I recently finished reading the book “Stoner” by John Williams, a novel set in the first half of the 20th century. It speaks of a young man, William Stoner, who was born and raised on a farm but who accidentally discovered his love of literature while at university, which he initially attended in order to study agriculture. Literature became his life and eventually his only passion.
The premise sounds uninteresting at first, almost completely boring and devoid of any kind of intrigue, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. It was, for me, one of the best works of literature I’ve read in the past few years. Besides the excellent writing which gripped me immediately, the story of Stoner fascinated me because if you take out the dates and replace them with more recent ones, the book would stand as is, and would be just as relatable, if not more. It speaks of the choices we make as people. It shows the full extent of the consequences of our actions, and more importantly our inactions. It emphasises our (in)ability to detect our responsibility and assume it, or our utter blindness to it.
After having read the book I read a few quotes by the author, who claimed that Stoner led a good, happy life, in his opinion. I was shocked. For me, William made quite a few wrong choices, but in my eyes two major ones. All good so far. We all do. No problem there. My question, though, is why do we insist on believing that our choices are final, permanent, unchanging? Why do we prefer to suffer for an entire lifetime for one bad choice as if we can’t reverse it at any point in time?
Is it because we are righteously punishing ourselves by suffering? Is it because we somehow believe that we don’t deserve better? Or, as Stoner justified it, that it is all our fault in the first place. I believe the truth is none of the above. All these are just excuses for a deeper and even more disturbing reality: it is too difficult to revert a choice, for you must face one too many truths in the process.
We seem to develop a Stockholm Syndrome with our choices. From some point on they resemble tattoos we can’t get rid of and cannot live without. Despite the fact that we may now despise them, find them ugly, and they no longer represent what we stand for, they lie so deep within us that we consider them to be of us: organic and alive, with our very own DNA signature. They are not. We put them there, we can take them out.
You know the question “what would you have done differently”? It is a fruitless question, for the answer is “nothing”. Stoner, for all his redeeming features, is an example to avoid. For he could see, and he could feel, and he could sense, and he did nothing. Whether he wanted the responsibility or not, it fell on him; he was ultimately unable to actively take his life and happiness, as well as that of his daughter’s, into his own hands and make it better, and instead chose to settle and suffer for a choice he once made out of innocence and ignorance, and lived in mourning and grief over it until his dying day.