After writing up my initial thoughts on Stoner yesterday afternoon, as I went through the rest of the day I kept thinking that I had looked at it from the wrong angle. It’s not right to say that Stoner is a great Teacher/Academic Novel, and to split hairs on the distinction between those two categories. Stoner is a great novel period, and it tells the story of one man’s life in a beautiful, assured, and even magnificent way, and it’s not even enough to say that it transcends the genre. It uses the conventional academic setting, a powerful version of it that generates additional meaning, as a vehicle for a great story.
I didn’t do justice to the depth and fine details of Stoner’s relationships. The story of his daughter keeps haunting me, and the portrait of his wife and marriage is no less powerful and evocative. Stoner, still a simple man but made romantic through his newfound attachment to literature, sees his future wife at a party and puts her on a pedestal; she’s the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. She consents to marry him, but it turns out that she’s trying to escape her family and father, and she really has no identity and defines herself through negation. She’s an exile, and Stoner is an exile as well, after he cuts himself off from the farm life of his childhood and youth. At first Edith, right after their marriage, is ill and withdrawn, and Stoner realizes quickly that his beautiful elevated statue is a hollow shell, and he determines he will make the best of it. The book and Edith’s character are an interesting study of desire, as Edith comes alive with passion briefly when she decides she wants a child. Stoner only discovers honest and hopeful desire and love and communion later, when he has his affair with Rosemary. Edith is a stunning, complex, attractive-repulsive character worthy of Miss Havisham, and she wages a war of personality conflict with Stoner over the course of a lifetime. The book is a study of marriage as intimate strife.
The way that their daughter Grace figures in this drama is profound and heartbreaking. When Grace is born Edith is weak and withdrawn, and through Grace’s infancy and early years Stoner is completely responsible for her. He forms a deep attachment to his daughter. Just as Grace is about to become a young scholar and a solace to her father, continuing a tableau that looks like it might echo Silas Marner, Edith escalates her attack on Stoner by removing Grace from him. Stoner is an intellectual, and his detachment and life in literature is partly the source of Edith’s furious and diabolical hatred, and she uses it as a wedge against him to separate him from his daughter. Grace had been raised from infancy in her father’s study, where they were the closest of companions. Just as she was about to begin reading and studying in earnest, guided by Stoner, Edith takes her away and fashions Grace in her own image, as a shallow and empty girl wearing pretty dresses and going to parties. Edith tells Grace that Stoner’s work is important and he is never to be bothered or disturbed. She literally wrests her away, and it’s tragic and heartbreaking.
These sad movements set the stage for Stoner to find love with Rosemary Driscoll. But as that plays itself out all too quickly, in the next act Grace has grown up to be a desperate and morose young woman. She plays out her mother Edith’s acts of negation and destruction in a newer, contemporary key. She gets pregnant soon after high school, where she had engaged in multiple affairs, as a means of getting out of her loveless home. She is probably escaping her monstrous mother more than her father, but she has no relationship with Stoner, and their early connection is completely gone. She marries the father of her child, as Edith wills it, and her husband dies six months later, early in WW2. The child is raised primarily by her in-laws, and Grace becomes an agitated, forlorn, hopeless alcoholic. She could have been just like her father, we think, and they might have sustained each other. Edith’s father had been a successful St. Louis banker, and he seemed relieved, though you would barely notice it, that Stoner was taking her off his hands. He was later ruined and shot himself soon after the stock market crash. In alienating Grace from Stoner Edith sets her on the path of hostility and self-destruction. As I said, it’s profound and heartbreaking, virtually unbearable, and rather amazing. It’s an unsparing consolidation of the interpersonal dynamics of Great Expectations, as I vaguely remember it, played out much closer to the self, within the confines of a broken nuclear family. It’s brilliant and devastating. And Stoner stoically pushes his way through, surviving, managing to give his own life meaning and wholeness somehow.
My own daughter read Great Expectations over the summer and then reread it for her sophomore introduction to the English major. I’ve been dipping my toes back into the Dickens waters recently and was just starting to gain a new perspective on and appreciation for Great Expectations, and reading Stoner deepens that view considerably, adding power to both books. Stoner, like GE, is a study of unexpected consciousness and sophistication, of a life warped by learning. It’s hard to say if Great Expectations is a direct source for Stoner, and I didn’t detect any echoes of Dickens as I was reading it. Perhaps that’s because Stoner presents itself as pure Americana, a diorama of the first sixty years of the American century, one which begins with a dark pastoral simplicity and innocence that has no whiff of Victorian effulgence. As intense and determined as Stoner’s story is, its roots and his own psychological imprint are firmly grounded in the American soil, on the family farm.
Thus another stunning portrait in the book is Stoner’s parents and the humble, exhausting farm he has escaped. The image of his father’s worn out corpse returning to the land that had barely sustained it, and the way he is quickly joined by Stoner’s mother and how they will beome a part of the earth, forgotten, has intense power. And it prepares us beautifully for the final image in the story, Stoner holding his own thin book, a talisman and symbol of his consciousnness, and letting it fall as he dies.