Quotations from Stoner by John Williams


John Williams’s “Stoner” is something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.

10 – … and he came to his task of teaching with a seeming disdain and contempt, as if he perceived the knowledge and what he could say a gulf so profound that he would make no effort to close it.

22 – He felt his inadequacy to the goal he had so recklessly chosen and felt the attraction of the world he had abandoned.

30 – No aura rises from you and you wear a puzzled expression. In the world you would always be on the fringe of success, and you would be destroyed by your failure.

36 – A war doesn’t merely kill off a few thousand or a few hundred thousand young men. It kills off something in a people that can never be brought back. And if a people go through enough wars, pretty soon all that’s left is the brute, the creature  that we— you and I and others like us—have brought up from the slime.

37 – You must remember what you are and what you have chosen to become, and the significance of what you are doing. There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history. Remember that while you’re trying to decide what to do.

53 – And when it was over, he felt that they were strangers in a way that he had not thought they would be, and he knew that he was in love.

54 – She was educated on the premise that she would be protected from the gross events that life might thrust in her way, and upon the premise that she had no other duty than to be a graceful and accomplished accessory to that protection, since she belonged to a social and economic class to which protection was an almost sacred obligation.

54 – Her moral education, both at the schools she attended and at home, was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual. The sexuality, however, was indirect and unacknowledged; therefore it suffused every other part of her education, which received most of its energy from that recessive and unspoken moral force.

74 – Within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping that it would improve.

80 – He learned to maintain an unobtrusive and delicate regard for the world in which Edith had begun to live.

113 – The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letter and words, in the blackest and coldest print—the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.

128 – Thus he found it possible to live, and even to be happy, now and then.

179 – He took a grim and ironic pleasure from the possibility that what little learning he had managed to acquire had led him to this knowledge: that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter.

181 – He was forty-two years old, and he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember.

194 – In his forty-third year 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 one person attempts to know another.

195 – Now in his middle age he began to know that it (love) 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.

198 – “Lust and learning… That’s really all that is, isn’t it?”

272 – A new tranquility had come between them. It was a quietness that was like the beginning of love; and almost without thinking, Stoner knew why it had come. They had forgiven themselves for the harm they had done each other, and they were rapt in a regard of what their life together might have been.

276 – It occurred to him that he ought to call Edith; and then he knew that he would not call her. They dying are selfish, he thought; they want their moments to themselves, like children.

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