Read from May 6th to 13th 2014
An Old-Fashioned Hero
It was impossible for me to read Stoner in one breath, even though it is not a long novel, nor a particularly intricate one. I had to stop after every thirty pages or so, before sadness ate my soul whole. My sadness, I soon realized, had however that cathartic quality the ancient tragedies usually inspire and made me remember an old definition of the tragic hero: he is always defeated and dies, but the ideas he fought for and believed in forever live.
William Stoner is not so different from a Greek hero. His tragic destiny seems to be the result of the same disobedience of the three laws: gods’, by refusing to accept his destiny as a farmer, society’s by fighting authority when unjust, and family’s by breaching the “sanctity” of his unfortunate marriage. His backbone, his quiet dignity, his resigned understanding of the world are permanently challenged by the two implacable, malevolent divinities who will never let him go, who will never let him be: his wife Edith and his colleague Lomax.
Edith will try to punish his soul by denying him the home she is unable to build herself. She is the merciless fairy, a beautiful creature whom Stoner invested with more depth she was capable of, and whose bridal, ghostlike apparition is a too late warning of her true nature:
In her white dress she was like a cold light coming into the room.
Lomax will try to punish his mind by denying him the fulfilment of his vocation and assigning him menial academic duties in revenge of what he apparently considers an affront to his authority, but in reality because he is insulted by Stoner’s very existence in whose mirror is forced to contemplate his crippled soul. He is the dwarf, the hunchback, the satyr whose fascinating and repulsive apparition has that cardboard quality that robs him of all humanity to transform him in an instrument of the celestial payback:
He was a man barely over five feet in height, and his body was grotesquely misshapen. A small hump raised his left shoulder to his neck, and his left arm hung laxly at his side. His upper body was heavy and curved, so that he appeared to be always struggling for balance; his legs were thin, and he walked with a hitch in his stiff right leg. (…) And then they could see his face.
It was the face of a matinee idol. Long and thin and mobile, it was nevertheless strongly featured; his forehead was high and narrow, with heavy veins, and his thick waving hair, the color of ripe wheat, swept back from it in a somewhat theatrical pompadour.
Then there is also the monster that besieges the citadel, bringing corruption and hypocrisy and all the other Pandora gifts of the petty outside world. The monster has a delusive pitiful appearance, a cleverness disguised as intelligence and the support of the authority that seem to assure him a place in the stronghold, so that it is the hero’s duty to chase him away:
Dave would have thought of Walker as —as the world. And we can't let him in. For if we do, we become like the world, just as unreal, just as... The only hope we have is to keep him out.
And Stoner does chase him away, just as he will chase his own soul away when he is forced to choose between integrity and sentiment, by choosing to remain true to his nature for he knows that otherwise he will erase himself together with the purity of his love:
"Because in the long run," Stoner said, "it isn't Edith or even Grace, or the certainty of losing Grace, that keeps me here; it isn't the scandal or the hurt to you or me; it isn't the hardship we would have to go through, or even the loss of love we might have to face. It's simply the destruction of ourselves, of what we do."
In the end, when all his work is done, he can quietly pass away. He didn’t enter the glory of the world he kept away from, he didn’t shine and didn’t let a lasting impression among his peers. But he remains like the stone in the river that cannot be moved, even though it is often hidden by the swirling waters. An old-fashioned stone called probity, carelessly thrown away by most of us.
He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance.