She was educated upon 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…She learned that she would have duties toward her husband and family and that she must fulfill them.
Here we learn the background of Stoner’s wife, Edith, who for an extended portion of the novel, is set up as one of Stoner’s nemeses. In fact, we are invited all too easily to antagonize her, especially when she interferes (in what is described as an act of war against Stoner) with Stoner’s relationship with their daughter.
This positioning of Edith as an antagonist in Stoner’s narrative should invite any mindful reader to recognize the inherent patriarchal bias into which we are socialized as readers. Rather than take the time to acknowledge the full humanity of Edith’s character and try to understand the potential reasons for her actions, we are more ready to judge her (because of the male vision we’ve adopted), especially as she fails to fulfill her inherited/imposed duties to husband and family.
(By the way, I think Williams is playing around with this unfortunate reading habit, as he does show evidence of compassion for her character, even as he lures us into a certain way of seeing her.)
Given that we expect certain things from fine young ladies, it should be appalling to us when she decides to betray these duties and ruin Stoner. In truth (albeit in fiction), Edith’s lifelong imprisonment should elicit nothing but our most intense compassion. She is victimized from birth, and it is more tragic than unforgivable when she tries to force similar shackles onto her daughter. It is equally tragic when, after Edith’s father dies (killing himself) and she is freed from her fundamental patriarchy, that she is unable to cope with her newfound liberation, still undoubtedly confined by lingering internalized oppression. What results is unsurprising desperation in her all-too-late search to make something of herself. At that point, dreadfully defined by her domineering upbringing, she has little life left. Stoner copes with this, as I’ve mentioned, relative to his social class, but Edith stands out as the most tragic character in the story, not merely an antagonistic accessory to Stoner.