By John Williams
The novel starts off with a seemingly depressing two paragraph bio, denoting just how insignificant the eponymous protagonist is:
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: "Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues."Immediately afterwards, the novel launches into William Stoner's life in detail and lo and behold, although the bio is accurate, his life is quite full and interesting. He stumbles upon a love for his English literature.
An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves of their careers.
Stoner drew back. "What do you mean?" he asked and head something like fear in his voice.The recurring theme seems to be about finding love for something or someone and then about facing significant challenges to pursuing them. Stoner later falls in love with a woman and marries her, but not a week after the wedding, it is clear that their relationship is doomed. His wife goes from being passively resistant to the relationship to taking on an active nemesis-like role, particularly after they have a daughter, where she drives as deep of a divide between Stoner and his daughter as possible. Meanwhile in his university life, a talented professor, Hollis Lomax arrives and proceeds to make Stoner's professional life, hellish through political machinations. Later on, Stoner eventually finds true love with another woman, but both Lomax and Stoner's wife end up challenging his happiness there as well.
Sloane leaned forward until his face was close; Stone saw the lines on the long thin face soften, and he heard the dry mocking voice become gentle and unprotected.
"But don'tyou know, Mr. Stoner?" Sloane asked. "Don't you understand about yourself yet? You're going to be a teacher."
Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office reced. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air and he heard his voice ask, "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," Sloane said softly.
"How can you tell? How can you be sure?"
"It's love, Mr. Stoner," Sloane said cheerfully. "You are in love. It's as simple as that."
It was as simple as that. He was aware that he nodded to Sloane and said something inconsequential.
You could also make the case is that it's about an introvert's struggle through life, where Stoner clearly loves and is knowledgeable about English literature; however, really struggles when it comes to defending against those who can use social relationships as weapons.
The introduction has a quote from Williams on his viewpoint:
I think he's a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important... The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner's sense of a job. Teaching to him is a job - a job in the good and honorable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was... It's the love of the thing that's essential. And if you love something you're going to understand it. And if you understand it, you're going to learn a lot. The lack of that love defines a bad teacher... I think it all boils down to what I was trying to get at in Stoner. You've got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization.I think it is interesting that Williams thinks that simply finding and truly knowing the love of your life, whether or not it's "successful" is sufficient to say that your life was worthwhile. I don't happen to agree with him, but I think that just the fact that Stoner elicits thinking about your philosophy on your life makes it more than a worthwhile read.