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William Stoner – Religion of the Heart

Those raised in a high demand religion where church, God and the gospel reside at the core of measuring self worth and purpose may find the book “Stoner” by John Williams, and the main character William Stoner intriguing and refreshing.

Stoner was raised on a farm in rural Missouri. As a child, his parents were Methodist and he regularly attended church. However, as the story progresses, his academic training takes forefront and any strong religious beliefs or practices fade into the background.

“He was born in 1891 on a small farm in central Missouri near the village of Booneville. Though his parents were young at the time of his birth–his father twenty five, his mother barely twenty–Stoner thought of them, even when he was a boy, as old.”

“It was a lonely household, of which he was an only child, and it was bound together by the necessity of its toil. In the evenings the three of them sat in the small kitchen lighted by a single kerosene lamp, staring into the yellow flame.”

“He thought of his parents, and they were nearly as strange as the child they had borne; he felt a mixed pity for them and a distant love.”

Williams, John. Stoner. Viking Press, 1965.

“Religion of the Heart”

As Stoner moves on from Missouri to the world of academia, he doesn’t seem to dwell much on theological or religious matters. The narrator describes him as having a “religion of the heart,” suggesting he lives by an internal moral code more than formal religious doctrine.

“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”

“Faith in Learning”

The narrator suggests Stoner has a “faith in learning” – academia and education seem to provide his life purpose more than belief in God or an afterlife. He finds meaning through teaching and scholarly work. Stoner largely operates based on his own innate values – he tries to be ethical, fair, and caring, especially as a teacher. His moral compass does not appear to be strongly informed by religion. He relies more on his personal conscience. There are a few scenes where Stoner contemplates the divine in nature and the universe. When gazing at the night sky, he feels awe and a sense of smallness compared to the vast cosmos. These reflections hint at a vague spirituality or belief in something greater than himself.

The anticipation of Stoner’s death is characterized by a quiet and introspective atmosphere. The novel focuses on his internal reflections rather than dramatic events. There’s a sense of closure and reflection as Stoner looks back on his life, acknowledging both the hardships and moments of connection and meaning.

“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. Dim presences gathered at the edge of his consciousness; he could not see them, but he knew that they were there, gathering their forces toward a kind of palpability he could not see or hear. He was approaching them, he knew; but there was no need to hurry. He could ignore them if he wished; he had all the time there was.

There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.”

Letting Go

At the end of his life, Stoner holds onto the belief in the lasting value of literature and education, beyond just a temporal utility. As he lay on his bed, near death, he “felt the strength” of the books on the table, ones that he had not picked up for many years, but that still had power. As Stoner picks up and opens the book, he experiences a transformation. The book becomes “not his own,” suggesting a detachment from the personal and a merging with something larger, transcending this life and its loneliness. The book then falls from Stoner’s fingers onto his still body, carrying a sense of release and letting go, supported by the strength of the book, the words, the meaning and the legacy.

“His head turned. His bedside table was piled with books that he had not touched for a long time. He let his hand play over them for a moment. He felt the strength within them. It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there. He opened the book; and as he did so it became not his own. He let his fingers riffle through the pages and felt a tingling, as if those pages were alive. The fingers loosened, and the book they had held moved slowly and then swiftly across the still body and fell into the silence of the room.”

Stoner. The Final Chapter