John Williams’s ‘Stoner’ is undoubtedly a great novel, worthy of rediscovery and of the universal praise it has received. There is, though, one scene in it which I still find troubling and which, to be frank, I still don’t quite get. This is not a minor scene. It is an absolutely pivotal part of the novel which marks a life-changing moment for William Stoner and is also central to the novel’s concern with English Literature and its teaching. Failing to get this scene is, I think, the same as failing to get the novel, and so I have to confess to a nagging doubt about it, which only now (given that the Year of ‘Stoner’ has passed) do I feel brave enough to raise.
The scene in question is the one in which Stoner studies a Shakespeare sonnet in a ‘semester survey of English literature’, a course ‘rather perfunctorily required of all University students’. Stoner has not found this English course easy – it ‘troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before’ and ‘the words he read were words on pages , and he could not see the use of what he did’. In this particular class the teacher, Archie Sloane, full of apparent disdain and contempt, reads the class Shakespeare’s seventy third sonnet and then asks them the question ‘What does the sonnet mean?’ He calls on Mr Wilbur and Mr Schmidt but they say nothing. He then asks Mr Stoner. Stoner also has nothing to say so Sloane dryly tells him that it is a sonnet and that it is written by Shakespeare before reciting the poem again, this time from memory. When Sloane asks Stoner if he ‘hears’ Shakespeare speaking to him Stoner’s response is extraordinary. Strange things happen to him. Light on his fellow students’ faces seems to come from ‘within them’. His fingers ‘unclench’ their grip on the desk. He marvels at the ‘brownness’ of his hands and he thinks he can feel the blood flowing from his fingertips through his body. When asked by Sloane what the sonnet means Stoner can only say ‘It means’ but he ‘could not finish what he had to say’.
There are several things that puzzle me about this. The first is that we are given Sloane’s words on the page in the form of the sonnet. Williams presents the poem to the reader in the same way that Sloane presents the poem to his class and we are put in the position of the students, invited, like them, to find its ‘meaning’. Yet no discussion, no examination, no scrutiny follows. Stoner has his strange experience and utters the words ‘It means.’ We are told that this is an incomplete statement but it can, of course, be read as a sentence – the poem does mean but Stoner has no idea what.
I have taught poetry for some time and am quite used to some of the responses Williams describes. The blank incomprehension is very recognisable, and so is the sense of uncertainty about what poems ‘mean’. There is something, though, about Stoner’s response which doesn’t quite ring true. If, as a student, I had read Sonnet 73 by myself and then had it read to me twice, and could not come up with the idea that it might be about getting old, I might think twice about wanting to study more of the stuff, let alone, in time, wanting to teach it. If, as a teacher, I were asked what a poem is about and came up with the answer ‘It means’ (either as a complete or unfinished statement) the student might rightly feel short-changed and, in a sense, it is a similar short-changing that is happening in this scene.
What Stoner experiences in this classroom scene is an epiphany, a moment of illumination and realisation when things suddenly manifest themselves. Although Stoner doesn’t get what Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet ‘means’ he is profoundly affected by it at a deep level and suddenly he sees things in a different light (literally in the case of his fellow radiating students). I can accept that poems can move us even if we don’t understand their exact meaning and that, as T S Eliot says, ‘genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’, but I still find something unconvincing about William Stoner’s classroom epiphany.
In short, what I don’t get about ‘Stoner’, a novel which has at its heart the teaching of English Literature, is that a poem reproduced in its entirety on the page should be left so curiously unexamined and that an epiphany, crucial to the development of the central character, should be left so curiously unexplained. I have seen students show strange physical reactions when faced with poetry (ranging from yawning to, on one unforgettable occasion, vomiting) but I have never known complete and blank incomprehension of the sort Williams describes be the starting point of an academic career. Maybe, just like the young William Stoner, I’m missing something.