Fear and Trembling and “Stoner”

NOTE: this piece originally appeared in the Winter 2020 print edition of Ad Fontes

It is disorienting to realize one’s sympathies lie with an adulterer. It is especially troubling when the man in question is such not by mere technicality—as though he had been unjustly denied an annulment or abandoned—but when, in the state of genuine wedlock, he takes up with a much younger graduate student. And yet, the protestations of the publicly upright notwithstanding, the honest reader of John Williams’ Stoner finds precisely this sympathy within himself as he evaluates the titular character’s actions. But why? Is Williams stoking our disordered desires or hoping to normalize betrayal, dishonesty, and immoral sexual conduct? Is our sympathy evidence of moral weakness or proof that the appetitive part of our souls is not yet rightly conformed to the rational?[1]

Rather than merely reject Williams’—and our own—sympathy out of hand, however, we should consider whether our affections have alerted us to a reality of which our reason was at first unaware. Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard’s extended meditation upon the binding of Isaac, distinguishes between the ethical and religious terms for Abraham’s terrifying act: “The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he was willing to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac; but in this contradiction lies the very anguish that can indeed make one sleepless.”[2] Likewise, the ethical expression of Stoner’s act is that he committed adultery; but is there a religious expression? Although we can never justify Stoner’s act—unlike Abraham’s, for reasons which will become clear—is there an expression that is able to explain our involuntary sympathy with it? But before we examine the act itself, we must turn to Stoner’s life, for acts find their meaning in lives.

William Stoner is born in the late-nineteenth century and poor, the son of farmers in rural Missouri. His family attends a Methodist church once monthly, a habit Stoner easily falls out of as he grows up. His father sends him to the University of Missouri to study agriculture, but, like so many disappointing children, Stoner discovers something less useful but more valuable: the humanities, and, in particular, English literature. Shakespeare changes Stoner’s life, and, as a result, the University becomes Stoner’s home. The first World War disrupts the University of Missouri, but not Stoner. From duty or vainglory or just to see Europe, his friends enlist. Stoner stays, quietly dedicating himself to a life of scholarship as his friends return changed or not at all. After completing his dissertation, Stoner is hired by the University to teach—and so he lives out his days.

Like most marriages, Stoner’s begins in hope and fear. Stoner meets Edith at a party sponsored by his university. He sees her across the room, “tall and slender and fair,” and by the end of the night has obtained her permission to “call on her.”[3] The first “call” is awkward: they are anxious, and Edith hardly speaks a word to Stoner. But at the end, the floodgates open and she tells of her life and thoughts for an hour and a half. Williams permits the reader no relief at Edith’s sudden loquaciousness, however: “Years later it was to occur to him that…on that December evening of their first extended time together, she told him more about herself than she ever told him again.”[4] A few weeks later, Stoner proposes. Edith, who comes from money, responds that she has a trip to Europe planned and doesn’t want to cancel. Stoner, doubtless caught up in his passion, promises, “I’ll take you to Europe. We’ll see it together someday.” Edith recoils: “You must give me time to think.”[5] Stoner hopes, but the reader knows to fear.

Their wedding night is a failure. A portent of things to come, Stoner sleeps on the sofa. “Within a month he knew his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping it would improve.”[6] At first, Stoner works to salvage the marriage. He buys gifts, makes picnics, and takes Edith for walks. But after a dinner party gone horribly wrong, when Edith retreats to her room to cry, Stoner is overcome by his sense of inadequacy. He leaves her to her sadness.

They beget one daughter, Grace, whom Stoner raises alone for the first few years—Edith cannot handle the strain of a baby. As she grows, Stoner allows her to play on the floor of his study as he works and hosts students for tea. Eventually, he gets a small desk so that Grace can read while he grades papers or works on his book. From time to time, they break from work and speak easily with one another. One particularly pleasant day, the door opens, and, in a fit of jealousy, Edith takes Grace away from her father. Grace protests, but Edith insists that Stoner is busy, “trying to work.”[7] After this, Edith begins remaking Grace, buying her new clothes and finding her new friends. A bewildered Stoner remains in his study, resigning himself to his fate and leaving Grace to hers. As Grace grows more miserable, Stoner’s relationship to her becomes strained. On one occasion, he briefly tries to challenge Edith but fails. He does not try to intervene on Grace’s behalf again until, years later, she gets pregnant by a college classmate, is pressured by Edith to marry him, and has given up hope.

As Stoner loses his daughter, he returns to his first and faithful love: the idea of “the University.” He seeks to preserve her pure and unspotted, to keep intellectual dilettantes and bulls––––rs at bay. The University, he rightly intuits, is meant to be “an asylum, a refuge from the world, for the dispossessed, the crippled.”[8] It is a hospital for those out of place in this world, a monastery dedicated to the best of what is human. Unlike for his wife and daughter, for the University, Stoner fights. He has hope that his ideal may yet be realized. He works to improve himself pedagogically, assists both undergraduates and graduate students with research, and tries to be collegial. But Stoner is outmaneuvered by a colleague in a crucial departmental fight. Thus, he begins to lose even his University, powerless to stop its transformation. Stoner’s hope for the University was far from foolish in the mid-twentieth century, but Williams, writing decades after the setting of his book, knew the bulls––––rs would breach the walls.

Stoner’s pattern of behavior—first with wife, then with child, then with University—is called by Kierkegaard the “movement of resignation.” The knight of infinite resignation reckons with the hopelessness of this-worldly bliss, and in this reckoning obtains for himself “peace and repose.”[9] Resignation is a movement of the will available to “anyone who wants it…[who] can discipline himself into making this movement, which in its pain reconciles one to existence.”[10] To illustrate the movement, Kierkegaard gives the example of a man who loves a princess, knowing she will never be his. The knight of infinite resignation forfeits the actual princess and transposes his love for her into a spiritual key: his love for this woman becomes an eternal love. Thus, “from the moment he makes this movement the princess is lost.”[11] The knight of infinite resignation keeps the love, but he forfeits the beloved. Such is the cost of his repose.

The knight of infinite resignation is a rational man, a stoic.[12] He does not war against the Fates, but neither does he hold out the fool’s hope that “perhaps, someday, things will be better.” No, the knight of infinite resignation sees the world as it is, faces its cruelty, masters himself, and makes his love invincible by moving it beyond earth’s reach. This movement insulates not only the love, but the lover. He becomes impervious to the vagaries of life. After all, the man who has already forfeited the princess cannot be disappointed when they are never united. But let us reckon clearly with what this means. The knight of infinite resignation has no need for faith, for his love is a present possession; he has no capacity for hope, for he sees the world as it is; he has only love—immortal, impervious, objectless love. The knight of infinite resignation recognizes that his marriage is a failure and retreats into repose; he witnesses the ruin of his daughter and gives her up; he is routed by the head of his department and cedes his ground. “Now everything is lost,” says this knight. “He has felt the pain of renouncing everything, whatever is most precious in the world.”[13]

But Stoner does not merely resign himself. He does not only forfeit the objects of his love with stoic resignation, steeling himself against a relapse into the fool’s hope. Instead of transposing his love into the eternal, he believes that he will be happy in this life—and so begins his affair. By committing adultery with a graduate student, Stoner learns that “love is…a process through which one person attempts to know another.”[14] Stoner realizes that love requires an object in this world, a true beloved. Love must realize itself concretely; it is not meant to be transposed.

Stoner and his lover imagine possibilities for their future together which are more truly “a celebration of the life they [have] together now.”[15] Lost years before, Stoner’s appetite for research returns. He learns that the life of the mind and that of the body are not opposed, but interrelated. Stoner fashions a world for himself in which love’s object is a beloved and earthly happiness is within reach—despite every indication to the contrary.

This movement through infinite resignation into the confidence of earthly beatitude is called by Kierkegaard, appealing to Abraham as his model, the movement of faith. In accordance with God’s command, Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac. And despite every appearance that Isaac’s death was God’s true desire, Abraham nevertheless continued to believe in the divine promise: “My covenant will I establish with Isaac” (Gen. 17:21). He believed that Isaac would be his in this life. The movement of faith is “made continually on the strength of the absurd,” and “in such a way, be it noted, that one does not lose finitude but gains it all of a piece.”[16] The knight of faith makes the same movements as the knight of infinite resignation: he reckons with the world as it is, forfeits all false hope, and ultimately resigns. But “he makes one more movement…for he says: ‘I nevertheless believe that I shall get her, namely on the strength of the absurd.’”[17] Against any earthly possibility, the knight of faith moves through resignation and regains what he forfeited to the world. Abraham believed: Isaac will be returned to me, namely on the strength of the absurd. While the knight of infinite resignation squarely faces the world under the sun and rightly sees resignation as the only rational response, the knight of faith, abjuring all false hope, moves through resignation and believes anyway.

By his adultery, Stoner nearly learns the meaning of faith, believing on the strength of the absurd that earthly felicity will be his. Of course, Stoner’s movement of faith is ill-fated and immoral, for, unlike Abraham, he believed in an idol. He trusted the affair to work the miracle that only God can; he trusted the affair to overcome the world. At some level, even Stoner seems to recognize that his faith is misplaced. He knew from the beginning that “the world was creeping up on him…and he watched the approach with a sadness of which he could not speak.”[18] His affair could not—and did not—survive contact with reality. Stoner builds for himself an ark to escape the world; but floodwaters eventually recede, and the occupants must disembark.

The ethical expression for what Stoner did is that he committed adultery; the religious expression is that he attempted the movement of faith. The tragedy of Stoner’s life is that he believed in the affair. In other words, the tragedy of Stoner’s life is idolatry. This is why Stoner’s act can never be justified, not even in principle. For Kierkegaard, the obligation to uphold the “ethical” term can only be suspended by a true movement of faith: Abraham, the knight of faith, was willing to sacrifice Isaac “for the sake of God because God demand[ed] proof of his faith.”[19] Abraham was tested by God, and his response was justified only because he believed God in the time of trial. Stoner is not tested, nor does he believe God: thus, his act cannot be the response of faith. And yet, in spite of the fact that Stoner remains within and violates the realm of the ethical, his actions testify to the truth that man does not live by bread alone: infinite resignation is supremely rational east of Eden, and it is the logical response to the conditions of our world. But it cannot satisfy. The transposition of one’s loves from the concrete to the ideal, the forfeiture of wife and daughter and University in the face of powerlessness to keep them, is ultimately inhuman. Hence fallen man makes for himself graven images: idolatry is the reprobate’s response to the impossibility of infinite resignation.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus takes up his pen against what he perceives as Kierkegaard’s escapism. He investigates the problem of suicide, seeking to answer whether life is worth living. When one finds the “universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, [one] feels an alien, a stranger.”[20] The gulf between man, who craves meaning, and the meaningless universe, is the absurd. For Camus, against Kierkegaard, the absurd is ultimate reality. There is no God who can overcome it; neither is there a faith which can believe on its strength. Instead, the absurd man, that is, the man who reckons with absurdity, “does nothing for the eternal.”[21] Camus thus concludes that life “will be lived all the better if it has no meaning. Living an experience, a particular fate, is accepting it fully.”[22] This is infinite resignation. Against Camus, I need offer as evidence only William Stoner. He could not escape Camus’ absurd by anything in his own power—neither by wife, nor daughter, nor University, nor adultery—but neither could he live with it. To the knight of infinite resignation, who refuses to attempt the movement of faith, we can only say that man was not made to drink this world to the dregs. That is why we must sympathize with William Stoner.

Onsi A. Kamel is Editor-in-Chief of the Davenant Press and Senior Editor of Ad Fontes. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two children.

  1. Plato, Republic, IV.442aff.
  2. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling: Dialectical Lyric by Johannes De Silentio (Folio Society UK, 1985), 26.
  3. Williams, Stoner, 47, 49.
  4. Williams, Stoner, 53.
  5. Williams, Stoner, 56.
  6. Williams, Stoner, 74.
  7. Williams, Stoner, 122.
  8. Williams, Stoner, 167.
  9. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 43.
  10. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 43.

  11. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 41.
  12. I owe this insight to Eric Hutchinson.
  13. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 38.
  14. Williams, Stoner, 194; emphasis mine.
  15. Williams, Stoner, 194.
  16. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 35.
  17. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 45.
  18. Williams, Stoner, 202.
  19. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 59.
  20. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2018), 6.
  21. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 60.
  22. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 53.


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