Stingo (STIHN-goh), a twenty-two-year-old transplanted Southerner and would-be novelist living in New York City, where he struggles to find himself and write. He is oversensitive, intellectual, and astute. The novel is a record of Stingo’s pursuits in the big city, which primarily include his employment at the McGraw-Hill publishing company, his attempts to write, and his relationship with Sophie Zawistowska and Nathan Landau. Stingo, who in many ways resembles the author, becomes more and more involved with these two characters to the extent that he becomes the third point of a love triangle. As the plot unfolds, the reader learns of Sophie’s history. Concurrently, Stingo falls helplessly in love with her. After Nathan goes violently insane, Stingo takes Sophie to the South, to his home region, for one night of passionate lovemaking. Subsequently, Sophie and Nathan commit suicide, leaving Stingo unable to comprehend evil in human nature, primarily embodied in Auschwitz but more immediately in these two deaths.
Sophie Zawistowska (zah-vih-STOV-skah), née Biegaska (bi-GAHN-skah), a stunningly beautiful Polish survivor of Auschwitz who becomes a lover to Nathan Landau and later to Stingo. The essential aspect of her character is that, although she is a survivor of the worst atrocities of World War II, she remains a victim of the war. In terms of the immediate plot, Sophie is the object of Stingo’s infatuation turning to love, a fact that presents problems to all because of her longstanding affair with Nathan Landau. More important, though, Sophie is the focus of the novel in that the gradual revelation of her history is the main thrust of the work. She feels guilty for having survived Auschwitz, a circumstance with which the demented Nathan repeatedly taunts her. In fact, Sophie had been complicit in the terrors of Auschwitz because her father and husband had favored the Nazi cause. Sophie had been arrested in Poland and sent to the prison camp because, out of depression, she smuggled meat and was caught. In the prison camp, she survived as private secretary to the camp director. Sophie, on her arrival at Auschwitz, had been given a choice: One of her two children would live; the other would die. She saved her son, who later disappeared. Finally, Sophie chooses death over life when she kills herself.
Nathan Landau, Sophie’s Jewish lover and Stingo’s New York friend. He is extremely manipulative and cruel, vainly intellectual and accomplished, perceptive, and articulate. Nathan’s two main characteristics are his Jewishness and his dementia. Seemingly, he can exist only in love-hate relationships: He persecutes Sophie for being a Gentile and a survivor of Auschwitz; at the same time, he persecutes Stingo, making him feel guilty for Southern slavery in the past and racism in the present. Nathan is vain, moody, and violent. Nathan entices Sophie into the suicide pact that ends the novel.
Zbigniew Biegaski (ZBIHG-nyehv), Sophie’s father and a law professor. Dictatorial and authoritative, he had abetted the Nazis by writing a political tract arguing for the extermination of the Jews. As a result of her father writing that tract, Sophie feels guilt for what happened even though the Nazis later arrested and imprisoned her father in a concentration camp, where he eventually died.
Rudolph Franz Höss
Rudolph Franz Höss, Sophie’s employer, the director of the prison camp/extermination center at Auschwitz. An actual historical figure, Höss tried to maintain his humanity (particularly his family relations) even while supervising the atrocities at Auschwitz. As camp commandant, he was the object of Sophie’s sexual advances while she worked as his secretary and translator (she would sell herself for survival). The advances failed, and Höss returned Sophie to work camp.
(The entire section contains 4839 words.)
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