He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been. It was a question, he suspected, that came to all men at one time or another…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.
Echoes of Stoner’s reflection on his parents’ deaths should ring through this excerpt, as here we find him continuing to doubt the value of human endeavor. Life has a purpose; that he can’t deny. But the peculiarities of human life, the way we craft value and construct meaning, for instance, come to nothing. Or so the novel is leading us to believe. It is easy to fall prey to this nihilism, especially when life feels so ruthlessly ambiguous and ultimately inexplicable. As readers, we are lost in Stoner’s terrifying revelation about his own insignificance, which as he predicts (or as Williams, the author, hopes) we all share at one time or another. Given the simple commiseration possible with this angst, we are compelled to doubt life’s worth as much as he does. Truly, what does it all come to? Why do we get so invested in Stoner’s ups and downs? Why do we get invested in our own? What is our life before the prevailing silence of time and space, to which everything, including Stoner and his life’s work (in the tangible form of his book), falls?
Perhaps it’s only that you feel, think, and experience what you do, you have some say in the process, and you accept the say you don’t have. While reminiscent of the serenity prayer, it may be the best we can hope for, and we seem to discover that for Stoner, it’s good enough. It has to be.
Later in the story, as Stoner must accept the end of his relationship with his lover, Katherine, Williams writes, “And he watched with an immeasurable sadness their last effort of gaiety, which was like a dance that life makes upon the body of death.”
So while we can, shall we dance?