Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed. Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives; and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them…And they would become a meaningless part of that stubborn earth to which they had long ago given themselves.
Stoner faces the possible purposelessness of existence here in the wake of his parents’ deaths. While this alone would be enough for a confrontation with mortality, he has also at this point fulfilled his biological duty in passing on his DNA (which he and Edith accomplished with biologically explicable fervor…the conception of Grace was the height of “passion” in their relationship). So really, what the hell’s left? What could define a life so that it transcends this corporeal reality? Stoner’s entire story seems to be about trying to answer this question in some hopeful way.
The novel gives its best nihilistic performance, thrusting Stoner into a series of unfortunate events, making it seem like his life is characterized by escalating lows, with only inconsequential highs. In fact, his life is full of…feelings. Though he tries out the role of the Stoic, trying to evade these insistent emotions, he can’t help but constantly be lured back into the relationships, attachments, and connections, be they with people or ideas, that produce these emotions. He discovers love during his marriage with another woman, only to see it end. He discovers love with his daughter here and there, only to see it wane and disappear, reappearing in almost hopeless glimmers. He discovers deep friendship with Gordon Finch, albeit too late, only to see it overshadowed by petty animosity with Hollis Lomax. He discovers unmistakable passion for learning, for exploring his curiosities, for wondering about his world, his place in it, its people, and his relation to them, only to return to valleys of profound indifference and routine. He seems to drift through periods of life, until he experiences the intensity of certain moments that lift him out of his often self-imposed torpor.
What we see in Stoner is seemingly quintessential human life. He wants all the joy he can have, and he tries to avoid all the pain. He covers up both these desires with an expressed stoicism, but we know all too well that he does care. And it is that care which truly exhausts him. It is that care which, at its best, defines human life.
What he projects onto his parents is unfair but understandable. He tries to hurl his personal doubts and insecurities into his parents’ graves, so that he may bury them and find some meaning from his pursuits. Or, in order to comfort himself for what he feels is a betrayal of his parents’ devotion to this type of life, he’s promising them (and himself) that what he’s doing will be better. He’s hoping that he (and they) won’t become meaningless parts of this stubborn earth.
The question follows throughout the novel: should we care about life? Does it really make a difference? I think the story ends with hopeful redemption and triumph, saying that our lives do matter, even if it’s only a reconciliation we experience within ourselves, clutching tight whatever it is we devoted our lives to. Who cares if it falls to the ground after we’re gone?