(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sophie’s Choice is Styron’s most ambitious novel. It contains the major themes of his previous fiction, embodying his loves of the South and of literature, his experience of war, and his quest to write a major novel summing up the significant issues of his age. His narrator, Stingo, is a callow youth who is living in Brooklyn, as Styron did, trying to write fiction. Stingo’s sexual experience has been limited, and he finds himself attracted to a beautiful Polish woman, Sophie, a survivor of a concentration camp.

It is 1947, and the incredible suffering of the Holocaust is just beginning to be revealed and understood. The situation becomes complicated for Stingo, who becomes the third member of a triangle when he befriends Sophie’s lover, Nathan, who is erratic and paranoic but also charismatic. Nathan flouts propriety, and his radical individualism appeals to the young Stingo, who—again, like Styron—has fared poorly in the bureaucratic publishing world and who is looking for a way to express himself.

Sophie’s behavior is puzzling to Stingo; she is passive and willing to let Nathan abuse her. Nathan’s cruelty is eventually explained in terms of his drug addiction and mental illness. Similarly, Sophie’s willingness to be treated as a victim begins to make sense when Stingo learns of her concentration camp experience—the way she had to make herself available sexually to her captors, and to make her awful choice:...

(The entire section is 480 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Stingo, an aspiring southern novelist in his early twenties, resigns an unrewarding editorship with a major New York publishing firm and moves into economical lodgings in a Brooklyn rooming house to devote all of his energies to his writing. Stingo’s father sends him five hundred dollars from a recent discovery of old gold pieces that were obtained by his great-grandfather for the sale of a slave, Artiste. Although embarrassed by the source of this windfall, Stingo uses the money to live on while he creates his first literary masterpiece, a novel about Maria Hunt, a high school friend whose suicide Stingo’s father relates to him as of possible interest. His father writes him regularly and once comes to visit him to try to persuade Stingo to return to his roots in the South. Stingo refuses to leave New York, but he often reconsiders that decision.

Soon Stingo is deeply involved in the lives of Nathan Landau, one of several Jewish boarders, and Nathan’s passionate lover, the beautiful Polish, former Catholic refugee, Sophie Zawatowska. Stingo falls in love at first sight with Sophie but has too much respect for Nathan’s prior claim to woo her. He befriends the couple and retells Sophie’s story as she gradually unfolds it to him. Sophie was raised in Cracow. Her professor father provided Sophie a strict, oppressive upbringing, while her passive but refined mother taught her a love for classical music that became her only consolation in the madness of Auschwitz and of the postwar United States.

At first, Stingo idealizes the brilliant, talkative, and volatile Nathan, whose claim to be a cellular biologist Stingo accepts at face value. It soon becomes clear that Nathan indulges in brutally abusive moods, exacerbated by drug use, ending in gun-waving, threats to kill, in physical and...

(The entire section is 741 words.)