William Styron’s 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice consists of a story within a story. The first story is of the summer of 1947 when the narrator, then age twenty-two and using the nickname Stingo, loses his job at McGraw-Hill in New York City. He moves to a Brooklyn boarding house where he sets about writing what he hopes will be the next great American novel. While Stingo tries to write this book, using the recent suicide of a childhood friend as a catalyst, he becomes involved with two other residents, the co-dependent Sophie and the psychotic drug addict Nathan. The second story emerges piecemeal from Sophie, who tells Stingo about her life over the past decade: of living in Cracow, Poland, the daughter of a university professor; of her marriage to her father’s protégé; of living with her two children in Warsaw after her father and husband are murdered; and of her imprisonment at Auschwitz. Because she survived, Sophie feels implicated in Nazi atrocities. She is ashamed of her father’s fascist beliefs and guilt-ridden for having helped with his pamphlet advocating the extermination of the Jews, for failing to protect her children, and for using her father’s views as an argument to wangle her freedom from the camp. Her abusive relationship with Nathan exacerbates these feelings. Alcohol abuse by all three characters makes matters worse.
The nature of evil and the widening circle of implicating others in its perpetuation constitutes the central subject in this novel. In addition to that subject, however, the novel takes itself as its subject. In a surprisingly self-referential and reflexive way, the novel is about writing a novel. It describes Stingo’s uncertainty and writer’s block; it includes drafts from 1947 and criticizes them from the narrator’s 1977 perspective.
The novel is also about the real world on which it is based. Like other works of historical fiction, it presents historical characters in fictional roles. It also breaks the illusion of that fictive world with digressions: on World War II; on the nature of evil; on recommended readings for public school children (although given its obscenity Sophie’s Choice itself is probably not appropriate); and on Elie Wiesel’s criticism of novels on the Holocaust. In sum, it may be safe to say that storytelling is both the method and the examined subject of Sophie’s Choice.
William Styron was born June 11, 1925, in Newport News, Virginia. He attended a private Christian school and Davidson College in North Carolina before graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Duke University in 1947. Like Stingo in Sophie’s Choice, Styron experienced the death of his mother when he was a teenager, and after college, began his professional life as an assistant editor for McGraw-Hill in New York City. Styron later served in an editorial capacity for the journals Paris Review and American Scholar. He also served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and the Korean War.
Often compared to Faulkner, William Styron writes in a literary tradition associated with the South. Several fathers in his fictions, including Stingo’s father, are reminiscent of Styron’s own liberal-thinking, gentlemanly father, William Clark Styron, a shipyard engineer who died in 1978. Styron’s fictional fathers speak for equality and tolerance in a harsh twentieth-century world that does not hear them.
Styron wrote three novels, Lie Down in Darkness (1951), The Long March (1956), and Set This House on Fire (1960), before he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), a first-person narration that tells the story of the 1831 Virginia slave rebellion. Twelve years later, in 1979, Styron published Sophie’s Choice, his study of human domination in Nazi-controlled Poland and in a sadomasochistic sexual relationship.
The author of five novels, a play, several essay collections, and an autobiography, Styron published Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness in 1990, a work that describes his 1980s descent into depression. Taking his title from Milton’s Paradise Lost (the words come from Satan’s description of Hell), Styron explores the depression he experienced which was brought on in part by four decades of alcohol abuse and the death of his father. In 1993, he published three autobiographical stories, Tidewater Morning: Three Tales from Youth, his first work since recovering from his mental illness.
William Styron and his wife, Rose Burgunder Styron, whom he married in the 1950s, have devoted their lives to literature and to human rights. Rose Styron was contributing poetry editor for Paris Review and a proponent of Amnesty International. William and Rose Styron have stood up repeatedly against oppression and prejudice worldwide. Styron’s exploration of evil and its aftermath in Sophie’s Choice is only one instance of decades of focus on, and resistance to, tyranny.
Set in New York in the summer of 1947 and told from the first person point of view, Sophie’sChoice begins with Stingo, a McGraw-Hill assistant editor, ranting about the “clubfooted syntax” and “unrelenting mediocrity” of other people’s manuscripts. But Stingo also admits he rejected the manuscript of Kon-Tiki, a work that later became a “great classic of modern adventure.” As Stingo toys with the idea of becoming a writer, he copes with sexual frustration and the reality of being a virgin. To sublimate his sex drive, he plunges into “make-believe” fiction, avoiding his “homework … composing jacket blurbs.” Stingo loses his job, and Mr. Farrell urges him to “write [his] guts out.”
- Sophie’s Choice was made into a film starring Meryl Streep as Sophie and Kevin Kline as Nathan. It is available on a 1992 video and a 1998 DVD.
The narrator reveals that it is now thirty years later; the year is 1977. He is looking back to that summer when he set out to be a writer, when he still went by his childhood nickname Stingo. Readers learn in the course of the novel that, at fifty-two, the narrator is a successful author of several novels, including one on Nat Turner. Stingo thus emerges as the simulacrum of William Styron.
Thus, the chapter is devoted to writing, publication, writers, editors, and editors who are would-be writers. It echoes the famous line from Moby Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) in the narrator’s comment, “Call me Stingo,” and refers to famous American writers, such as Katherine Porter, John Hersey, and Thomas Wolfe.
As the now-unemployed Stingo considers his next move, a letter providentially arrives from his father, explaining an inheritance Stingo is to receive. The legacy is proceeds from the sale of a named slave Artiste. The father explains that Stingo’s great-grandfather sold Artiste, “an innocent boy of 16 into the grinding hell of the Georgia turpentine forests.” The recently discovered and appraised eight hundred dollars in gold coin allots to Stingo a legacy of five hundred dollars. Ironically, profits from the slave trade will support Stingo, who is to write novels about racism.
Stingo moves to Yetta Zimmerman’s “unrelievedly pink” boarding house in Brooklyn. There he faces the “simultaneously enfeebling and insulting … empty page.” Frustrated with not writing and “a little goatish,” he hears a creaking bed in the apartment overhead. He meets Morris Fink, who describes the lovers, Sophie and Nathan. Next, Stingo witnesses the couple fighting and after the verbally abusive Nathan leaves, Stingo meets Sophie, with whom he falls “fathomlessly in love.” Seeing the tattooed number on her arm, he assumes she is Jewish.
Stingo is amazed the next day by Sophie and Nathan’s happy invitation to join them for a day at Coney Island. Nathan undergoes “a remarkable transformation,” flipping from abuser to gentleman and back to abuser. Hungry for friendship, however, Stingo ignores the signs of something wrong. Nathan accuses Stingo as a Southerner of being complicit in the lynching of Bobby Weed. Nathan says: “The fate of Bobby Weed at the hands of white Southern Americans is as bottomlessly barbaric as any act performed by the Nazis during the rule of Adolf Hitler.” Sixteen-year-old Weed was accused like the slave Artiste and died in the same Georgia forest where Artiste disappeared. Stingo remarks that he should have seen the signs, packed up, and left; had he done so there would be “no story at all to tell.” Instead, he chooses to “plunge on toward Coney Island,” assuming that the three of them will be “‘the best of friends.’”
Sophie describes her childhood in Cracow. She explains that Nathan, when he is in one of his fits, accuses her of being anti-Semitic because she is Polish. She feels guilty about the fact that Poland was strongly anti-Semitic, and she equates this feeling with what Stingo must feel being from the racist South. The Germans arrived in Cracow in September 1939 and immediately executed all university faculty, including her father and husband. She says: “only a Jesus who had no pity and who no longer cared for me could permit the people I loved to be killed and let me live with such guilt.” Stingo sums up more of Sophie’s story, including her arrival in New York, her experience of “digital rape” on a train, her work for the chiropractor Dr. Blackstock, and her meeting Nathan Landau, who rescues her when she collapses at the Brooklyn Public Library. He also points out that Sophie lies about the past. For example, she claims here that Nathan is her second sexual partner. Later, she tells about Jozef, her lover in Warsaw. Stingo says that he “was fated to get ensnared, like some hapless June bug, in the incredible spider’s nest of emotions that made up the relation between Sophie and Nathan.”
Stingo’s father writes again, with news of another inheritance, this time a peanut farm allocated in the will of a friend, just the place for Stingo to live and write. Stingo languishes with his novel idea, thinks his idea “pathetically derivative” because in his novel about Maria Hunt, he wants to “do for a small Southern city what James Joyce” did for Dublin—“invent Dixieland replicas of Stephen Dedalus and the imperishable Blooms.” (Instead, the mature narrator writes a novel about Stingo and the “perishable” Sophie and Nathan.) Enflaming Stingo’s self-doubts, Nathan claims that Southern literature is over and Jewish literature’s day has come. At Coney Island, Stingo meets the “Jewish Madonna” Leslie Lapidus, who invites Stingo to have sex with her. Stingo’s writing on Leslie is quoted and then criticized for its lack of irony. The mature narrator then “rewrites” the scene between Stingo and Leslie, using curiously mock-romantic language. Stingo offers to elucidate Faulkner, whom Sophie is reading, because he has “practically memorized” the collection she is reading.
Stingo relates how Nathan cared for Sophie after she collapsed in the library, preparing calf’s liver for her because he suspects she suffers from anemia. Nathan is a well-read American Jew, obsessed with World War II atrocities. Sophie reveals she is Polish, not Danish as Nathan first thought. Then she tells Nathan some of her past, beginning with the fact that in April 1943 she was arrested and transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Because of her perfect German, Sophie is selected to serve as secretary for the Auschwitz commandant, but despite this favored position, she contracts scurvy and scarlet fever. Again, Stingo points out “that Sophie was not quite straightforward in her recital of past events.” The mature narrator reflects that her “hideous sense of guilt” caused her repeatedly to reassess the past. The narrator quotes Simone Weil’s explanation of survivor guilt: “Affliction stamps the soul to its very depths with the scorn, the disgust and even the self-hatred and sense of guilt that crime logically should produce but actually does not.” Sophie is secretive and reticent about the past, because she feels responsible for it. Nonetheless, she is able to tell Stingo things she cannot tell Nathan.
One part of her story reserved for Stingo pertains to Rudolf Franz Höss, SS Obersturmbannführer, Commandant of Auschwitz, for whom Sophie worked for ten days. (The historical Rudolf Franz Höss [1900–1947] was commandant of Auschwitz from May 1940 until December 1943. For war crimes, he was hanged on April 16, 1947, at Auschwitz.) Styron cites information about Höss here, saying that he illustrates “the true nature of evil.” Styron asserts that everyone should read about Höss, even “our beloved children, those incipient American leaders at the eighth-grade level … should be required to study it along with The Catcher in the Rye.”
Making a huge jump from background on Höss to Stingo’s sexual frustration, the narrator devotes this chapter to Stingo’s failed attempt to have sexual intercourse with Leslie. Included is a long excerpt from his 1947 writing on the experience. He calls this inconsequential episode with Leslie “a nice counterpoint” to the larger narrative about Sophie.
Nathan praises Stingo’s writing. Thus coddled, Stingo is slow to see “seeping out of Nathan, almost like some visible poisonous exudate, his latent capacity for rage.” Nathan enraged is as toxic as the gas chambers. Another huge fight occurs. Later, drinking with Stingo, Sophie tells him more. Nathan returns and accuses Sophie of infidelity. He suspects her employer, Dr. Blackstock, and he suspects Stingo. Though unwilling or unable to intervene, Stingo admits that Nathan “might be dangerously disturbed.” Nathan attacks Stingo’s writing, claiming that it amounts to the “first Southern comic book.” Later Stingo discovers that Sophie and Nathan seem to have moved out, taken most of their things and headed off in different directions. Three days later Sophie returns, but readers do not learn that for another hundred pages.
The mature narrator discusses research from the 1960 and 1970s: George Steiner’s essays, collected in Language and Silence (1967) and Richard Rubenstein’s The Cunning of History (1975). In the years since 1947, the story of Sophie and Nathan continues to haunt the narrator. By 1967 he realized he would have to deal with their story, just as in 1947 he had successfully dealt with the story of “the doomed Maria Hunt.”
Steiner’s concept of “time relation” causes the narrator to feel “the shock of recognition.” Steiner explores the implications in the fact that people have vastly different experiences at precisely the same moment: “The two orders of simultaneous experience are … a paradox—Treblinka is both because some men have built it and almost all other men let it be.” Stingo was eating bananas in Raleigh, North Carolina, one “lovely spring morning,” just at the moment that Sophie entered Auschwitz. On October 3, 1943, in training in the Marines and at Duke University, Stingo writes a letter to his father, the big news on his mind is the Rose Bowl. On that same day, 2,100 Greek Jews are gassed and cremated at Auschwitz. The fact that things co-occur suggests that events are linked, and that idea is developed in the narrator’s quotations from Rubenstein, who argues that the Nazi state of domination derived from the institution of slavery. This chapter includes information about the fascist beliefs of Sophie’s father and her husband, about her husband’s abuse of her, and about how both father and husband were “sucked like … mere larva into the burial mound of KL Sachsenhausen.” Her shame comes from being related to them and loving them.
From the stairwell of the Höss house, Sophie can “peek” at the unloaded boxcars, watch the ash spew from the crematoria smokestacks, and hear the infernal prisoner band music. In this house, Sophie is sexually assaulted by Wilhelmine, the housekeeper. She vomits on the staircase and then soothes Höss when he gets a migraine. The construction of a new crematorium at Birkenau has been slowed, and he fears being found derelict in his duties. Sophie sees Höss as her only hope of escape. When she learns he is being transferred to Berlin, Sophie presents her father’s pamphlet to him, hoping to convince him that she is a fascist too and should be freed from the camp. Höss talks about himself, and Sophie pleads for him to intervene on behalf of her son.
Stingo’s father visits New York and cautions Stingo about the differences between the North and the South. The father says the North will pay for its racism. He notes the uneasiness brewing in Northern slums and anticipates the race riots that actually do occur twenty years later in 1967. Stingo’s father has had a fight with a cabdriver and is appalled by his incivility. He contends that when people speak in uncivilized ways they degrade themselves. Stingo’s father has excellent language skills, but he is quicker to see racism in the North than to recognize it in his own thinking.
Stingo thinks back to his mother who died when he was thirteen. He regrets that once he failed to come home and start the fire for her and as a result she was dangerously cold for hours. His father punished him by making him wait in the woodshed until he got as cold as his mother had gotten. Staying overnight in his father’s hotel, Stingo dreams of Artiste, connecting him to Nat Turner, and in the morning he temporarily decides to return home with his father to Virginia. Had he followed out this plan, he would not have intervened in Sophie’s affairs and that might have been better for her in the long run.
Lebensborn, “a product of the Nazis’ phylogenetic delirium,” is discussed next. This program placed Aryan-looking children, kidnapped from occupied countries, in pro-Nazi German families inside Germany. Ironically this program, which sickened Sophie when she was in Warsaw, became her hope at Auschwitz for Jan’s “liberation” from the Children’s Camp.
Sophie and Stingo get drunk. She tells him about a trip she and Nathan took to Connecticut, how he beat her up and obscenely denigrated her in a woods. The alcohol lubricates her narration: “whiskey transformed her speech into a spillway.” She reveals that Nathan is addicted to Benzedrine and cocaine, that these drugs make him crazy. On that trip he lured her with the idea of committing suicide by taking sodium cyanide, which she calls one of his “morbid tricks.” Sophie is fascinated by Nathan, turned on by him when he is high. The obscene descriptions of their sexuality in this chapter dramatize how sexism, racism, and domestic violence are interconnected by dominance. Caught in the delusional swirl of sexual arousal and alcoholism, Sophie loses herself; she claims, “Without Nathan I would be … nothing.” Not coincidentally, she felt the same way in the Höss household.
Hung over, Sophie and Stingo go to Jones Beach, along the way making anti-Semitic remarks. Sophie talks about her lover Jozef, the teenage resistance fighter in Warsaw. She tells about being arrested with her two children, the first mention of her daughter. She also gives a tender portrait of Eva’s flute teacher, the arthritic Stefan Zaorski. Stefan is with Eva in the group at Auschwitz selected for immediate extermination. She describes how Jozef and his half-sister Wanda urged Sophie to assist in the resistance work. She admires their courage and is disturbed that she could not participate. She wanted to protect her children. Their arrest is described in greater detail.
The narrator gives statistics on Jewry in Warsaw and stops to think again about Sophie’s father. They were all “helpless participants,” but what would her father have thought had he realized the fate of his own grandchildren? Professor Biegański was blinded by his fascist obsession and thus he failed to “foresee how sublime hatred could only gather into its destroying core, like metal splinters sucked toward some almighty magnet, countless thousands of victims who did not wear the yellow badge.”
Sophie describes the verbal abuse she received from her husband. She tells of meeting Walter Dürrfeld, director of IG Farbenindustrie, who visited her father before the War and flirted inappropriately with her. (The historical Walter Dürrfeld was head of the Farben rubber factory at Auschwitz from 1941 to 1944. He was tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to eight years in prison.) In the camp, Wanda visits Sophie, bringing news of Jan and urging Sophie to help the resistance prisoners by stealing a radio from Höss’s house. On the last night in that house, Sophie had an erotic dream about Dürrfeld whom she had not seen in years, and the next day she saw him as he left Höss’s office. Years later when Sophie tells Stingo about these memories, she confesses again “her ‘badness.’” Having pondered her “misplaced guilt” for years, the narrator concludes that “absolute evil paralyzes absolutely.”
Nathan, Sophie, and Stingo plan a trip South after the lovers marry, and Stingo resolves to write a novel based on the life of Nat Turner. Stingo meets Nathan’s brother, Larry, who explains Nathan’s mental illness and asks Stingo to watch Nathan and report back to Larry if there are signs of danger. Then, inexplicably, Stingo takes a ten-day vacation to visit an old buddy from his Marine days, and while he is away, Nathan beats up Sophie and threatens her with a gun. When Stingo returns, Nathan threatens him, accusing Stingo of having betrayed him with Sophie. Sophie and Stingo flee Brooklyn in fear of their lives.
Stingo and Sophie head south on a train. Stingo contemplates how to end the novel he is writing about Maria Hunt; as Sophie sleeps, he thinks about the novels he will write in the future, perhaps a masterpiece about Nat Turner. Even Sophie gets into planning a book: “I want to write about Auschwitz… . I could write in Polish or German or maybe French,” she remarks. She could write about the atrocities and how the Nazis drove people to do unthinkable things. In Warsaw, Wanda told her what was happening at Treblinka and Auschwitz. Sophie was ashamed to admit to Wanda that the “Fascist professor from Cracow,” was in fact her father. Sophie talks about how Jozef and Wanda got guns to Feldshon, a Jew in Warsaw, how Wanda showed her photographs of dead children, “a great mass of sticks.” The narrator describes in detail the trains Nazis used to transport people to the camps and the band music the prisoners could hear from the train platform.
Next, comes the story of Sophie’s “choice,” how she was coerced by a sadistic Nazi doctor, who first lusts after her, to choose between her children. This event, withheld until the penultimate chapter, holds the key to understanding Sophie’s psychology and the nature of pure evil. Forced to engage in the “selection,” Sophie breaks in two herself. She is her children and to choose between them is to cut in two her own identity, her own congruency. Thus, she incorporates in herself the antagonistic roles of victimizer and victim. The mature narrator describes the Nazi doctor as a Christian who, in his youth, wanted to go into the ministry. To meet “the demands of butchery,” he must have been consuming “a great deal of alcohol.” On the platform he acts like God, deciding who lives and who dies.
Stingo and Sophie get off the train in Washington, D.C., and posing as a minister with his wife, Stingo gets them a hotel room near the capitol.
Sophie resists Stingo’s proposal of marriage. She admits giving up the hope of finding Jan, thinks he may have died from exposure and pneumonia in the camp. She wonders, if she had chosen Jan instead of Eva, would it have made any difference? She concludes, “Nothing would have changed anything.” That night in the hotel room, they have sexual intercourse. Stingo imagines Sophie’s initiation of sex as the sign she agrees to marry him. But when he wakes up and finds her gone, he feels betrayed and angry about not being able to extricate her from Nathan’s snare. Given the note she leaves and his sense that their intimacy was really an “orgiastic attempt to beat back death,” Stingo returns to New York fearing the worse.
En route to New York on the train, Stingo is joined by an African American woman whom he calls the “dark priestess.” Together they read scriptures of lamentation. “Plunging deathward,” Stingo surrenders himself to a great grief, knowing that “something terrible was going to happen to [Sophie], and to Nathan, and that [Stingo’s] desperate journey to Brooklyn could in no way alter the fate they embraced.” Stingo arrives at the boarding house to hear Morris Fink’s summary of events there, and to see Sophie and Nathan, a double suicide, encircled together like lovers in her bed. Next comes their funeral; Stingo reads over the adjacent graves a poem by Emily Dickinson, which begins, “Ample make this bed.”
Heartsick with grief, Stingo goes to the beach at Coney Island. He remembers his trip to the park with Nathan and Sophie. He falls asleep on the beach and children bury him in the sand. When he wakes, he sits up as one newly risen from a shallow grave and sees the morning star.
Stingo’s ancestors were slave owners. The will of Stingo’s grandmother alluded to some gold coins, “the proceeds of the sale of a 16-year-old negro boy named Artiste.” The orphaned Artiste, along with his two younger sisters, was bought at auction by Stingo’s great-grandfather in Petersburg, Virginia, in the late 1850s. It was alleged that Artiste made some kind of “advance” toward a white girl. It was assumed he was guilty, so Artiste was sold by Stingo’s great-grandfather “into the grinding hell of the Georgia turpentine forests.” When the white girl later confessed to having falsely accused Artiste, the great-grandfather felt both grief and guilt. He had committed what Stingo’s father calls “one of the truly unpardonable acts of a slave-owner—broken up a family.” To correct the matter, he inquired by mail and courier and was ready to buy Artiste back, but the slave boy was never located. Almost five hundred dollars, left from Artiste’s sale price of eight hundred dollars in gold coin, constitutes Stingo’s inheritance. Ironically Stingo, who will write novels about racism and oppression, begins his career as a writer living off the proceeds of a slave sale.
Professor Zbigniew Biegański
Professor Zbigniew Biegański holds the title of Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence at Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland, and Doctor of Law at other German universities. He is an anti-Semite fascist, a known extremist in the academic community and scoffed at as something of a dandy and a crackpot. He writes a pamphlet on the Jewish problem that Sophie is compelled to copyedit, duplicate, and distribute. Sophie later views her father as
a man who had exercised over his household … a tyrannical domination so inflexible yet so cunningly subtle that she was a grown woman, fully come of age, before she realized that she loathed him past all telling.
The professor welcomes the Nazi occupation of Poland. However, he is rounded up with other faculty and murdered by soldiers inside the Third Reich.
In his final and futile pursuit of Sophie, Stingo is joined on the train by an African American woman. She tells him, “Sonny … dey is only one Good Book. And you got it right in yo’ hand.” Stingo is distraught because he fears he will be too late to save Sophie. He and the black woman read aloud from the Bible, beginning with Psalm 88. They read Ecclesiastes and Isaiah. Stingo finds the “grand old Hebrew woe … more cathartic,” so they returned to Job. When the woman, whom Stingo calls “dark priestess,” gets off at Newark, she predicts, “Ev’ything gone be all right.” This woman affirms the importance of finding the necessary words for lamentation; a nonbeliever, Stingo is nonetheless comforted by her and the scriptures they read together.
Dr. Walter Dürrfeld
Based on a historical person, the character Dr. Walter Dürrfeld directs IG Farbenindustrie near Leipzig. He visits Professor Biegański in Cracow in June 1937. During his visit, Dürrfeld criticizes the British, yet he wears a smart British suit and smokes British cigarettes. Sophie finds his elegance and cultivation attractive, and the married Dürrfeld, who is many years her senior, inappropriately flirts with her. By 1943, Dürrfeld is head of Farben’s industrial complex at Auschwitz. Sophie sees him in the Höss house, but he does not recognize her; she is no longer the pretty girl he met in 1937. Sophie comments that, while on the first occasion, “one of Poland’s most influential anti-Semites … uttered not a word about Jews. Six years later almost all she heard from Dürrfeld’s lips concerned Jews and their consignment to oblivion.”
Sophie’s Choice is full of historically factual information. The Farben chemical company, precursor of BASF, used slave labor; it flourished during the war years on profits it made from manufacturing the cyanide pesticide, Zyklon-B, and selling it to the Third Reich. Starting at Auschwitz in 1941, this chemical was used in the gas chambers to exterminate millions.
Mr. Farrell, Stingo’s immediate supervisor at McGraw-Hill, once wanted to be a writer but “got sidetracked.” He describes how editorial work made him deal “with other people’s ideas … rather than [his] own” and that doing so is “hardly conducive to creative effort.” Farrell’s great grief is that his son, Edward, a promising writer who, at nineteen, had already been published in the New Yorker, was killed on Okinawa by sniper fire in 1945; he was probably “one of the last marines to die in the war.” The narrator reveals that he, too, was a marine and had gone to Okinawa, arriving there perhaps just a little while after Eddie was mortally wounded. Eddie’s story makes the narrator feel “foreshortened, shriveled.” When they talk for the last time, Mr. Farrell tells Stingo, “Son, write your guts out.” Writing is a meaning-making process, one way to “fix” or frame loss. For Mr. Farrell, writing is a way to stay on track.
Morris Fink rents a room at the Zimmerman boarding house and likes gossiping about the other residents. Fink calls Nathan a “golem” because he witnesses Nathan’s physical and verbal abuse of Sophie. On the day of the double suicide, Fink grows suspicious when no one answers Sophie’s door when he knocks on it. He contacts Nathan’s brother, Larry, and together they discover the bodies of Sophie and Nathan in her bed. Afterward, Morris wonders if there was anything he could have done to prevent the suicides.
Rudolf Franz Höss
Based on the historical person, Rudolf Franz Höss, the SS Obersturmbann-Führer and commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp, is married and has five children. He lives with his family in a house that has views of the train platform and the smoke rising from the crematoria. Sophie is his secretary for ten days. Höss detests homosexuality and any deviation from rules of conduct. He struggles against his sexual attraction to Sophie, who has the Aryan features (blue eyes, blond hair, and white skin) favored by the Nazis. Also, he respects her bilingual and secretarial skills.
Höss is compulsive about accomplishing tasks on time and, during the ten days, is violently disturbed when progress slows on construction of a new crematorium at Birkenau. Höss suffers a migraine headache when confronted with this problem and fears he will be reprimanded for negligence by his superiors. He interprets his transfer to Berlin as a reprimand. Höss recognizes Sophie’s manipulation of him with the story of her father’s pamphlet.
Before Höss leaves Auschwitz, he promises Sophie that he will arrange for her to see her son, but then he reneges in fear that such an act of compassion might suggest, or indeed prove, his weakness.
Maria Hunt is first mentioned in a letter to Stingo from his father who sends news of her death. The twenty-two-year-old Hunt has just committed suicide by jumping out the window of a tall building quite close to where Stingo lives. Stingo remembers being attracted to her when they were in school together as children, and he wonders if he could have prevented her death. He decides to write his first novel using Maria Hunt’s life as a starting place.
The teenage Jozef, a Warsaw resistance fighter and Sophie’s lover, lives with his half-sister Wanda in an apartment directly below Sophie and her children. Though Sophie refuses to help them in their work, she admires Jozef and Wanda for participating in the underground movement. Jozef’s job is to murder Poles who betray the location of Jews in hiding to the Nazis. Jozef is an anarchist and an atheist. Nonetheless, he believes in a free Poland; every time he murders a Pole, he vomits in moral revulsion. Several days after Sophie is arrested in March 1943, Jozef is murdered by the Ukrainian guards whom the Nazis use to carry out assassinations.
Larry Landau, the older brother of Nathan Landau, is a medical doctor who confirms Nathan’s suspicion that Sophie is suffering from iron deficiency and is dangerously anemic. Larry prescribes medicine for her. He warns Stingo about Nathan’s mental illness and urges Stingo and Morris Fink, another renter, to call him immediately if Nathan presents an extreme threat. Larry also asks them not to call the police. This restriction contributes to Fink’s hesitation on the final day when he discovers Sophie has returned and suspects that Nathan will arrive with a gun. Too late, Fink calls Larry to come to the boarding house. They discover the bodies of Sophie and Nathan, lying together like lovers in Sophie’s bed. Perhaps Larry’s role suggests that, even when others are informed and alert, they still cannot control the outcome.
Nathan Landau, a twenty-nine-year-old manic-depressive schizophrenic, is a chemical and alcohol addict who controls others by being beguiling and sadistic by turns. Nathan claims to be a cellular biologist, but the truth is he works in the library of a chemical company. Though he does not have a college degree, Nathan is well-informed about physiology and can diagnose Sophie’s anemia when he first sees her in the Brooklyn Public Library. Morris Fink calls Nathan a “golem,” a Yiddish word taken from the Hebrew, meaning literally a shapeless mass.
Nathan’s brother, Larry, a physician, informs Stingo about Nathan’s mental illness. Nathan becomes obscenely abusive during the summer of 1947 and suggests the idea of suicide to Sophie. In October of that year, he convinces Sophie to commit suicide with him. They use the drug sodium cyanide, coincidentally the same chemical used to gas people in the Nazi death camps. Nathan and Sophie are buried side by side in a new cemetery on Long Island. Over their graves, Stingo reads Dickinson’s poem that begins, “Ample make this bed.”
Leslie Lapidus, the wealthy “Jewish Madonna,” speaks in sexually explicit ways to Stingo when they meet at Coney Island, an amusement park and beach located in Brooklyn. Stingo incorrectly believes that Leslie welcomes sexual intercourse with him. She invites him to her home on the day her parents leave for a vacation, but when he attempts to have sex with her she backs off, admitting that she is a virgin. In truth, Leslie is only a tease—the “Jewish princess” her father takes her to be.
Thomas McGuire, a New York taxicab driver, has a fight with Stingo’s father, who is new to New York City and inadvertently offends McGuire by giving him too small a tip. McGuire pulls quickly out into traffic, and Stingo’s father falls against a sign and hurts his head. Later, as the father reflects on the fight, he predicts race riots in the North that actually occur twenty years later. The tiny episode with McGuire illustrates how ignorance of a different culture can lead to conflict.
Wanda Muck-Horch van Kretschmann
The socialist Wanda Muck-Horch van Kretschmann, the half-sister of Jozef, shares his zeal for a free Poland. She is the offspring of a German father and a Polish mother, born in Lodz, a town much affected by German commerce, industry, and culture. Like Sophie, Wanda speaks excellent German and loves German culture, particularly the classical music of Bach and others. She came to Warsaw to study voice at the conservatory; however, the outbreak of World War II ends that aspiration. A beautiful woman with red hair and boyish ways, Wanda is a lesbian who is deeply attached to Sophie. Wanda is deported to Auschwitz with Sophie. In the camp Wanda courageously manages to get news to Sophie of Jan, Sophie’s son. When her work with the resistance is revealed, Wanda is hung on hooks and suffers a slow, agonizing death. On the final page of the novel, Stingo groups Wanda among the “beaten … martyred children of the earth.”
Stingo is the youthful persona of the fifty-two-year-old narrator of Sophie’s Choice who uses a childhood nickname and never reveals his actual name. Stingo was born and raised in Virginia. His mother died when he was a teen. At the beginning of the novel, in the summer of 1947, Stingo is employed as a copyeditor at McGraw-Hill in New York City.
Raised a Christian but referring to himself as an agnostic, Stingo rents a room in the Flatbush boarding house run by Yetta Zimmerman, in a mostly Jewish neighborhood in central Brooklyn. He meets several residents, including Sophie Zawistowska, Nathan Landau, and Morris Fink.
At twenty-two, Stingo is inexperienced sexually. He is naïve, insecure; he sometimes misinterprets others and has unrealistic ideas about his future love life. The mature narrator, who no longer uses the nickname Stingo, has the luxury of hindsight. He can see the youthful Stingo’s foolishness and self-absorption. The older narrator mulls over the past and is able to place the summer’s events in a larger historical context. The mature narrator has had excellent success with his novels and journal articles.
Stingo’s father, a liberal Southerner from Virginia, briefly visits his son in New York City in the summer of 1947. The father inadvertently insults a taxicab driver with too small a tip. The cabby calls the father an obscene name, and the father’s angry remarks cause Stingo to reflect on how language affects relationships. Stingo sees that according to his father, “people abrogated their equality when they were unable to speak to each other in human terms.” In other words, the person who uses degrading language is himself degraded by it.
Stingo’s father writes letters to his son about family history, including the great-grandfather’s sale of the slave Artiste. Stingo’s father also reports Maria Hunt’s suicide in a letter. He sends Stingo an inheritance from the slave sale which supports Stingo after he loses his job at McGraw-Hill. Stingo’s father later urges Stingo to leave New York and settle on a peanut farm in Southampton County, Virginia, which Stingo’s father has unexpectedly inherited from a friend.
Stingo’s father has a self-deluding view of race relations. He claims that the unpardonable sin of slavery was breaking up families, thus distancing himself from the greater sin of denying other people’s humanity by treating them like objects. Stingo’s father criticizes the North for not facing its own racism and race problems (thus assigning to Northerners the denial which he as a Southerner also engages in) and he anticipates the race riots of 1967.
Fritz Jemand von Niemand
Not based on an historical person, Hauptsturmführer Fritz Jemand von Niemand is Nazi officer and medical doctor. He forces Sophie to choose between her children upon their arrival at the concentration camp. He has Nordic good looks, “attractive in a thin-lipped, austere, unbending way” and a feminine face. Sophie reports, “If he had been a woman, he would have been a person I think I might have felt drawn to.” As a younger man, Von Niemand was a devout churchgoer and had ambitions to enter the ministry. His father coerced him into becoming a doctor. As a Nazi, he is haunted by the role he has of playing God on the Auschwitz train platform, choosing who will live and who will die. He may also fear being identified as less than a fully masculine soldier, and this fear may contribute to his particularly sadistic treatment of Sophie.
Later Sophie believes she made a fatal error in arguing with von Niemand. She tells him she is Catholic and that her children “are racially pure.” Her perfect German draws dangerous attention to her and perhaps contributes to von Niemand’s sadistic decision to make her choose between Jan and Eva.
Stefan Zaorski, a young bachelor crippled with arthritis, is a flutist in the Warsaw Symphony Orchestra. Because he has a crush on Sophie, he agrees to give flute lessons to her daughter Eva. In a tender scene, Sophie observes Stefan hobbling to catch up with Eva and Jan after a flute lesson. He needs to refine his directions on fingering an arpeggio. He plays Eva’s flute, but his music is drowned out by a squadron of Luftwaffe bombers. Stefan is murdered at Auschwitz along with Eva.
Music has an important role in this novel; it confirms the best in culture and soothes grief. However, the music from the prisoner band at Auschwitz is a bizarre control and torture device, signifying the barbarism that can result from blind nationalism.
Eva Zawistowsa, Sophie’s daughter, is a precocious ten-year-old with exceptional talent in playing the flute. Sophie “could not consider raising Eva without giving her a knowledge of music. One might as well just say no to life itself.” At Auschwitz Sophie chooses Eva to die and Jan to live, an act that plagues Sophie for the rest of her life.
In the moment of their separation, Sophie sees that, along with Eva, her crippled flute teacher Stefan Zaorski is “dispatched to the left and to Birkenau” to die in the gas chambers. Sophie believes she played a part in Eva’s murder. Sophie’s construction of this memory illustrates how as a survivor internalizes responsibility for the abuse perpetrated by someone else. Instead of blaming her tormentor, she blames herself. Thus, the victim continues to be victimized.
Jan Zawistowska, Sophie’s son, chaperones his sister, Eva, to her flute lessons in Warsaw and comforts her when she is cold and hungry. When Sophie and the children arrive on the train platform at Auschwitz, Sophie chooses Jan to live. He is incarcerated in the Children’s Camp and may have died there from exposure and pneumonia. His actual fate is unknown. Sophie is hounded by guilt over the selection she was forced to make upon arrival at Auschwitz. Thus, she is unable to see that everyone on the platform has been “chosen” by the Nazis to die and that she is unable to spare either of her children from this fate.
Kazik Zawistowska is the protégé of Professor Biegański and Sophie’s abusive husband. With Sophie, he fathers two children, Jan and Eva. Kazik is at Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland, when the Nazis arrest all the faculty members. Along with Professor Biegański, Kazik is executed by soldiers in the Third Reich at Sachsenhausen, a nearby labor camp. The irony is that both the professor and Kazik are anti-Semitic Nazi sympathizers. Nonetheless, as intellectuals, they are perceived to be enemies of the Third Reich, and are thus among those the Nazis believe must be murdered.
The character referred to in the title of this novel is Sophie Biegański, a gentile born and raised in Cracow, Poland. Her fascist, autocratic, father, a professor at the local university, teaches Sophie to speak perfect German along with excellent French. As a young woman, Sophie works as his secretary. She marries his protégé, Kazik Zawistowska, a similarly abusive man, whom she grows to hate. She has two children with Kazik: a son, Jan, and a daughter, Eva. She witnesses the arrest of her father and husband, who are later murdered at Sachsenhausen, a labor camp near Cracow.
Sophie moves with her children to Warsaw. In a group arrest of citizens, she is discovered to have illegally hidden meat under her dress; she hoped to deliver the meat to her sick mother. With her children and hundreds of other people, Sophie is transported to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. On arrival, Sophie is forced to choose between her children—an act that combines the role of victim and abuser in her mind. Sophie survives until the camp is liberated. After the War, she lives temporarily in a displaced persons’ camp and then moves to New York City. In New York, she enters into an abusive, addictive relationship with Nathan Landau and is befriended by Stingo. In the autumn of 1947, Sophie and Nathan commit suicide together, using the same chemical that exterminated millions at Birkenau and in other death camps.
See Sophie Zawistowska
This novel explores evil in many forms (racism, sexism, substance abuse, domestic violence, and wartime atrocities). It suggests that oppression is a source of evil—that the state of complete domination achieved by the Third Reich evolved from the institution of slavery. It illustrates how people try to save themselves from the widening vortex of hatred. For example, Sophie thinks she is safe as long as the Germans focus on destroying the Jews. She insists her children are “racially pure,” exploiting Nazi racism in a futile attempt to protect her children. Later, Höss informs Sophie that Poles are “an enemy of the Reich.” He says Poles living in Germany are being “marked with a P —an ominous sign.” In a world of hate and domination, where everyone is potentially at risk, how is one to survive? And if one does survive, how is one to live with the memory?
One evil is connected to another and all people are implicated in the evil perpetrated by some. This connection is insisted upon by Richard L. Rubenstein’s The Cunning of History, from which Styron quotes. Rubenstein states that the Nazi “‘society of total domination,’ evolv[ed] directly from the institution of chattel slavery as it was practiced by the great nations of the West.” This thesis works to erode American self-righteousness in the face of German racism.
Sophie has the symptoms of a battered woman. In a sexual relationship with an abusive partner, she tries to exert power indirectly by manipulating, placating, apologizing, and bargaining. Each time she is beaten up, she apologizes. Each time the partner returns, she assures herself the worst is over. Dealing with random and uncontrollable abuse, she is controlled by her learned helplessness. She confuses who is wrong and who is right. She clings to the abusive relationship because the only “love” she knows is abusive, and she believes the only treatment she deserves is abuse. She learns verbal abuse from her father and her husband; the Nazi doctor and Höss find her sexually attractive and are abusive to her; Nathan Landau is attracted to her Danish beauty and appalled by the fact that she is actually a Pole, which in his sick mind identifies her as an anti-Semite. Addicted to the erotics of violence, Sophie is unable to function in an equitable relationship. The relatively healthy relationship Stingo offers threatens to unhinge her from the abuse she has come to believe she deserves. Battered woman syndrome requires professional intervention and therapy, but even with this kind of support, battered women frequently return to their abusive partners and many are killed by them.
Topics For Further Study
- Imagine that you have only twenty-four hours to vacate your home, possibly for the last time. You have no idea where you are going or why you are being forced to leave. You have been told you can only take what fits in your backpack. Decide what you will carry with you. Then write an essay explaining your choices and how evaluating them in the light of this hypothetical scenario affected your assessment.
- Read Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical book Night, and compare his memories of Auschwitz with what Sophie says about the concentration camp. Styron includes in Sophie’s Choice an assertion by Wiesel that novels based on the Holocaust “cheapened” the subject because the topic had become “fashionable, guaranteed to gain attention and to achieve instant success.” Write an essay in which you agree or disagree with Wiesel’s position, contrasting his own book with Styron’s novel.
- Research online either Rudolf Höss or Walter Dürrfeld and write a summary of the information you collect. Evaluate Styron’s handling of the character in the novel, determining if the fictional role fits the historical person.
- Interview someone you know who has been an eyewitness to or lived through some historical event—for example, the Civil Rights movement or the antiwar movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War of the early 1990s, or the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Write a summary of the interview and then present the summary to the interviewee. Ask that person to evaluate your summary for its accuracy and to identify topics that have been distorted or omitted. Present to the class your findings regarding how accurate summaries from interviews are.
Denial is an unconscious mechanism which helps people repress unwanted information about themselves or about the world. Americans who focus on Nazi war crimes may be less inclined to ponder the U.S. use of atomic bombs on two Japanese cities. Similarly, they may feel unconnected to the racist atrocities committed in the American South or the genocide of Native American tribes. Northerners may be appalled by Southern lynching and asleep to the racism that contributes to urban ghettos throughout the United States. So long as people locate evil away from the self, they postpone recognizing their own role in its perpetuation. Stingo’s inheritance is a literal sign that he is the inheritor of his culture. Once people experience what Styron calls “the shock of recognition,” they can begin to feel compassion for the other, a feeling that erodes subject/object distinction and affirms the essential oneness of all humankind.
A literary allusion is a reference to another work of literature. It places the work at hand in a literary context and draws meaning from the works to which it alludes. The novel is saturated with such allusions. It alludes, for example, to John Donne and to Dante’s Inferno and the lovers Paolo and Francesca. It refers to James Joyce and compares this novel to his Ulysses. Readers who know these other books increase their understanding of the present work and its layered meaning. In many cases, Styron comes across as self-congratulatory, placing his work in the context of great works of literature. Toward the end of the novel, the narrator praises his favorite sentence about love, calling the idea “the property of God,” and including himself as its author in a list of prophets that includes Jesus and Buddha. While Styron accumulates meaning with some allusions, his ego sabotages the effectiveness of others.
Compare & Contrast
- 1940s: While suicide is often the result of emotional or mental illness, it is treated as a crime by the U.S. legal system.
Today: Suicide bombers kill themselves to make political statements all over the world, and people who are terminally ill seek physician-assisted suicide to bring an end to their suffering.
- 1940s: After World War II, high-ranking Nazi officers are tried at Nuremberg, Germany. Many of these men are hanged.
Today: The U.S. Justice Department Office of Special Investigations continues to identify people in the United States who are guilty of Nazi war crimes. Identified persons are either deported or stripped of their citizenship. Between 1979 and 2002, 71 are stripped of their citizenship and 57 are deported.
- 1940s: Drug research takes place in the hopes of helping people cope with mental illness. Drugs like Benzedrine are sometimes used illegally to help combat depression.
Today: Risperdal, the leading drug used to combat schizophrenia, which is prescribed to more than 10 million people worldwide, is found to have potentially life-threatening side effects.
The stories told in Sophie’s Choice are not presented in chronological order. Meaning comes in some instances from the proximity of parts of the stories. George Steiner’s idea of “time relation” draws attention to the idea of juxtaposition. For example, on the day Sophie arrives in Auschwitz, Stingo is bulking up his weight by gorging himself on bananas. He is intent on passing an exam for acceptance into the Marines, but he has as of yet not heard of Auschwitz. Another example occurs while Sophie looks at the picture album of Emmi Höss, the commandant’s daughter. Sophie smells burning flesh from the crematoria; Emmi closes the window against the stink and then describes the heated swimming pool at Dachau. Putting the daughter’s frame of reference next to the extermination of the Jews heightens the disconnect necessary for Nazis to carry out the Final Solution.
World War II
The Nazi system of human extermination during World War II (1941–1945) was publicized following the liberation of the concentration camps. Newsreels in American theaters showed the appalling details. By the summer of 1947, people were slowly waking up to the atrocities. Thirty years later, the narrator still ponders the heinous events, studies scholarship on the Third Reich, and tries to understand it as a spectacular instance of pure evil. Stingo has the opportunity to hear from an eyewitness, and thus his historical awareness is abruptly sharpened. This awareness of events in which he had such a peripheral military part leads to his reevaluation of his own cultural heritage.
Mixed reviews came out in response to the publication of Sophie’s Choice. It was found to be “affecting and thoroughly convincing” by a reviewer for the June 11, 1979, issue of Time magazine. But John W. Aldridge, writing in Harper’s (September 1979), regretted Styron’s inability “to make his material meaningful.” Another reviewer, writing for the New Yorker (June 18, 1979) summed up the novel as “an elaborate showcase of every variety of racial prejudice and guilt.” This reviewer found Styron’s prose “loaded with overwrought sentences … and with ponderous lectures that reduce Sophie’s story to the stuff of theory.”
Benjamin DeMott in the July 1979 Atlantic Monthly attempted to balance the centrality of Stingo, his family, and his past, with Sophie’s “fearful and ponderable life.” DeMott criticized the dissonance between chapters spent on Stingo’s “bizarre and comic passage through the straits of virginity,” and Sophie’s “monologues,” full of “events [that] are both hideous and unsurprising.” DeMott also faulted Styron’s inclusion of material that disengages the reader’s feelings about the story, calling it “academic banality.” He found disruptive the “treatises concerning the technology of despots of mass murder” and insisted that summaries of scholarship shatter the novel’s fictive world. Nonetheless, DeMott commended Styron for his accomplishment in the portrait of Sophie that “reaches toward the full truth of human panic at the edge of oblivion.” In all, reviews addressed the disparate parts of the novel. Some reviews were, in some cases, compelled by the Holocaust story but at the same time put off by the discursions into lecture and pomposity.
Monahan has a Ph.D. in English. She teaches at Wayne State University and also operates an editing service, The Inkwell Works. In the following essay, Monahan explains how the two story lines in Sophie’s Choice blur the roles of abuser and victim.
William Styron’s book, Sophie’s Choice, tells a story inside another story and, in the telling of these stories, the book reads like a novel. But, in other places in the text, the book does not read like a novel. There are excerpts from unpublished work (with editing comments on them), historical background information, and summaries of scholarship. If readers are to understand the meaning of Sophie’s Choice, then they must be able to explain how these disparate parts work together.
The central content of Sophie’s Choice is the story of Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish gentile who survives Auschwitz where she loses her children. And who then, having arrived in New York, is drawn into a self-destructive, abusive relationship with an American Jew—the psychotic drug addict, Nathan Landau. Paralleling Sophie’s story is the story of Stingo during the summer of 1947, when he becomes friends with Sophie and Nathan. Stingo’s story is mostly about his setting out to become a writer and about his sexual initiation. Stingo’s story contains letters from his father and excerpts from writing Stingo does in 1947. In 1947, Sophie draws her story from her immediate memories of living in Poland before and during World War II; Stingo’s story, full of his hopes for the future, is told across the span of thirty years, from the point of view of the successful author Stingo is to become.
In addition, the novel includes information about the real world on which this fiction of Sophie is based: population statistics for Jews in Warsaw; information about the IG Farben chemical conglomerate at Auschwitz; biographical information on Rudolf Höss, the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz from 1940 to 1943; and quotations from theoretical works by mid-twentieth century scholars and thinkers, such as Simone Weil, George Steiner, Richard Rubenstein, and Holocaust survivor, Elie Weisel. These parts of the book interrupt the “fiction” of the novel in order to discuss the Holocaust.
Why does Styron frame Sophie’s story with Stingo’s story? Why are these two stories freighted with historical, biographical, and theoretical writings? The answer to these questions lies in a connection drawn in some of the research material Styron quotes—namely, that the Nazi state of domination developed out of the institution of slavery. The same evil at work in kidnapping human beings and reducing them to property (as in slavery) is at work in the domination and dehumanization that culminate in a machinery for extermination.
Disbelief in these connections derives, in part, from the fact that others remote from the events are unaware of them or deliberately disassociate themselves from them. Their tendency to disconnect is partly explained by George Steiner’s theory about simultaneity: at the same moment hordes of people were being gassed in concentration camps, “the overwhelming plurality of human beings, two miles away on the Polish farms, five thousand miles away in New York, were sleeping or eating or going to a film or making love or worrying about the dentist… . Their coexistence is so hideous a paradox—Trebinka is both because some men have built it and almost all other men let it be.” In other words, because people are separated across time or space, they can deny their connection to human events in which they are not immediately and directly involved.
In reading Steiner, the narrator feels a “shock of recognition.” As Sophie stepped onto the train platform at Auschwitz, embracing her two children for what was to be the last time, Stingo was gorging himself on bananas. It was a lovely April day, rimmed with forsythia, but Sophie was slipping into “living damnation,” to use Steiner’s words, while Stingo was hoping to bulk up his weight in order to pass the physical examination for entrance into the Marines. Sophie was already starving and would continue to starve; Stingo was trying to increase his weight. He had not yet heard of Auschwitz.
Ironically, Stingo’s first season as a writer, who will in time publish books about Nazism and racism, is financed by money he inherits from his great-grandfather’s sale of the slave called Artiste. Does that make Stingo responsible for slavery? Styron would probably answer that it connects Stingo to a slave culture. Nathan taunts Stingo with Southern racism, with the fact that Southern whites lynch blacks, and Stingo winces in tracing parallels between the Georgia lynching of Bobby Weed and the fate of Artiste. As long as people disconnect from the evil, see it as true of others but not true of themselves, they separate themselves from others, assigning to others what they insist is not true of themselves. Thus, they affirm otherness and hierarchy. This action fuels oppression and all its attending ills. The collision of stories in the book brings about Stingo’s awakening to the humanity of all people and to the implied responsibility all people, however remote, share in oppression. Thus, Styron establishes a connection between Stingo’s past regarding slavery and Sophie’s past regarding the Third Reich.
The book’s title directs readers to another connection. Sophie makes two major “choices,” one in the past, one in the present summer; arguably neither one is a deliberate and free choice. First, she is coerced to select between her two children when they first arrive at Auschwitz. Second, in Washington, D.C., Sophie leaves Stingo and returns to Nathan. In both cases, the choice expresses victimization and how, in the victim’s mind, the distinction between perpetrator and victim can be blurred. Sophie is hounded by the guilt she feels regarding her children’s fate, but the fact is she was the pawn of a Nazi sadist, completely powerless to protect her children. In the second case, now the victim of domestic abuse, Sophie acts like any abused woman may act; she returns to her abuser, plunging toward destruction because she believes she is nothing without her abuser. Thus, she embraces her own destruction, having been long taunted by claims that she is unworthy of living.
This confusion between abuser and victim is carried further in the characterization of the Nazi doctor, Fritz Jemand von Niemand, who forces Sophie to choose between her children. Von Niemand, the abuser, is characterized as a divided man, both dominant and vulnerable. He is attractive, young, and “silkily feminine.” Sophie admits, “If he had been a woman, he would have been a person I think I might have felt drawn to.” When the doctor meets Sophie he is “undergoing the crisis of his life: cracking apart like bamboo, disintegrating.” Before the war he was a churchgoer, and aspired to the ministry, but a money-hungry father forced him into medicine; this point constitutes coercion. Now a doctor, von Niemand knows himself part of “a mammoth killing machine,” as much a cog in the works as the slaves he chooses to labor for IG Farben. The hint of femininity suggests that perhaps he is a homosexual or has at least a tendency not to identify with the masculine military role—in either case, he may be terrified that he will be categorized among those hated groups selected for extermination. In this scene of unthinkable torture and pain, readers are asked to consider how the abuser may have himself been coerced, may himself be potentially a victim.
In the final scenes in which Stingo pursues Sophie, sees her and Nathan curled in death, attends their double funeral, and grieves for his friends, the narrator directs readers to texts of lamentation. Stingo reads the Old Testament on the train as he returns to Brooklyn, the poem by Dickinson over the graves, and finally, recalls the few worthy sentences from his 1947 summer writings. The narrator focuses in the final couple pages on one sentence from that summer: “Let your love flow out on all living things.” This idea, admittedly “the property of God,” has “been intercepted—on the wing, so to speak—by such mediators as Lao-tzu, Jesus, Gautama Buddha and thousands of lesser prophets.” To feel this all-encompassing, impersonal love is to be able to grieve for human suffering. Compassion, rooted in awareness that all beings are united, allows a person to feel the interconnectedness of all human life. Evil encompasses all humans; the suffering it causes is for all of people to acknowledge. In so far as Stingo can realize his cultural connections to evil and his membership in the human family, he identifies with the suffering. The rage and sorrow demand that he mourn all “the beaten and butchered and betrayed and martyred children of the earth.” This mourning enacts resurrection: Stingo dreams of death and awakens to morning.
But is it enough to mourn for the effects of colossal evil? Sophie’s story is interrupted twice by Stingo’s departure—once for a weekend date with Leslie, once for a ten-day vacation with an old Marine buddy. These anticlimactic sexual scenarios may work in the text to illustrate how people can be aware of evil only to a degree, and then their own immediate interests or drives take them away from attending to it. Perhaps, in trying to comes to terms with the Holocaust and with the post–World War II responses by Americans to it, Styron suggests that, because people are separated from the site of atrocity and self-absorbed in their immediate circumstances, they lose track of evil, thus falling asleep to their participation in it.
Source: Melodie Monahan, Critical Essay on Sophie’s Choice, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Richard G. Law
In the following essay excerpt, Law explores how Styron incorporates various voices and narrative perspectives in order to inform the reader’s “encounter with Auschwitz.”
In Sophie’s Choice, the telling of the tale is contrived to display the capacity of fiction to illuminate a subject that baffles ordinary inquiry and to test the claims of art against perhaps the extreme form of knowledge: the meaning of Auschwitz. The novel also makes imperious demands on the reader, who is lured into constructing a text of the Holocaust—a process which, while productive of insights that are perhaps available in no other way, comes at the cost of a painful imaginative involvement. An essential part of the “argument” of Sophie’s Choice—and of the implied claims for fiction which are embodied in it—is that the direct and unmediated encounter with the heart of darkness is not only dangerous, but may, by its very nature, prevent comprehension. Given a subject which cannot be confronted without danger of engulfing the viewer, the controlled distancing of art may be a necessary component of understanding.
Accordingly, the novel alternates between intense glimpses of its subject and moments of great psychological distance and abstraction, drawing the reader into a rhythm of confrontation and evasion. One of the primary means by which the reader’s encounter with Auschwitz is controlled and manipulated is through the alternation of complementary but quite different narrative perspectives. Stingo’s point of view provides a direct though naive experience, approaching Auschwitz more or less accidentally and unwillingly. Through Stingo, the reader has a direct glimpse not of Auschwitz, but of the delayed effects of Auschwitz on another. Stingo’s experience is supplemented by the point of view of the mature authorial voice of the narrator, who offers a retrospective, frequently satirical reconstruction of his younger self’s encounter with Sophie and her past. This retrospective view is informed by a broad scholarly rumination on the records of and commentary about the Holocaust, including extensive quotations from both victims and Nazi officials. In this way the book gives expression to many voices (no one of which can presume to capture “Auschwitz”) even as it assimilates them to its own ends.
The subject of the Holocaust represents a test case for exploring the limits of what we conventionally call knowledge. It is hard to “know” Auschwitz. The experience of the camps exists so far outside normal human frames of references that the very facts of the case are, in a sense, unimaginable. As Styron himself has asserted, “Auschwitz can be compared to nothing”; “Auschwitz must remain the one place on earth most unyielding to meaning or definition.” Moreover, the mind has defenses against such horror which are not easily overcome. It is no small task, then, to attempt to link the incommensurate with the familiar, to bring what lies at such an extremity within range of our ordinary powers of vision. What can be known of the phenomenon of industrialized mass murder is also complicated by the different senses by which we understand the word “knowledge.” One kind of knowledge is the historian’s, which is abstract and retrospective—its value deriving in part from its very distance from the events themselves and from the extent to which the events can be processed (interpreted) for general use. Quite another kind of knowledge is, of course, to have been there: “Only survivors of Auschwitz know what it meant to be in Auschwitz.” Such knowledge is untranslatable and incommunicable; it not only transcends interpretation but defies attempts to make sense of it.
Between the former kind of knowledge and the latter, of course, lies an enormous distance which the novel invites us to contemplate. As Styron was aware, formidable commentators like Elie Wiesel have advised that fiction writers not even try to deal with the subject—that to make it a subject of fiction is somehow a desecration of the memory of the victims. Similarly, George Steiner has asserted that the only proper response is silence. Styron’s novel, however, is directed squarely at the Steiner-Wiesel position that art can only trivialize an experience like the Holocaust. The “ultimately transcendental and important thing about art,” Styron has claimed, “is its ability to do anything—that’s the definition of art. It can deal with any experience—past, present, or future… .” In dramatizing the position that silence will not do as an answer to the camps, the novel has as much to say about the nature and capabilities of art as about Auschwitz. It is as if the novel accepts its subject as a challenge: if Sophie’s Choice can provide a medium in which Auschwitz can, in some meaningful sense, become known, then literature can treat anything; no subjects are off-limits; no veils may be drawn across any area of human experience.
Styron’s act of writing the novel, then, involves a monumental presumption and irreverence. He refuses to concede any privileged area to “insiders” or to bow to any form of proprietorship—a stance which had embroiled him earlier with some members of the black intelligentsia over The Confessions of Nat Turner, just as it has antagonized some Jewish readers of Sophie’s Choice. But the novel embodies a kind of reverence as well, in that Styron’s position, regardless of the components of personal arrogance or humility in it, implies that the imagination can function in a saving way at the very margins of human experience.
If Sophie’s Choice is as preoccupied with the problem of knowledge as is All the King’s Men or As I Lay Dying, it also attempts to overcome the obstacles to knowledge with techniques familiar from those precedents: it explores minutely a particular instance (Sophie’s season in Hell) as a synecdoche of the Holocaust. The text draws a familiar distinction between abstract and concrete knowledge, the historian’s knowledge vs. the victim’s, and it relies heavily on the power of imagery to combine both, to fuse concepts and emotions, the general and the particular, in complex, highly charged dramatic actions. Like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Styron’s novel is constructed around a powerful germinal scene which the rest of the work may be said to gloss. Styron has referred to the genesis of the novel as a waking dream which imposed itself on him and became the controlling metaphor for the whole work. The image which troubled Styron involved a young woman on the platform at Auschwitz being forced to choose between her children. That image focused and contained several decades of his pondering on the meaning of the death camps: “I suddenly realized that this had to be the metaphor for the most horrible, tyrannical despotism in history, that this was a new form of evil… .” This single scene defines the world the Nazis made; it explains the secret wellspring of Sophie’s mystifying behavior and the source of the irrational guilt which destroys her. It also dramatizes—by a process this essay will explore—as much of the heart of the darkness as is possible to dramatize.
It is critical to note that the reader encounters the core scene of Sophie with her children on the platform at Auschwitz only on page 484 of a 515- page text, by which point the narrative, through the powerful spectacle of her suffering, has converted the reader’s initial gossipy interest in Sophie into a profound sense of empathy. Knowledge of her “choice” is withheld until the reader is prepared for it, subtly, by sensing in her attempts to start a new life in New York the consequences of some unknown event—the shadow of some unspeakable experience in her past—which has left Sophie obscurely crippled. In the meantime, by becoming gradually acquainted with Sophie and her story, the reader has descended, step by step, through layer after layer of her psychic pain, each layer worse than the last—and each, in a sense, unimaginable, unevocable, except by the process and in the context of the tale in which we have become immersed.
Because of its literally almost unspeakable subject, the manner of the unfolding of the tale is an exercise in overcoming, or putting to sleep, reader resistance. To keep the reader’s imagination from evading the nature of Sophie’s experience, Styron employs a variety of stratagems, some simple and others Byzantine in their elaborateness. The unfolding of the narrative, then, is a kind of trick which simultaneously carries us toward and hides its destination. The whole narrative is skillfully crafted to get us in a frame of mind where we cannot evade, or fail to imagine, the experience of genocide from the point of view of one of its victims.
What Do I Read Next?
- In the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), Styron tells the story of the 1831 Virginia slave rebellion. The novel explores the effects of the institution of slavery on American history.
- Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990) is Styron’s autobiographical essay about mental depression, which was brought on by the death of his father and many decades of alcohol abuse.
- In Stones from the River, Ursula Hegi tells the story of Trudy Montag, a dwarf who lives with her father in Burgdorf. Spanning the years from 1916 to the 1950s, the novel is about this little town of ordinary German citizens who carry on with their lives despite the horrific events occurring around them.
- Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel’s Night is a work of creative nonfiction that follows the experience of a young Jewish boy through the oppression of Nazi occupation and the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. This is a seminal work of Holocaust literature that explores religious faith, the bond between father and son, the survivor coming to terms with humanity, and the importance of learning from the terrible events of history.
Given the gruesome opportunities of the subject matter, there are very few actual scenes of Auschwitz, and few of them are particularly sensationalized or physically brutal. Although his portrayal of the camp is carefully based on surviving documents, Styron resists, for the most part, direct representation of its most sensational features. A careful reader of Emily Dickinson, Styron evidently holds with her that, because of its power to blind, “the Truth must dazzle gradually.” Accordingly, most of the brutal realities of the camps are realized by suggestion, by brief direct glimpses, and by analogy. We acquire a sense of the degree to which Sophie has been brutalized in the camp from the way her father, an ardent fascist, treats her before the war and from the way her lover, Nathan Landau, treats her afterwards; we sense something of the camp’s limitless oppression and dehumanizing impersonality from the anonymous digital rape of Sophie in the subway in New York. Similarly, from Stingo’s haunted conscience about failing his cancer-stricken mother, we acquire the barest inklings of Sophie’s sense of guilt—just the faintest sense of that open oven door of memory she encounters when she thinks of her children.
Such reserve and indirection are characteristic of the narrative strategems generally in Sophie’s Choice. The experience of direct, scalding pain is, of course, not the object of the narrative, but rather a sympathetic intuition of the dimensions of Sophie’s agony. Styron uses very shrewdly his art form’s ability to move toward insight by the “stairway of surprise.” By careful preparation and frequent deception, the narrative takes us up to one threshold of revelation after another and then stops, the narrator seeming always just about to show us things or tell us things. By such means it manages to take us places we would refuse to go if we sensed the destination. The components of the victim’s experience of Auschwitz are vividly suggested in the narrative, but the task of assembling and understanding them belongs to the reader.
Sophie’s Choice is presented in the form of a Bildungsroman in which the organizing axis of the narrative is Stingo’s quest for knowledge. All of the elaborate excursions and digressions contribute to that developing line. Stingo is presented as a characterization of Styron himself at 22: a lonely ex-Marine with both literary and amorous ambitions seeking his fortune in the city. Stingo’s is a familiar tale of initiation in which a callow, superficial sense of self and world is demolished by his “education.” Stingo’s attainment of a more mature and adequate perspective is not dramatized, although his having arrived at it is implied in the presence of the mature authorial voice, who has somehow survived and come to terms with the knowledge that Sophie represents. In reminiscing about the summer of 1947, the mature narrator speaks to us out of a successful career as a writer—a success which has, by some means difficult to fathom, been engendered by the experience that overwhelms his younger self. In mediating between the reader and the traumatic experience which constitutes Stingo’s education, the mature narrator plays an unobtrusive but significant role in assembling the tale and controlling reader responses. Using the guise of confessional autobiography, the mature narrator dramatizes his younger self’s failure to comprehend and assimilate his education while simultaneously taking the reader on a tortuous journey almost to the center of that experience.
The narrative he constructs of his early shortcomings is self-consciously intertextual; it casts Stingo as a twentieth-century version of Melville’s Ishmael, setting out in Brooklyn on a “voyage of discovery”: “my spirit had remained landlocked, unacquainted with love and all but a stranger to death.” In a technique also reminiscent of Moby- Dick, the narrative has a double story line with dual protagonists and dual centers of interest, so that Stingo’s own story emerges out of his telling us the story of the second figure, Sophie, whose name means “wisdom.” The narrative is structured so that for Stingo to discover the answers to the riddle of Sophie, to know Sophie, as it were, would amount to a resolution of his quest. What Stingo acquires by way of an education is an experience of “evil,” which is also the subject of the mature narrator’s brooding enquiry.
Styron gives Stingo’s initiation story important twists: his education involves gaining a perspective adequate for his ambition to become a writer. The narrative therefore recounts Stingo’s discovery of both a subject and the resources within himself to treat it—the knowledge, presumably, to interpret it. Organized in this way, the fictive world which emerges in the narrative has a bearing on and provides a partial definition of the writer’s craft and calling. However, Stingo’s education consists largely of discoveries—in scenes such as the revelation of Nathan’s madness—of the invalidity or unreliability of his knowledge.
Learning of Sophie’s past and observing her eventual death constitute the chief means through which Stingo acquires an experience of evil. The two mysteries, Sophie and Auschwitz, are telescoped together, with Sophie serving as the focal point through which the mystery of Auschwitz can be glimpsed: “It have thought that it might be possible to make a stab at understanding Auschwitz by trying to understand Sophie… .” However, the youthful Stingo is too stunned to assimilate, even vicariously, Sophie’s experience of evil. A product of a safe, white, middle class, Protestant Tidewater Virginia upbringing, Stingo appears an unlikely candidate for either mature understanding or Parnassus. He suffers from a peculiarly American innocence, epitomized by his “virginity,” which not even a hitch in the Marine Corps in World War II could alter. Naive, frequently obtuse, and sexually obsessed, he is, for much of the narrative, essentially a comic figure, providing a kind of bizarre (but often welcome) relief from the unfolding horrors of Sophie’s past.
But it is important to note that the mature narrator, even in his retrospective account, is not readily able to follow the track of Sophie’s experience to her nightmare encounter on the platform either. One index to the difficulty the narrator has in assimilating the knowledge that Sophie represents is the manner of the telling of Sophie’s tale, which is as circuitous in its own way as the telling of Absalom, Absalom! To an extent, the narrative technique dramatizes not just Stingo’s repeated failures to comprehend, but the older narrator’s cautious approach toward the death camps. Aspects of her past, or aspects of what is known of Auschwitz, are worried at length, as if no context could be large enough to encompass and no background sufficient to explain the impending revelation. Typically, key information is offered up piecemeal, in fragments which have to be assembled by the reader, or as generalization separate from context or details. Events and information come jumbled together in baffling counterpoint, sometimes juxtaposed as if to comment on one another, and at other times seemingly to retard the action, as if to postpone the platform encounter.
The gradual unfolding of Sophie’s past is structured around a number of moments of revelation which require revisions of Stingo’s previous estimates of her. These moments function as mileposts in the narrative’s approach toward the secret of her life. The need for continual revision is partly a result of Sophie’s reticence about things and partly of her active duplicity. She lies about her unhappy marriage and her relationship with her father, fabricating a parent who is a kindly paragon of virtue and learning, rather than a fanatical anti-Semite who had imagined and passionately advocated for others the kind of fate which overwhelms his daughter and grandchildren (237 ff.). She suppresses her wartime experiences in Warsaw and the fact that she had a son at Auschwitz and a daughter also. Last of all, the revelation that she was forced to choose between them comes only slowly, after many evasions, so that each revelation forces Stingo to construct a new interpretation of her past and therefore of her “present” character and situation. Also absent from early accounts of her past is the “fact” that, in the moral quagmire that was Auschwitz, Sophie was not simply a victim of the Nazis, but, in a complex and extremely tenuous way, an accomplice.
But the need for revision is also partly a result of the strangeness and enormity of what is to be understood. Preoccupied by his own sexual enterprises and blinded by his infatuation with her, Stingo is obviously not very astute in his reading of Sophie. He is taken in by her evasions and fails to comprehend her real needs for assistance. For example, after his comically disastrous attempts with Leslie and Alice, Stingo has his longed-for sexual encounter with Sophie, but the act is a grim parody of intimacy, and it fails to effect the magical changes in himself that he had hoped for. In fact, the loss of his “virginity” is largely ancillary to his education, and it certainly does nothing for his powers of observation. Stingo fails to realize that, for Sophie, the experience is merely a brief anodyne for her pain, which is intense enough to make death desirable. Stingo, the aspiring novelist, is not astute enough to recognize how little his offer of a Southern pastoral retreat, complete with matrimony and an on-looking Protestant community, could appeal to Sophie in these circumstances. He also fails utterly to grasp the dual roles Nathan has played in her life as healing savior and the pursuing demon of her conscience. By presenting himself in the role of yet another male savior, Stingo shows himself insensitive to the elements of her life of struggle for independence of male domination. Finally, he is oblivious to her dread of having more children. His catalog of missed signals is great enough to suggest that another, less tragic outcome might have been possible, had he truly known Sophie.
Stingo misunderstands Nathan as thoroughly as he does Sophie, oscillating until nearly the end between admiration and loathing of this older, mysterious figure. In one typical revelation, Sophie confides to Stingo that Nathan was addicted to drugs. “How blind I had been!” Stingo exclaims, in the throes of a complete reinterpretation of Nathan’s past behavior. For a time, Nathan’s demon acquires a specific shape and rationale in Stingo’s mind, only to be expunged as an explanation by Larry Landau’s further revelation of Nathan’s madness a hundred pages later. But these failures of Stingo to comprehend critical issues throughout the narrative are not merely illustrative of his flaws of character. They dramatize the elusiveness of the understanding he seeks. And because the mature narrator does not share with the reader the benefits of his own hindsight, but withholds information and silently encourages false or incomplete appraisals, the reader is left equally at sea—therefore sharing with Stingo multiple experiences of disquieting misapprehension, revision, and reinterpretation. This technique involves the reader intimately in Stingo’s experience, in Stingo’s “voyage of discovery.” By such means, as we shall see, the narrative encourages in the reader a sense of involved discovery which is closely akin emotionally to actual experience. Drawing the reader into constructing the text also has the function of bringing into consciousness the provisional nature of the kind of knowledge at issue here: the “truth” is invariably grimmer and more complex than the reader’s first estimates of it. At the same time, the center of attention in the novel is subtly shifted from the events themselves to the process of interpreting experience as text and to the writer’s act of reconstituting experience in the text. Thus, the technique also illustrates the arbitrary nature of the discourse in which knowledge is ordinarily framed.
Larry Landau’s disclosure, “the truth is that my brother’s quite mad,” is one of the most significant expectation-shattering revelations in the novel. Like the revelation of Darl’s insanity in As I Lay Dying, it has the effect of dramatically overturning the reader’s previous estimates and forcing a fundamentally different reconstruction of the narrative. The revelation about Nathan’s clinical history of insanity demolishes the most fundamental interpretative paradigm of the narrative as the reader had been led to conceive it—the novel as essay on the nature of evil. Nathan’s violent abuse of Sophie had had the function throughout most of the narrative of embodying the principle of evil that has deformed Sophie’s life and prospects. As Sophie’s torturer in the New World, Nathan is presented, seemingly, as a “mirror” or extension of Auschwitz. By bringing atrocity on a mass industrial basis down to a recognizable human scale, Nathan had also served as one of the means by which the reader is empowered to imagine the larger “absolute evil” of the camps. Consequently, Dr. Landau’s description of his brother Nathan’s diagnosis—“Paranoid schizophrenic, or so the diagnosis goes, although I’m not at all sure if those brain specialists really know what they’re up to”—is a transforming event which wrenches the frame of reference onto an entirely different plane. The terms of explanation shift: “insanity” is suddenly substituted for “evil”; the language of morality is replaced by a discourse which is secular and scientific.
This discovery of the cause of Nathan’s behavior—or rather, this definition of it—forces us to revise our understanding of the relationship between Sophie and Nathan and its role in Sophie’s impending doom. Having been invited by the narrative to construct an indictment of Nathan as brute and torturer, the reader finds this indictment suddenly quashed. It is no longer clear, given this revelation, whether Nathan functions as a moral extension of the camps—or whether the camps, too, represent a manifestation of collective madness (an idea which is hinted at once, in a thought attributed to Nathan on page 323). The “fact” of Nathan’s madness therefore leaves the reader unhooked from any certain set of terms or interpretive frame and unsure of how to judge what has happened. Schizophrenia, that mysterious and tragic ailment, is an acid capable of dissolving even complex moral judgments—thus denying us the moral judgment of Nathan which we had been permitted to make and robbing us of the precious sense of comprehension that condemnation of Nathan had provided.
The operative definition of evil—the version of it which presents itself as an issue in the text—is domination: evil consists of exalting either self or some abstract value into the supreme or sole value and reducing all else, including others, to instruments. In the autobiographical testament of Commandant Höss, for example, “real evil” appears as a kind of twisted piety, joined with an egotism which directs all natural pity away from one’s victims and toward one’s self. Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt are quoted on the “true nature of evil,” which is allegedly “gloomy, monotonous, and boring.” Whether boring or flamboyant, evil appears to consist of one human being’s ruthless use of another, with the Nazi concentration camps, with their total and utterly uninhibited domination of human beings, illustrating evil in its ultimate or “absolute” form. This definition allows the narrator to place American slavery, Professor Biegański’s treatment of Sophie, and Nathan’s behavior as her lover in a moral continuum.
The paradigm of evil demands, as terms of discourse, some axiomatic concept of value (e.g. human life), a perversion of privation of that value, along with the concept of choice. The paradigm of mental illness, on the other hand, implies a determinative chain of causes and effects operating uniformly in a physiological system. In the latter kind of discourse, value and choice can scarcely enter into the operations of “indifferent nature”; thus, any supposed agency responsible for “evil” recedes into the recesses and obscure chemical transactions of Nathan’s brain.
By a kind of Faulknerian irony, almost immediately after the revelation of Nathan’s insanity, Nathan finally succeeds in seducing Sophie into suicide. Or at least they both die. Like Cash Bundren witnessing his brother Darl trussed up and carted off the Jackson, the reader is forced to confront the tenuousness of the connections between our language and the world which it organizes for us—particularly the arbitrariness of our collective definitions of “sane” and “insane,” and of the terms of discourse which they evoke. Denied the explanation of evil, the reader must grope for some alternative interpretive map, for a language past the “sanity and insanity” of human doings but adequate to our “horror and astonishment” at both. Thus, this “epiphany” does not so much enlighten us as bring us up short against the limitations of our perceptual templates and the poverty of our explanations. This encounter with a paradigm-shattering event is especially significant in a narrative which identifies Auschwitz as a kind of ultimate object of knowledge, because it appears to problematize the narrator’s meditations on the nature of the “evil” which Auschwitz represents in so ghastly a form.
Source: Richard G. Law, “The Reach of Fiction: Narrative Technique in Styron’s Sophie’s Choice,” in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall 1990, pp. 45–55.
In the following introduction to her William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice”: Crime and Self- Punishment, Sirlin examines Styron’s background, his debt to European existential thought, and the critical reception of Sophie’s Choice.
With rebellion, awareness is born. This central theme of Albert Camus’ famous philosophical essay The Rebel an exploration of an individual’s passionate affirmation that underlies the act of rebellion, might well serve as a springboard for an understanding and appreciation of William Styron’s fiction. According to Camus, the question raised by rebellion today is whether or not it is possible to find a rule of conduct outside the realm of religion and its absolute values. The rebel demands order in the midst of chaos, unity in the heart of the ephemeral. Not merely self-indulgent or resentful, then, the true rebel is concerned with communal or ethical values. By rebelling, an individual defends the dignity common to all people. Suffering saves the rebel from solitude by immersing him in a collective experience. “I rebel—therefore we exist.”
The twentieth-century rebel, in particular, rebels not only against the injustice of death and the wastefulness of evil but also against a divine authority, realizing the throne of God has been overturned with human beings inheriting the crown. Without a belief in destiny, we are left mired in the throes of chance, with no divine justice. For Camus, however, the answer is not to negate everything by embracing nihilism; that is mere servitude. Real freedom is submitting to values which defy history, is learning to be human by refusing to be a god. The philosophy of the rebel is, therefore, one of limits, of a life of moderation, but a life riddled with risks.
William Styron’s fiction has been and will continue to be misunderstood without an awareness of his debt to European existentialist thought, to Camus’ secular humanism in particular, and without an awareness of Styron’s desperate need to combat stereotypes through his fiction, stereotypes which limit the felt life. Styron’s own life bears witness to this. Although Southern by birth, he is not strictly a Southern novelist. He is a transplanted Virginian who lived in Paris, founded the Paris Review, and then settled in Connecticut. His roots are rural and Protestant, but his fiction is primarily urban and ethnic. Styron mercilessly reveals our spiritual morass, chaos, instability, and suffering. However, he leads a rather quiet, stable life; he has been married for over three decades to an accomplished Jewish poet and Amnesty International activist, and has four children. An ex-Marine, Styron clearly mistrusts the military mind. Now a Northern liberal Democrat, Styron’s Virginia Tidewater background undoubtedly shaped his humanistic values and contributed to his libertarian attacks on injustice. He has spoken eloquently against capital punishment, has helped save the life of a subliterate black man, Benjamin Reid, and has refused to write an already-paid-for article for The New York Times Magazine on the New York Democratic Convention because he “didn’t find enough interesting material.”
Styron’s activities since the late 1960s reveal growing political and international concerns. In 1968, he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He was a witness at the trial of the “Chicago Seven” in 1969 and was the only American writer to attend a symposium in Soviet Asia at Tashkent, the Soviet Union. In 1977 he participated in a Moscow conference of American and Soviet writers. Styron was invited to the inauguration of François Mitterrand in 1981 and that same year opposed the establishment of the Nixon Library at Duke University. In 1982 he wrote the introduction to Mitterrand’s autobiography, The Wheat and the Chaff. Styron lobbied in Congress in 1983 on behalf of a bill which would allow authors to make tax-deductible donations of their manuscripts to nonprofit institutions. In 1984 he attended an Amnesty International conference in Tokyo. In 1988 he protested the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Most recently he and members of the Freedom-to-Write Committee of the American Center of PEN sent a letter to the Israeli government urging it “to cease its practice of censorship” of Palestinian writers and journalists in the West Bank and Gaza. This letter, drafted after months of heated discussion, has divided some of the leading writers in the United States. He has also protested the censoring of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Styron, in short, has been able to wed literary and political interests, disproving the notion that only Europeans know how to mix literature and politics.
This biographical information is crucial insofar as it helps us to understand the criticism that has been levied against his writing. His first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951), although winning for Styron at age twenty-six the Prix de Rome of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, was thought “not Southern enough” by many critics, not the new The Sound and the Fury; Styron suffered because he chose not to be a mere recipient of a tradition which promotes and glorifies the Southern past. He then wrote The Long March (1953), an anti-war novella, unfashionable in the 1950s. In the book the Marines became a symbol of American totalitarianism, but in the television production of the novella, Styron’s unorthodox stand was watered down to make it more palatable for the American audience. In 1960 Styron published his second novel, Set This House on Fire, again a disappointment to many critics partially because it veered even further from his Southern roots. Most of the action takes place in a small Italian village populated by self-indulgent, corrupt Americans who bring crassness and violence to the Italian villagers. Here Styron rejects the stereotype of the naive American corrupted by European wickedness. His fourth novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), although winning a Pulitzer Prize, generated bitter attacks because it was not pro-black enough. Some thought it an outrage that a Southern white man could pretend to understand the mind of a black slave, to speak with a black man’s voice, this in the middle of the fiercely political black nationalist movement of the late 1960s. Styron urges us not to lump all slaves or slaveowners into one stereotyped category. His research led him to the conclusion that black insurrections were the exception and not the rule in pre-Civil War America, again an unpopular notion in the late 1960s.
His fifth and most recent novel, Sophie’s Choice (1979), was on the hardcover bestseller list for forty-seven weeks and won the American Book Award for fiction. Despite this acclaim, the novel offended some who thought it in poor taste to create a non-Jewish heroine who survived the Nazi concentration camps—a Christian survivor of Nazi totalitarianism. Some thought it even more audacious for Styron to fuse Jewish and Southern literary traditions, two of America’s richest literary heritages. Yet Styron links what are for him the two horrors of modern times—slavery and genocide in the American South, and slavery and genocide in Nazi Eastern Europe. One of the epigraphs to Sophie’s Choice is a line from André Malraux’s Lazare: “I seek that essential region of the soul where absolute evil confronts brotherhood.” The absolute evil that Styron dramatizes in the novel is what became known on both the slave auction blocks and in the Nazi concentration camps as “selection,” the separation of families and friends into those sent off to die and those sent off to be worked to death. The Old South’s “final solution” was also America’s “absolute evil.” Clearly, many critics will not let this parallel go unchallenged.
For Styron, if the Holocaust is the central horror of the twentieth century, it is not because it was anti-Semitic but because it was anti-life. Holding on to repressive traditions too is anti-life, as is any belief in absolute values. Styron’s fiction provides no answers but urges us instead to question everything. Affirmations, then, are singular, personal; his optimism is provisional. Hope can often sap up of our needed strength to combat injustices on earth. Styron has been criticized for his supposed pessimism, yet out of despair artists create. Styron would argue that all great art has been born of a pessimistic view of life often brought out of perilous times and out of suffering. If we can overcome the need to stereotype, the need not to think, awareness is born, and with awareness comes action, and with action comes personal meaning. Here Styron echoes Camus’ sentiments: in a world of unhappiness, we must create happiness.
Many of Styron’s fictional characters, however, are unable to create happiness. Many seem afflicted with an acute case of emotional and intellectual arrest, stifled by Romantic and Puritan myths, unable to live in the present. Styron often uses interior monologues to portray our spiritual malaise; nostalgic reveries, however, cannot cure the illness. Some characters choose suicide, some murder, some prolong their agony by living a dead life. Many just hide behind outdated political, religious, or artistic abstractions. But for Styron and Camus, to be fully human is to doubt. One either chooses the creative present, this world, or one chooses death. Finding spiritual sustenance in our modern wasteland is the job of the living. Resisting nihilism, therefore, is one of Styron’s most urgent themes. Human beings must demand meaning in a world that denies it; this is the true absurd position but, for Styron, the only liberating one. Since there is no absolute order, knowledge, or salvation, only humanistic values can combat the senselessness of violence, the purposelessness of most of our lives.
The first step towards this renewal is accepting our loss of innocence. The pervasive myth of the American Adam is stultifying, even treacherous, according to Styron. In this way, Styron is countering a dominant stream of American writers who yearn for an Edenic past, rebuking the prevailing American tendency towards nostalgia, a tendency which produces stunted individuals and often less-than-great fiction. Styron’s vision, then, is closer to Melville’s than to Emerson’s or Whitman’s. Evil is not merely the privation of good; it lies within us, not in abstract systems, for it is we who create divisive, destructive systems which serve to separate us. After visiting Auschwitz, Styron asked not where God was but where humanity was. The emergence of maturity and the ability to love require the purging of self-illusions and grandiose Puritan and Romantic myths. One must rebel to grow, and even failed rebellion is preferable to mere Faulknerian endurance. Suffering and struggle can indeed be purgative, creative; rebellion and struggle, therefore, dominate all of Styron’s fiction.
Styron’s work proves that the novel is still a plausible art form, that literature is still worthy of a kind of faith, one that can transform us by providing us with knowledge and order. Although Styron tampers with chronology and different points of view, he is basically a traditional novelist who worries about plot, character, and setting, and who concerns himself with the lofty themes of his literary forebears—goodness, evil, race, slavery, time, love, death, and redemption. The writers for whom he has a particular fondness are Tolstoy, Conrad, Flaubert, Melville, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Walker Percy, and Philip Roth. Because Styron is a man firmly rooted in the present, he has been able to merge his literary and political passions. Yet he is no mere apologist defending or justifying particular political philosophies. His fiction urges us instead to resist propaganda, to resist stereotypes or easy solutions, to reject lies. It is not through hope but through revolt that human beings can establish justice on earth. With rebellion, awareness is born. It is this seemingly simple yet revolutionary ethic that will be explored here in Styron’s fiction.
Americans have warmly embraced Camus’ secular ethics, his atheistic humanism, despite our pretensions towards religious piety. Yet Camus was censured and even ostracized at home for his unorthodox truths. American writers like Poe, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Styron have found receptive audiences in Europe while meeting with criticism at home. The best American writers have always been able to give body and voice to the tragic elements that our society officially wishes to ignore but which exist in the unspoken consciousness of many. Styron has spoken out for those who keep silent, but in so doing he has run the heavy risk of being ostracized by American critics and readers.
Styron confesses at the outset of Sophie’s Choice, through an epigraph by Rainer Maria Rilke, that the whole of death is beyond description just as the act of love is, yet he attempts to describe both in this great novel. Auschwitz, Styron says, must remain the one place on earth most unyielding to meaning or definition. Auschwitz is an ever-present reminder that our fate will be sealed the day we forget how to love. Styron’s fiction reminds us just how fragile love is, that the essential “choice” we all make is between death and the love of the living. Although Styron has not lived the life of a pariah, his works have been nonetheless revolutionary. Tacked to his studio wall is a famous line from Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a Bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
Although Sophie’s Choice won the American Book Award for fiction, it met with some very mixed reviews. Generally favorable reviews appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Commonweal, The Atlantic Monthly, Time, America, The New Statesman, The New York Times Book Review, Newsweek, Commentary, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Yale Review, The Village Voice, and Vogue. Critics such as Doris Grumbach, Paul Fussell, John Gardner, Gail Godwin, Peter Prescott, Jonathan Yardley, and Larzer Ziff regard Sophie’s Choice as at least a major work if not a masterpiece.
Some critics, however, regard the novel as bombastic and melodramatic—in short, a colossal failure. Robert Towers in The New York Review of Books argues that the voice of Stingo and other deficiencies make it difficult to regard the novel as even a noble failure. Robert Alter in Saturday Review contends that the ties between the personal frame and historical subject do not quite hold. Julian Symons in the Times Literary Supplement also argues that the novel is divided into two parts that are not very closely stitched together, that the novel is a melodrama and not a tragedy. John Aldridge in Harper’s asserts that the novel has no ideas to express, that Styron uses pyrotechnics. Jack Beatty in The New Republic calls the novel sluggish, self-indulgent, dull, wordy, and windy. The New Yorker calls the novel contrived, humorless, overwrought, and ponderous. And David Evanier in National Review calls Sophie’s Choice not a novel but copious notes towards a novel, totally lacking in form, the bad writing of which is more memorable than the good.
For these and other reasons, Sophie’s Choice has engendered almost as much controversy as The Confessions of Nat Turner did in 1967. This book will demonstrate, however, that Sophie’s Choice is Styron’s most audacious, original, and artistically successful novel to date. First, this book will counter the many critics who have assailed the novel as anti-Semitic; Sophie’s Choice does dramatize the madness of anti-Semitism without itself being anti-Semitic. In response to these critics who conclude that the novel tramples on sacred ground by fictionalizing the Holocaust, especially since Styron is neither a Jew nor a Holocaust survivor, this book will argue against silence in the face of the horror of the Holocaust. Fictionalizing this catastrophe does not necessarily trivialize the tragedy. A novel can, in fact, penetrate our consciousness more deeply than a historical account by affording some artistic distance—which diminishes the tendency towards numbing produced by a historical or strictly autobiographical account. Rather than trivializing the Holocaust, Sophie’s Choice dramatizes the tragic dimensions of this unparalleled event and shows how the tragedy continues to manifest itself more than two generations after the fact, causing great anguish to its survivors and nonsurvivors, to their children and grandchildren, to Jews and Gentiles, to Europeans and Americans.
This book will also counter the argument that Sophie’s Choice is a sexist novel, that Styron and his youthful alter ego, Stingo, are misogynists. It is true that Sophie’s Choice explores the evils of sexism, but it is not sexist itself. Styron sets his novel in the “frozen sexual moonscape of the 1940s,” a time following the Second World War of great sexual and moral confusion. Sex becomes the symbolic setting for the novel, “a nightmarish Sargasso Sea of guilts and apprehension.” Sophie’s Choice does dramatize the consequences of patriarchal cultures which make men and women victims and victimizers, that force us to behave according to stereotyped roles. For this Styron has been branded a sexist, when actually he is just demonstrating the disastrous effects of sexism on both sexes.
Finally, this book will explore the novel’s powerful theme—absolute evil. The metaphor for this evil is Sophie’s forced choice: she must choose which one of her two children to have murdered by the Nazis. Styron insists that evil is mysterious and inextinguishable, that Americans are not chosen people exempt from the world’s demonism; American innocence is shown as potentially lethal. Sophie’s Choice is then an American spiritual journey into the mystery of iniquity, a twentieth-century Moby- Dick. The many Melvillean overtones will be explored, linking Styron to the great nineteenth-century anti-Transcendental novelists such as Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and James, a noble tradition which continues in twentieth-century writers like Faulkner and Styron who have a tragic view of the human condition. While insisting on the power and inextinguishability of evil in human beings and nature, Styron ultimately provides a compassionate vision of humanity struggling for meaning in an indifferent universe. The characters in Sophie’s Choice, although limited by heredity and environment, are still capable of great love and loyalty despite their suffering, despite the obvious madness of the twentieth century. In this sense, although the evil that is the Holocaust pervades this novel, so too does brotherhood, and that is why the novel’s epigraph, “I seek that essential region of the soul where absolute evil confronts brotherhood,” is not only apposite to the theme but also reveals Styron’s daring as a novelist—his ability to give voice to a few of the “beaten and butchered and betrayed and martyred children of the earth.” In a world which permitted the black edifice of Auschwitz, Sophie’s Choice asserts, albeit tentatively, that love may yet be possible, that loving must not be an absurdity after Auschwitz. Sophie’s Choice urges us to conquer our grief through love and laughter, without which aggression against the self or others is the only alternative.
In an era of fashionable postmodern minimalism and nihilism, Styron has created characters who seek the high-minded solace that is available in self-knowledge, in the future, in love. Styron is one of the few contemporary novelists who create characters still struggling for transcendence, showing that life is serious, not just trivial and grim, that characters can make important though limited choices, that there are issues worth clarifying. By insisting on affirming the values the Nazis denied their victims, Styron makes the human face richer and more admirable.
Styron, therefore, must be appreciated as one of the most audacious and humane voices in contemporary literature. With tremendous sympathy for the casualties of history, he continues to be on the side of the humiliated, the persecuted, and the suffering. While all of his fiction has been concerned with human domination and with the pathos of victims of that domination, Sophie’s Choice in particular dramatizes the horrific consequences of a victimizer’s inability to identify with his victim. Sophie’s Choice dares to try to understand and express compassion for victims and victimizers. It is to be hoped that Styron will continue to challenge the moral and intellectual complacency of his readers with fiction that demonstrates that there is no rational order in existence, that human beings are at risk of extinction, and that rebellion, therefore, in a post-Holocaust world is critical to our survival as a species.
Source: Rhoda Sirlin, “Introduction,” in William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice”: Crime and Self-Punishment, UMI Research Press, 1990, pp. 1–8.
In the following essay excerpt, Pearce examines Styron’s “attempt to approach what is beyond the limits of human imagination” in Sophie’s Choice.
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Source: Richard Pearce, “Sophie’s Choices,” in The Achievement of William Styron, rev. ed., edited by Robert K. Morris, with Irving Malin, University of Georgia Press, 1981, pp. 284–94.
Aldridge, John W., “Styron’s Heavy Freight,” in Harper’s, September 1979, pp. 95–98.
DeMott, Benjamin, “Styron’s Survivor: An Honest Witness,” in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 244, July 1979, pp. 77–79.
Review of Sophie’s Choice, in New Yorker, Vol. 55, June 18, 1979, pp. 109–10.
“Riddle of a Violent Century,” in Time, June 11, 1979, p. 86.
Styron, William, Sophie’s Choice, Random House, 1992.
Asscher-Pinkof, Clara, Star Children, Wayne State University Press, 1946.
Asscher-Pinkof, a Dutch Jewish teacher and novelist, taught in schools set up for Jewish children in Amsterdam during World War II. In this book, she presents first-person fictional short stories based on some of her students’ experiences in detention centers, transit camps, and in concentration camps such as Bergen-Belsen.
Becker, Jurek, Bronstein’s Children, University of Chicago Press, 1999.
This novel tells the story of an eighteen-year-old German Jew who accidentally comes upon his father and two other men beating up an old man, a former Nazi guard from one of the concentration camps, who tortured them thirty years before. The novel explores the complicated relationship between victim and persecutor and demonstrates how sadism and prejudice persisted long after the end of World War II.
Blum, Jenna, Those Who Saved Us, Harcourt, 2004.
Blum, who worked with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, takes an unsentimental look at the Holocaust. In this novel, the story alternates between the present-day story of a history professor in Minneapolis who is collecting oral histories from World War II German and Jewish survivors and her elderly mother’s story of being a young woman in Weimar, Germany, near Buchenwald, one of the largest Nazi concentration camps.