I hoped to squeeze in a fifth Stoner post on Friday, but you know what Fridays are like—not super motivational. So you get one on Monday instead! On Thursday I discussed Stoner’s class mobility and status as a class protector. Rise pointed, in a comment, to his review of the novel, where he notes the elliptical nature of Stoner’s feelings about these matters: by the end of his affair with Katherine Driscoll, he admits to her that as it turns out, they are of this world: “[W]e should have known that. We did know it, I believe; but we had to withdraw a little, pretend a little…” But that is not to say that everyone is the same, and there are no boundaries and divisions—that Stoner isn’t still separated from his parents and his upbringing, and that he isn’t separated from the way Edith lived, and so forth.
All that is a winding preamble to the real question of my post: why doesn’t William Stoner have a harder time than he does entering his new class? When he first arrives in Columbia, where he has never been before, and the bus driver points out the university, the narrator says that “[h]e had never before seen anything so imposing.” But “[b]eneath his awe, he had a sudden sense of security and serenity he had never felt before.” Hi is immediately home, in some sense of the word.
At first I thought this was simply a relic of his rural upbringing. A man brought up to wrestle with something as difficult as the earth itself, the seasons, the sun, and all the wild creatures—what could intimidate him? But I don’t think that’s right, especially in light of the lines quoted above. There is simply never any question of Stoner’s not fitting in—and I don’t mean with Hollis Lomax, his nemesis in the department—refusing to play the game isn’t the same thing as not knowing anything about how the game is played.
The only time Stoner seems to feel truly inadequate to a situation (and I mean that in the sense of out of place, not in the way he realizes the imperfections in his own work) is when he first meets Edith. He
paused in the doorway, caught by his vision of the young woman. Her long, delicately featured face smiled at those around her, and her slender, almost fragile fingers deftly manipulated urn and cup; looking at her, Stoner was assailed by a consciousness of his own heavy clumsiness.
He remains similarly uncomfortable as he courts her. But all the while, it seems much more about the courting than about Edith’s wealth. Even when he meets her parents, in “the largest and most elegant house that Stoner had ever been in,” he is not really intimidated. He expected their “cool formality,” and while the fragility of his chair makes him a bit nervous to move in it, there is little more to his nervousness than would be expected around the “talk” with a woman’s father before marrying her. And when Mr. Bostwick brings up the difference in Edith’s circumstances and Stoner’s own,
Stoner felt a sickness rise within him, and an anger. He waited a few moments before he replied, and he made his voice as flat and expressionless as he could.
“I must tell you, sir, that I had not considered these material matters before. Edith’s happiness is, of course, my— If you believe that Edith would be unhappy, then I must…” He paused, searching for words. He wanted to tell Edith’s father of his love for his daughter, of his certainty of their happiness together, of the kind of life they could have. But he did not go on. He caught on Horace Bostwick’s face such an expression of concern, dismay, and something like fear that he was surprised into silence.”
Bostwick doesn’t want to talk about it, and seems to take Stoner to mean that he and Edie have already discussed this anyhow. But if Stoner is telling the truth here, that he had not “considered these material matters before,” that strikes me as very odd. And there is little reason to think he is lying—he almost never does. The “sickness” and “anger” are, I think, the closest we ever come to Stoner feeling uncomfortable because of his class—and that’s with him already considering himself a professional.
This is the one thing that makes me question the realism of the novel, of the characterization of William Stoner. He is never embarrassed about his clothes, even though “[i]n every season he wore the same black broadcloth suit, white shirt, and string tie; his wrists protruded from the sleeves of the jacket, and the trousers rode awkwardly about his legs, as if it were a uniform that had once belonged to someone else”—no, instead of being embarrassed, even in his second year of school he already sees it as someone else’s uniform, and it doesn’t matter that he happens to be wearing it. He never wonders how you’re supposed to act in class, let alone how you’re supposed to act teaching a class. He doesn’t ask himself whether all the people he knows aren’t secretly thinking he belongs back at the farm—or whether the people he doesn’t know so well can guess that’s where he came from. He is not remotely haunted by his past.
Perhaps Stoner is just supremely self-confident. Or self-contained. I think more the latter. But this struggle is something I was hoping to find portrayed in Stoner, and it’s not there at all. Have I missed it?