William Stoner is denied love and treated meanly throughout his life. He is born into poverty and hard farm labour. His parents are inadequate – unable to nurture his intellectual gift, or even to hold a social conversation. Life presents him with a continuum of hostility, from his lodgings with the Footes, his marriage to the depressive, aggressive, dominating Edith, to his academic colleague Hollis Lomax. The little love he does find in life from his young daughter Grace, his admiring students, and his lover Katherine Driscoll, are all snatched from him.
He responds with perfect behaviour, bowing to Edith’s meanness, sleeping estranged on a couch for most of his life, bringing up Grace single handed in her early years, remaining totally diligent in his work, helping those he can. He is zealous for truth, integrity, and justice, seen in his refusal to endorse Charles Walker, a student Stoner is sure is fake. He accepts the political consequences and the ensuing personal loss.
Stoner is cast in the Christ-motif, the suffering servant, the righteous man. We are left unclear as to why Edith is so evil to him, and have only a hint of what motivated Lomax and Walker to corner him. Love is the only interpretation we are left with of Stoner’s righteous living. John Williams gives us rich insights into the English literature he knew so well, and a moving account of love (p194), `William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another’. Stoner’s love might never be triumphant, but it is ultimate virtue, and does allow him to die with dignity.