Dysfunction in Traditional American Marriages in Two Novels by John Williams and Martha Stephens

Two American novels of the second half of the twentieth century reveal startling truths about the existential aloneness at the heart of the American middle class family. Although they were written about a generation apart, they form something of a complementary set and are the perfect antidote for those who made the mistake of spending their summer with books foisted on us by the entertainment complex as “beach reads.” These novels are: Stoner by John Williams (NY: Viking Press: 1965; reprinted NY: New York Review Books: [2006]) and Children of the World by Martha Stephens (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press: © 1994).

stonerThe novels can be read together because they share similar themes and shine lights on the same dark places, although in many ways, particularly structure and technique, each is the converse of the other. The central character in each book is part of a destructive marriage that consumes their energy and thwarts their aspirations (especially the ones they never admitted to themselves), although Stoner is about the husband and Children of the World about the wife. The central pain of their relationships radiates through all other aspects of their lives threatening to overwhelm everything else. How they cope is the mystery each tries to discover, although the method of detection is different.

Stoner is the story of William Stoner, an English professor who never rose above assistant professor and at the end was barely remembered by his colleagues and not at all by his students. So we learn at the beginning of this austerely written novel. The novel then proceeds in a chronological way from about the time Stone unexpectedly finds himself on his way to college. Stoner was not destined to be a teacher; in fact, his destiny, to work the dirt farm of his parents, was deflected only because the county agent suggested to his father that at the College of Agriculture he might learn techniques to assist on the farm, which even the father conceded “[s]eems like the land gets drier and harder to work every year …”

When Stoner first sees the University his feelings of intimidation and awe are much like of Jude when he first saw the lights of Christminster in the distance. (It would be interesting to list the other parallel’s with Hardy’s novel.) But Stoner soon settles in and treats his school work with the same plodding duty that he had applied to his chores at home and the farming duties he has in Columbia to pay for his room and board at his mother’s cousins’. All of this changed when he took Sophomore Survey of English Literature and had a sudden dumbfounding and overwhelming experience when he was asked what Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet meant. He was transfixed with a feeling that made everything else unreal. And from the experience the next semester he took more English courses, interrupting the sequence necessary for a degree in Agricultural Sciences. When his adviser reviewed his record near the end of his senior year, he was surprised that Stoner had mostly literature courses and that he had done well in all of them. He reveals to Stoner what happened to him; namely, that he had fallen in love and that therefore he was destined to become a teacher. This love would not remain white hot all his life, but at least literature was the one thing he found that never betrayed him. The adviser set Stoner on his way to becoming a teacher at that same school.  It would be where he would spend the rest of his life. And all the drama of this book takes place there.

The heroine of Children of the World, Margaret (Stovall) Barker, never even reached the status of assistant professor; in fact, it would never have occurred to her to aspire to it. At the time we meet her, she is a widow, with three grown (and departed) children, and she is about to go to her job as a secretary/administrative assistant of a juvenile court in Waycross, Georgia. The entire novel takes place in two days of “real” time (on a Friday and Saturday in August  1979), but it is really the story of Margaret’s entire life, and her quest for meaning throughout, rendered in the form of recalled memories, which are triggered by the events of those two days.

The book is nearly entirely an interior monologue. But it is not the kind of stream-of-consciousness that Joyce or Broch practiced. Despite Margaret’s constant worry that she “was prey to galloping thoughts of every kind,” her memories are articulately expressed, directly relate to what she sees about her and eventually form the argument—provide the verbal directions—to the “answer,” or at least the heart of the problem of where we are going and why. Margaret’s interior monologue is too self-conscious to be stream-of-consciousness. She fears the apparent chaos of her thoughts almost as much as she dreads disorder, however trivial, in her surroundings. But in fact her interior monologues (or the sets of them, for they are occasionally interrupted by events taking place in August 1979) proceed almost musically, with the first chapter providing the motifs that are developed one by one and then intertwined with each other.

Martha Stephens (Photo by Steven M. Herppich, 2002 (?). Cincinnati Enquirer.)

Although the resulting structure is far from chronological (even when treating specific periods of her life), Margaret’s life unfolds in layers and we learn her history almost intuitively. It doesn’t take long to discovery the outlines of her life: Margaret was born in 1918 and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. She was the first child, and the darling of her father, who let her buy her dresses at a shop with “plump, friendly, cheerful clerks who always made a little to-do about things …” Her father would sit contentedly, cigar in hand, trouser legs hiked up and would wait for the clerks to display her again in a new dress. The experience went beyond the need to buy a dress. And it remained with Margaret even in her 60s.

Her parents would have three other children: Riley, Barba and George. All of them severely developmentally disabled. And the strain was too much. When she was 12, her Jacksonville world broke up, and her father attempted to save Margaret from the squalor and delivered her to her (maternal) grandmother, who owned a dairy farm in Waycross, Georgia. Although this was the first year of the Great Depression, there was no sign of economic hardship in her life there; quite the contrary. To Margaret the dairy was an entrance to a new world, one where “symmetry and order” predominated. She says that she would not have been surprised if someone had told her: “This is heaven and you are an angel.”

That heaven, however, was dominated by a malignant deity. Margaret was reluctant to consider her grandmother in an unfavorable light. But many sessions with her aunt Nora (her mother’s sister-in-law), which took place when she was escaping from her abusive husband, caused her to reflect on the self-centered, despotic and heartless actions taken by the woman who, at the same time, opened up a world to Margaret she otherwise would not have known. Nora was abandoned herself by Granny Culp’s son, and she is left on the dairy as a hand, with no affection from her mother-in-law. The conclusion she earned: “Families are not something I care for … I think the whole idea of family life is this: ‘Let’s all face along together, but if one of us falls down—too bad. …. I don’t think families have that much to give, real help is not something they think they can spare each other, although they might feel they can spare a little advice. And you know what that would be: don’t fall.'”

Margaret never subscribed to this philosophy, but another evidence for it came when with her own marriage. She married Leonard Barker in her teens, and he took her into his own family. Here Margaret sees the effects of the Depression first hand. The Barker family had been thoroughly broken. Leonard’s father, Will Barker, once had a successful dry goods store. But it was lost in the downturn and boarded up, and Will Barker was now reduced to selling ice from a little shack that he sat in front of. But their real tragedy pre-dated that, and accustomed them to tragedy. Their youngest daughter died at the age of 10 of Bright’s Disease. Will Barker took to drink; Leonard’s mother took to exposing her grief to strangers. All of this made them “sad and woeful people,” in Margaret’s mind. “Their feelings had stuck out all over them and they were not even ashamed of them.”

Margaret attributes Leonard’s “cringing cowardice and fear” to his parent’s lack of fortitude, and in this she has taken on some of the character of her grandmother. But she later recognizes that it was the financial collapse, and its but-for cause, debt, that paralyzed him. “[O]h she hated to remember the debts creeping back, Leonard’s fear of ruin growing on him again, so that even the smallest debt, the most obviously manageable debt, tormented him, frightened him to death, as if it might of itself grow and destroy them.” Sometimes the terror would grip him when he saw groceries brought into the house. But the uncontrollable rage and mindless fury was unleashed on three occasions that defined the prison that remained their marriage. One was when he discovered that Margaret was sending her mother $5 a month. A second occasion, when Leonard discovered that his wife had been investigating the purchase of a house so they could move from their parents. But the ultimate explosion came in 1953 when Margaret decided to get a job to help pay for their first daughter’s college tuition. This event not only triggered the desperation that spending money always caused but also utterly emasculated him. Thinking of the humiliation, he conjured up fantasies of people gossiping about his inability to provide for his family and his menial salary. The fantasy took over him and caused an abusive outbreak that became a violent scene never to again be equaled and which caused their children to resent him for the rest of their lives.

Martha Stephens. (Photo by David Logan and Dale Hodges. From Children of the World.)

Martha Stephens. (Photo by David Logan and Dale Hodges. From Children of the World.)

And yet, despite his threats and violence, Margaret got the job at the small law firm (mainly because the young lawyers had so little work that they did not need much stenographic or clerical help), and eventually followed one of the partners to the family court where he pursued the business of runaways and minor juvenile misdemeanors. Her three children (Ruth, Laney, Richard) all went to college, and all went their ways without any damage by her. She assures herself at the beginning of the “wonderful truth” that “all her children had loved her and they were all lovable children.” After the abusive blowup in 1953, she seems to have developed a détente with Leonard, who in any event died in 1978. And she had to admit to herself that materially she was well off, better than she ever expected to be, indeed, like “an immaculate Granny.” Her daughter Ruth assured her that without the constant torment and retirement only a few years away (when she could more frequently visit her children and grandchildren) “Mother, you are better now … I believe you can be happy now.”

But Margaret had so little experience in that and she could never come down on one side or the other on such things. She couldn’t admit that a woman who killed her own infant was entirely evil. She could see the point of view of an old couple who had shot themselves, simply out of boredom. She couldn’t even come to a conclusion about the significance of her husband’s last words, at a time he knew he was dying: “Remember. I love you.”

And so here is Margaret Barker, who admits that she ought to be happy, perhaps, constantly on edge, depressive, so much so that “some days she had to take fifty milligrams of Sinequan and twenty of something else, sometimes a sleeping pill besides that, and many shots of B-12 … and still suffer days in bed when she could not move her neck … still have to endure bizarre reactions to things she read in the newspapers.” In this state, in the “real time” of the novel, on a Friday in August 1979, Margaret finds a telephone message at work that a woman from Jacksonville called and promised to call again. The message is what causes her to relive all the memories she has for years (perhaps since her mother died in 1961) repressed. All of those memories are permeated with shame. Shame over the life-style of her former family, their treatment by her grandmother, the betrayal of her father, her hatred of him and even her inability to love her mother and siblings with simplicity. She is, however, forced to confront all these feelings as she responds to the call in the next two days. (I will not describe what happens because the narrative’s pace depends on the uncovering of the repressed memories.)

All of this is propelled by a rich ensemble of characters of her past (and some in the present), which are delineated with fine detail (most of which I have not touched on or touched on with adequate detail here). Although the novel is driven by Margaret’s interior equivocation, it nonetheless provide a full portrait of the woman, and women much like her, of a generation or two ago, who grew up in the Depression and found their roles, although not necessarily their inner life, circumscribed. The mental journal Margaret makes is to test whether her vague belief is true: “We are all sliding. Sliding towards death and no one can help anybody else, all we can do is to hold together as we go.” And while Margaret was never educated in Great Thoughts, her reflections and self-examinations are nearly lyrical and always piercing and ultimately universal.

John Williams (date and photographer unknown; from The New York Review of Books.

John Williams (date and photographer unknown; from The New York Review of Books).

Martha Stephens and John Williams taught literature at universities. (Stephens taught at the University of Cincinnati; Williams at University of Denver.) Stephens wrote of an uneducated woman in a nontraditional narrative style. Williams, however, writes of an educated man, in fact a professor (at the school Williams himself obtained his Ph. D. from) in a seemingly straight-forward, omniscient third-person narrative style. The style is not really as artless as all that, however. In fact, its hard, cold, affectless manner reflects the life Stoner came from and the only way he could see others. Stoner’s parents were dirt farmers who expended themselves to acquire the little they had (and that little itself getting less). They were not used to communicating subtle ideas. The hardness of life made the few choices that presented easy enough. Young William never had need to expect much from life, never had to make any choices and so learned to accept what was set before him. The first and probably hardest choice he ever saw made was his father’s decision to send him to college. The terse dialogue written by Williams expresses not only the simplicity of this family, not only how deeply sad separation was to them, but also, and especially, how they carried on stoically under all sadness, because, they knew, it was their lot in life.

William Stoner was raised to expect hard, dull work as his lot. When he discovered literature, he must have regarded it as something forbidden, or at least as an indulgence above his station. That explains why he never told his parents that he was neglecting his agricultural program, and why he waited until it was no longer possible to deny it to inform them of his decision to go to graduate school rather than return to the farm. His parents came by horse and buggy to see his graduation and bring him back to the farm. But he had to inform them that he was not returning and instead would go to graduate school. His parents did not flinch but agreed with his decision. But the scene is rendered with such spare precision that we know that his father is deeply pained and only agrees (without opposition) because all terrible fates must be accepted without cavil, because that is how he understood life.

The scene leaves an indelible imprint on the reader not just because of the spare language, but also by reason of the selection of details. Williams never tries to give a brightly lit photograph of a scene, instead it as if every memorable scene is in black and white, with the characters illuminated by only a light from one source on the side. This approach gives only a particular perspective of a person in action, but it is nevertheless a three-dimensional portrait, shadows of various tints make out the contours of the physical and emotional makeup of the character.

Stoner does not directly examine the inner life of William Stoner and is not filled with interior monologue as Children of the World is. Williams almost never tells us the emotions of Stoner and never explains the words that go through his head. And when he says anything about the emotional or intellectual life of his hero, it’s in a brief conclusory way, as though it were necessary for reasons of transitions or to set up the context of a scene. And Stoner is a novel made up of scenes rather than narrative or even character. Given the “monochromatic” style of Williams, characters on first view seem merely types. Stoner’s wife, Edith, is self-centered, shallow and cruelly, abruptly assured. Even less ground is given by the narrator of Stoner to see some redeeming feature in Edith than Margaret’s memories allow her to see in Leonard. But neither one is a melodramatic stereotype, because in each case the implacable cruelty of the spouse is not shown by the feelings of the central character but by the actions of the spouse, which are what convinces the reader. Edith, for example is doted on by her father who provides her with all the frills that a St. Louis society girl should have to allow her to become an ornament. We assume that she adores him for his generosity. But after his death she returns to St. Louis, locks herself in her room, gathers all the toys and letters and memorabilia of her life there, and burns them. Nothing more is needed to be said about her implacable resentment, and we can foresee how her life with William will play out.

Stoner’s life with his wife from the start was suffocating.  Though Stoner tried to sublimate through his scholarship, he was only able to produce a mediocre book from his Ph.D. thesis, even though he put himself wholly behind the work. Edith hampered his efforts by turning his home office into a room for herself. Soon the difficulty of working at home caused him to lose interest in further publication.

John Williams served as sergeant in the U.S. Air Force in Asia during World War II.

John Williams served as sergeant in the U.S. Air Force in Asia during World War II.

One benefit was produced by his marriage—his daughter Grace. She was the result of a seeming impulsive decision by Edith and the only intimacy of their marriage. But Edith soon abandoned the family on the death of her father and stayed for a considerable time with her mother in St. Louis. Stoner took care of Grace himself and they developed a bond as he did his work from home and she from a little desk by his side. Grace played while Stoner worked and a quiet sympathy and happiness grew up between them. This was not disturbed when Edith returned for she still had no interest in raising Grace and threw herself into a local theatre group. But her interest in that flagged as well, and eventually she returned to the house full-time and flung herself into Grace’s upbringing. Her first decision was to impulsively remove her from her father’s office on the ground that she needed to develop friends her own age. Edith herself cultivated the mothers of Grace’s age peers. At one get together at the Stoner house, Stoner overheard her tell the other mothers how her father did not have enough time for Grace. I’ll quote the scene at some length because it shows how Williams can depict strong emotion by only describing action.

“No, Edith’s visitors were neighborhood mothers. They came in the mornings and drank coffee and talked while their children were in school; in the afternoons they brought their children with them and watched them playing games in the large living room and talked aimlessly above the noise of games and running.

“On these afternoons Stoner was usually in his study and could hear what the mothers said as they spoke loudly across the room, above the children’s voices.

“Once, when there was a lull in the noise, he heard Edith say, ‘Poor Grace. She’s so fond of hr father, but he has so little time to devote to her. His work, you know; and he has started a new book …’

“Curiously, almost detachedly, he watched his hands, which had been holding a book, begin to shake. They shook for several moments before he brought them under control by jamming them deep in his pockets, clenching them, and holding them there.”

The scene ends there but there is no doubt of Stoner’s emotional reaction. Williams goes on to show how Edith continues her campaign to separate Grace from Stoner:

“He saw his daughter seldom now. The three of them took their meals together, but on these occasions he hardly dared to speak to her, for when he did, and when Grace answered him, Edith soon found something wanting in Grace’s table manners or in the way she sat in her chair, and she spoke so sharply that her daughter remained silent and downcast through the rest of the meal.”

And thus economically Williams portrays the icy stratagems of Edith to  cut him out of the family. These seeds would pay handsomely later.

Stoner makes two other attempts to make some other existential meaning for his life. The first was a rededication to teaching, especially of his graduate students. This gives him a genuine sense of purpose and satisfaction. But as he begins taking his profession seriously, treating it as a calling, he runs up against his other great opponent, the English Department’s new head, Hollis Lomax. Lomax is drawn in silhouette; we see only so much of him as relates to Stoner, and so superficially, he seems another “type”—the pretentious academic turf battler, who sees his own importance in the submission of others. But we see enough to know that the battle between Stoner and Lomax, which is joined over an issue of admission to the graduate program of a protégé of Lomax, was not a battle that either Lomax or Stoner should have made into one of principle. But Stoner takes his position so dispassionately, so deliberately, so uncharacteristically that he can’t be faulted. Nevertheless, he eventually loses the point and is ultimately punished far beyond any affront Lomax could reasonably believe he suffered.

At the same time Stoner finds himself in an affair with a graduate student. The relationship is intense and tender. But they could not keep the matter secret, and the threat of scandal causes Stoner to lose the last thing that means anything to him. His eventual ruin is sealed. This does not come as a surprise, we are advised of it at the beginning. The needless suffering (from our perspective) meted out by small time autocrats makes the ruin pitiable. But through it all Stoner maintains his dignity and his unwillingness to verbalize a protest. This ultimate gift, or curse, from his parents makes his life seem worthwhile, perhaps noble, even if no one will ever know it.

Stoner and Children of the World end ambiguously. But of course given the questions they pose, they could end no other way. Yet each suggests a certain importance in lives that are “well spent.” The best literature makes an argument about the meaning of life that can’t be made by the tools of philosophy. We understand the argument through stories (which is why they have been told throughout history). These two novels each leave the reader with an inarticulable sense of the human worth, especially when the individual makes the effort to get it right, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

  1. D. K., I’m fascinated by this entire essay, as you may well imagine; and I must read the book Stoner! (Will look for it in Hamilton County Library.) I happened to open this post late this evening and will read it all over again tomorrow. Feel deeply honored to have your attention in this way!

  2. This is exciting! Perhaps you’ll (each) consider posting your correspondence.

    A Nosy Reader

  3. Hey, thanks, Nosy Reader. I’m still gathering up my thoughts about the post in question. I see very little that’s “wrong,” and am just interested and curious about certain concepts: “stream-of-consciousness” in novels as compared to the shaping of “interior monologues” as in Children of the World, according to this post. A good insight, I’m sure, but must think more about this.
    I’ve usually felt that many novels show us something we cannot see in real life, even among those we live with or know best — the inner lives people have, that is; and I expect D. K. Fennell might agree with me on that.
    “Children, we are all sliding . . . sliding towards death, and no one can help another; all we can do is hold together as we go.” I often think back to that expression of Margaret’s and am very happy that D. K. was struck by the same expression, fairly typical, I suppose, of a “depressed” person . . . but perhaps also a deep sense that many of us possess.
    D. K. and I occasionally exchange comments on this site — not by email — and seem to like it that way.

  4. Wonderful examination of how we may come to know in novels what a character is thinking, remembering, dreaming — in short, what is happening in the secret consciousness; and the ways a writer may try to portray those thoughts and memories. Your ideas here and your literary references are extremely interesting.

  5. Is Candide a novel in this sense? Or is it a hilarious piece of political propaganda?
    Please ignore if this is too off-topic.

    Nosy Reader

  6. I see what you mean. I recently read The Age of Innocence and did not like it. I recognized the satire, but it was more like sarcasm and strikes me as so class-specific that it also might be a pictaresque tale of the sort you describe.
    Don’t worry re school projects, at least as far as Nosy Reader is concerned. I’m far from that stage of life!

    Thanks to both of you,


  7. Fascinating essay , and I had read Stoner a couple of years ago. I shall go back to it for re-examination. Martha Stephens novel is unknown to me, although we have had delightful dialogue via blogging. I am now very interested to read this novel. I have recently been reading William Golding’s ‘A Moving Target’ which examines the challenge the novelist faces in bringing the protagonist’s inner life to the reader. My youngest son is just about to start an English degree at University, and I was discussing with him how criticism of the novel itself has changed over the past few decades. I will show him this as an example of considering text. Thank you for the clarity of thought within!!

  8. I’m just catching up with some of these exchanges tonight. I hope to become acquainted with Darkness Visible i. e. Age of Innocence I once admired; not sure what I would feel today.
    D. K. Fennell is not “academic,” he feels, and expects to give way to “professors.” Now I want to say that he is the most studious individual I’ve ever come across, professes more widely and deeply than any puhfessor I’m acquainted with, writes in astonishing detail about all of poetry, music, nature, politics, history.
    For myself, I have liked sharing impressions of writings I admire with students and friends, but I have some distrust of most formal “criticism,” and I actually know far too little of the history and interconnections of the great writings; I probably don’t have the technical instruments needed for the fullest dissecting of novels and poems.
    Yes, I love Faulkner and ESPECIALLY the opening of The Sound and the Fury. My truest love, though, is probably Charles Dickens; a very great novel in my mind is his Dombey and Son.
    I seem to live mostly in the stories I read and in my own small fabrications, scant as they are. But I enjoy knowing the intricate analyses of learned fellows like DKF.

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