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.)