm as the rest. He recognizes that they don’t fit into the normal social structure, and with many others like themselves, they have created a refuge where they can thrive—and where they can work, and lead lives that they find relatively meaningful. Where “[w]e do no harm, we say what we want, and we get paid for it; and that’s a triumph of natural virtue, or pretty damn close to it.”

This is why Charles Walker is such a threat. Walker is, in the words of the novel, “a cripple,” but he is not infirm in the way that Stoner, or Finch, or Masters are infirm. When oral exams come around, he proves himself to be exactly the kind of son-of-a-bitch Finch isn’t (in Masters’s words), and one of Stoner’s principal reasons for wanting to fail him is just that. He recalls to Finch the words of their long-dead friend:

Stoner looked across the room, out of the window, trying to remember. “The three of us were together, and he said—something about the University being an asylum, a refuge from the world, for the dispossessed, the crippled. But he didn’t mean Walker. Dave would have thought of Walker as—as the world. And we can’t let him in. For if we do, we become like the world, just as unreal, just as…The only hope we have is to keep him out.

Rise described this, in a comment to my first post on Stoner, as Stoner’s being “now the high priest of literature intent on safeguarding his church from heretics.” This is not wrong, but class raised its head here much higher than religion for me. Not that it makes much difference. Stoner is a class-protector, and his class is a particularly small and rarefied one.

His wife comes from a similarly small and rarefied class, but still a different one—the monied one. And in many ways Stoner has this same battle with her, among all their other battles. She wants to live in the style to which she is accustomed. He does not, in fact, want to live in the style he grew up in, but he does want to live a third way—the way of the unassuming academic. As she passive-aggressively destroys their marriage, a recurring theme is the way that she tries to find her place in and around that world, or refuses to. For all her flaws, she is trying out different ways to live, and one by one rejecting them, at least in part because she can never accept the actual lifestyle that Stoner had already chosen for them both before they ever met.

5 comments to “But bad as we are, we’re better than those on the outside, in the muck, the poor bastards of the world.”

  • BRC

    What a lovely example of your imaginative sympathy! I started Stoner a few years ago, but dropped it, as I couldn’t quite “get” what people so loved about the book. You are helping me to understand it now; Stoner has good fortune in its close readers.

  • Thanks, BRC. I can certainly imagine dropping it myself–I think this is one where the time has to be right with the reader, mood, etc., because it’s definitely “slow” and seemingly somewhat dull. But there is quite a lot here–that’s the funny thing about such a realistic portrayal of a whole life. Boring, but in fact there’s a lot there!

  • Maybe my favorite academic novel of all time? I tried to explain why here: http://www.waggish.org/2008/john-williams-stoner/

    Another favorite passage–

    “In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age, he began to know that it was neither a stae of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as an act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”
    David Auerbach recently posted..The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: Georges Dreyfus on BuddhismMy Profile

  • I like your analysis of motives of Stoner, his wife, and his friends. It really is an elliptical novel. It’s fascinating how Stoner comes back to previous ideas and restate them. The idea of Walker as the (unreal) world, he comes back to again later. I noted it near the end of my review. I think also that he thought of protecting class and prestige, but later he revised this view, possibly considering it in terms of righteousness and human fallibility. The University need not be shielded from the world, it is a microcosm of that world.
    Rise recently posted..A lateral reading of W. G. Sebald’s apocalypseMy Profile

  • David—Yes, I love that quote as well. One of my favorite parts of the book. I have totally neglected Katherine Driscoll, probably because I like her better than anything else in it.

    Rise—Excellent point at the end of your review. I’m hoping to squeeze in one more post on this this afternoon and you may have given me a good idea.