Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741
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 verbal abuse, and in sexual violence for Sophie. Stingo’s perplexity about Sophie’s enduring attachment to this disastrously destructive relationship is only partially satisfied when he learns Sophie’s story. She inherits guilt for her professor-father’s fascist political beliefs, his anti-Semitism, his foreshadowing the Holocaust through a monograph he wrote calling for the extermination of Jews, his demand that Sophie distribute the monograph, and his death as the Nazis shot him and Sophie’s husband because they were professors and Polish. Sophie’s most terrifying burden arises from the first few horrifying moments when she arrived at Auschwitz with her two children, a boy and a girl, and a drunken German physician demanded that she decide which of her two children should be sent to the gas chambers. Such was Sophie’s choice.
Her boy lived, and Sophie obtained a clerical position with the camp commandant, Rudolph Hoss. Sophie tried to seduce Hoss, kissed his boots, and begged to see her child—all to no effect. She never saw her son again.
Only her love for Nathan and classical music fuel Sophie’s will to live. She constantly fills the neighborhood with strains from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Ludwig van Beethoven, played on Nathan’s gramophone. Stingo learns from Nathan’s brother Larry, a wealthy physician, that Nathan suffers chronic mental illness, is not employed as a scientist or anything else, and, between bouts in mental hospitals, occupies the boardinghouse room paid for by his family, on whose patronage he is completely dependent. Now convinced that Nathan might well be homicidal, Stingo offers Sophie an escape, a new life married to him, living on the small Virginia farm his father offers for his use—ironically, inherited from a man of offensively rightist ideology, whom his father tolerates and befriends in traditional liberal American style.
Once again, Sophie becomes a refugee, on a train bound this time for Virginia, where former slave territory now offers possible liberation, healing, and life accompanied by Stingo, the gallant lover nearly twenty years younger than she. After a stopover in Washington, D.C., so Sophie can have a tourist’s introduction to America’s political heart, Stingo and Sophie spend a passionate night together. Stingo then awakens to find himself alone. Grieved, Stingo wavers between continuing on toward his life as a southern gentleman-farmer and writer or returning to New York. At last, his illusions nearly all dispelled, and realizing Sophie’s latest choice entails her death, Stingo frantically returns to the boardinghouse to discover officials removing the bodies of Nathan and Sophie, who fulfilled their suicide pact.