William Stoner and the act of loving

Ostensibly, the point of Stoner is an obvious one. It seems Williams’ goal in the novel, by simultaneously focusing on Stoner’s unassuming and ordinary nature and on the more extraordinary details of the story of his life, is to impart on the reader a respect for an ordinary life. I have in fact seen people completely disagree with me, regarding Stoner as a call for people to break free, to ‘really live’. Perhaps my least favourite review of the book said “Maybe one can praise John Williams for helping the reader realize that inaction is taking away what it means to be free and to live.”, as if Stoner’s was a life of inaction, as if he did not ‘live’. To me, this completely misses Williams’ point. As i’ll explore in this review, Stoner can be seen to argue that simply loving is doing enough to be alive. ‘Living’ has no gatekeeper, and Stoner did as good a job as anyone else did, simply by loving and seeking to know others.

Williams’ wonderful account of Stoner’s story, of an education, a family, a career, a marriage and affair, and his death, appears to present a rejection of the very concept of an ‘ordinary’ life, it is in fact his point that there is no such thing as finding ‘what it means to live’, there is only living. The most interesting way I see Williams do this is with his exploration of love. Stoner’s life, like many others, is defined by the way he expresses love, especially with his wife, Edith, and with Katherine, the woman with whom he had an affair. During the novel, Stoner becomes object to a spectrum of different intimate experiences with others, all of which could fall by definition as under the umbrella of ‘love’. Bringing together different experiences of love under the roof of one lifetime, a reading of Stoner can teach us that the way love can manifest itself in our lives is not uniform or homogenous. It is unpredictable, different, and hard to define, but Stoner makes an impressive effort at providing a definition, it argues that loving is living.

Stoner experiences love in different ways. The main one to feature in the novel, of course, would seem to be ‘romantic’ love. In my recent reading, both in this and other novels, I have come across characters whose experiences of romantic love seem completely opposed to my own, and a comparison of Stoner’s marriage and his affair with Katherine gave insight into kinds of love, and it does so in an articulate and insightful way. I mentioned in my review of Out of Ireland that the main character’s infatuation with a woman, Kathleen, seemed ‘creepy’ in a modern context. I don’t know if things have dramatically changed in the realm of romantic relationships for new generations, but the idea of “falling in love” with a woman you barely know, in his case he has spoken to her all of one time, seems completely foreign to me, and this at first perplexed me again in Stoner. While I wouldn’t apply the ‘creepy’ criticism to him, his marriage with Edith is certainly an experience of love that I have not seen replicated in my own life, and seemed almost, to me, not to qualify. However, finishing the text has led me to think that maybe my perspective was narrow, and that love can describe many different experiences.

My own limited experiences with romantic love are far closer in nature to Stoner’s relationship with Katherine than his marriage. Usually friendships that became intimate almost by accident, where attachment grows over time, my experiences of romantic love have been riddled with tension and misunderstandings, but were held together by overwhelming fun, the fun of learning so much about a new person. For me, they have been an exploration of what it is to be human. Being intimate with someone leads you to know things about them that almost nobody else knows, and for me that learning was the fun. That love was a collective experience of exploration and excitement, where we learned about each other, but not one of struggle, resilience, or commitment, the way a marriage is. Until I read the novel, I was a bit unsure how common my experiences were, but it was excellent to see this, one of my core experiences of love, reflected in the text and compared to the love of Stoner’s marriage, so I could see the common thread that ran through them all. It allowed me to learn more about how diverse the experience of love can be, even though my own experience of romance has mostly been of just one version of the way people experience love.

Stoner’s marriage is a continuous thread of love in his life, acting as a backdrop of struggle and frustration that affects his everyday experience in unpredictable and varied ways. Edith may be among the least likeable characters in the history of fiction, but her unpredictable disregard and apparent misunderstanding of Stoner frustrated me as a reader much more than it did Stoner himself.

For an insight from the character himself on love and the act of loving, we can go to page 194, where Williams says that Stoner has learned, “love is not an end, but a process through which one person attempts to know another”. When I read this, I thought that it couldn’t be said, when Stoner looks back on his marriage, which I’d previously judged as probably not love, that he does not know Edith as well as he did when they were first married. Nor can it be said that he has not make an earnest effort to know her more.

By his definition of love, he certainly did love Edith, and he notes this to himself. Edith becomes more like a difficult member of the family than a wife in Stoner’s life, like a sibling you don’t get along with, or an in-law with whom the tension never subsides. She inserts herself into Stoner’s daily routines randomly and with venom, occasionally robbing him of things that he had really come to rely on, like time with his daughter Grace, or even a comfortable space in which to study. Despite all this, Stoner consistently and honestly tries his best to enjoy his marriage, and to love her. For one seemingly innocuous example, when things become a source of negative emotions in his marriage, he relegates their importance. He says, “it’s not important”, and then, to him, it becomes unimportant. This way, he moves his focus to the things that do bring him satisfaction and attempts to make the best of his situation. This might seem routine to the reader, and certainly does to Stoner, but it is an effort that he was not obliged to make. It is these decisions that can be described to be an act of love for Edith, and they are ones he made again and again for her.

Stoner was certainly not uncomfortable with loving, as distant as he may seem; in fact he argues to himself that it is really all he’s ever known how to do. He says it is a part of himself. On page 250 Stoner thinks ‘(Love) was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a matter of both as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or poem, it says simply, “Look! I am alive.”’ It is interesting here that included alongside a woman, as an object of love, is a poem. Stoner loves indiscriminately; he sees no reason to define love to one target, human or otherwise. After all, you can learn more about a poem the hundredth time you read it, just as you can learn more about a person the hundredth time you speak to them, both of which are the process he describes to be love.

It is interesting too to see the way his affair is presented. To most people, cheating on a spouse is a very taboo thing to do. It is a very clear and obvious sin, it carries great baggage within our society as one of the more despicable things a person can do to another. In Stoner however, Williams presents this infidelity with absolutely no negativity. For the most part, it is simply another kind of love. It seems to Stoner that loving Katherine is simply more love in the world, in both of their lives, and not less.

I am not here offering a defence of infidelity, but I do think this novel provides an important insight into marriage, both its compromises and its struggles. My father once astutely said, “The worst thing you can do is judging somebody else’s marriage.” He is right, for at least the reason that you’ll simply never have all the information. From Stoner, we can see that maybe the truth is that the two people who are actually in the marriage probably don’t have all the information either, that trying to get that information can be what ‘loving’ is. Stoner’s marriage is a fluid struggle, with compromises on both sides, where both Edith and William are learning things about each other, and still trying to figure each other out decades into their marriage. They have both ended up married almost by convention, even chance (certainly by circumstance, though they did briefly control those circumstances), and their marriage seems a story in making that work. For Stoner, that meant conceding things to Edith that mattered more to her than they did to him, by choosing to relegate their importance to him. Conceding time with his daughter is a main example of this. Similarly, for Edith, it must have seemed obvious that Stoner wanted to love Katherine much more than she wanted him not to love Katherine, so a compromise was natural. After all, that’s just what they did for each other.

Reading about this dynamic was, well, educational. At the end, Stoner decides that he loved them both, and as I mentioned, he notes that, “love is not an end, but a process through which one person attempts to know another”. This definition is insightful in that it covers both of those main experiences of love that Stoner had in his life, both Katherine and Edith, despite the obvious differences. While the shape of that process, and the way it looked, were so different as to almost qualify as opposite, the core of his experience of loving them both was that he was engaging in a process of attempting to truly know them.

It is easy, when presented with a person, to decide you already know them. Maybe it would be reasonable to assume that you do. Maybe you’ve known them for years. But Stoner argues that to truly love them is to be humble, and to make an earnest effort, even with a person with whom you might feel very familiar, to know them more deeply, and to make sacrifices and compromises in that process, and to understand that “The person ones loves at first is not the person one loves at last.” This is the thread that holds together Stoner’s experiences of love, and his experiences successfully manage to describe love very well, even in its extensive diversity. Reading Stoner helped me come to terms with experiences of love outside my own. My experiences of love might look one way, and they are different to some others, but really they are just one or two stories of the millions of ways in which people can decide to go about the process of deeply knowing someone, of loving them. Whether you’ve known a person for a day or a year, deciding to do that is deciding to love them. So maybe you can “fall in love” with just about anyone, just by deciding to do it. Reading about other experiences of love, examples that I used to misunderstand and even internally deride as ‘not real love’, gave me valuable perspective. With it I can hope and even work anew to learn and to love as indiscriminately as Stoner.

This all comes together to reinforce Stoner’s project in making the ordinary life seem worth living. Simply by loving, you are alive, you are free, and no matter how trapped you may feel in your life, as Stoner seems to be, as long as there is a poem or a woman to love, that can’t be taken away from you. Loving frees a person to live, because ultimately, loving is what life is. So when I think about what I got out of reading Stoner, I think of love. Simply put, by showing me his experiences of love, this novel has given me motivation to know people more deeply, and that circumstances can’t take that away from me. It has shown me anew what it might look like to love, and by doing so, to allow myself to say to a woman, or a book, or my family, or the world at large, ‘Look! I am alive.’

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