Book club discussion notes for Stoner by John Williams.
With truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value. Stoner tells of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history, and reclaims the significance of an individual life. A reading experience like no other, itself a paean to the power of literature, it is a novel to be savoured, and is sure to spark passionate discussion at your next reading group session.
Reading Group Questions
- ‘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 or their careers.’ Having read the whole book, do you think the summary of Stoner’s life, as described on the first page of the novel, is a fair assessment?
- ‘He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.’ Why do you think the author begins the novel by summarising Stoner’s life and telling us how little he is remembered after his death? Having already had a summary of Stoner’s life, what did you think the book would be about and did you find it irritating to know, upfront, that nothing sensational would happen?
- In the introduction, John McGahern cites an interview in which the author says: ‘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.’ Do you agree with the author’s view that Stoner is a hero?
- ‘From the earliest time he could remember, William Stoner had his duties.’ Stoner’s life is filled with many failures – his marriage, his stymied career and his short-lived affair. Do you think Stoner views these unpleasant parts of his life as duties he must endure? How do you think his rural upbringing has affect his personality?
- ‘The required survey of English literature troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before.’ Stoner is troubled by his initial foray into English literature and in a class with his English instructor, Archer Sloane, he is unable to answer a question on a Shakespearean sonnet. Why do you think Stoner changes his course of study from agriculture to English?
- ‘Her childhood was an exceedingly formal one, even in the most ordinary moments of family life. Her parents behaved toward each other with a distant courtesy; Edith never saw pass between them the spontaneous warmth of either anger or love. Anger was days of courteous silence, and love was a word of courteous endearment.’ How much do you think Edith’s upbringing affects her life with Stoner? Why do you think she is constantly compelled to wage battles against Stoner – what is she trying to prove?
- ‘Throughout the late spring and early summer she was tireless in her search [for a house], which seemed to work an immediate cure for her illness.’ What do you think is the cause of Edith’s recurring illnesses? Do you think her illnesses are psychosomatic?
- ‘And so, like many others, their honeymoon was a failure; yet they would not admit this to themselves, and they did not realise the significance of the failure until long afterward.’ There are several turning points in the novel, where Stoner’s life could go down different paths. Do you feel he takes control of his life and lives in accordance with his values, or do you think he remains too passive and stoic during the course of his life? Do you think stoicism is a good quality?
- ‘William fell instantly in love with her; the affection he could not show to Edith he could show to his daughter, and he found a pleasure in caring for her that he had not anticipated.’ Do you think Stoner is a good father to Grace? Do you think one parent carries more blame for Grace’s early pregnancy and alcoholism, or do you think both parents share equal blame?
- ‘A kind of joy came upon him, as if borne in on a summer breeze. He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure – as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been.’ In the end, do you think Stoner has any regrets about the way he has lived his life? Do you think Stoner is a good man or a weak man?
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