Judging by the large body of critical attention given to William Styron, he quickly earned major status among American writers. Many critics consider his fourth novel, Sophie’s Choice, to be his best achievement.
In Sophie’s Choice, Styron introduces a theme new to his novels, the Holocaust, and revisits an old theme, the suicide of a woman. Sophie’s Choice is a memoir narrated by Stingo twenty years after the events it records. As is usual in Styron’s fiction, it attempts to connect major themes of recent Western history to a confessional type of story. The parallels between the facts of Stingo’s experiences at the rooming house are so consistent with Styron’s own life at that age that readers should interpret Stingo as a persona tied extremely closely to Styron himself. Styron did live in such a boardinghouse in order to write and did know such a woman as Sophie, “beautiful but ravaged.” He knew her, however, only slightly. This gives an authenticity to the narrative voice, yet allows a freedom to the artist to realize a personal vision. Through Stingo, Styron unifies a complex variety of themes, two of which are central: the difficulty of keeping faith with God, religion, and human nature in view of the Nazi atrocities; and the difficulty of becoming a literary artist, in view of those atrocities as well as in view of the decline of southern regional writing. As Nathan observes to Stingo, Southern literature is a dying tradition; the difficulty of creating in the wake of such notables as Lillian Hellman, William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and Carson McCullers is Styron’s great challenge. A major theme of Sophie’s Choice is Styron’s focus on this challenge, and he responds by creating a South contextualized in the colorful mixture of many ethnicities and backgrounds. As Stingo notes, the Brooklyn rooming house is a microcosm of American heterogenous types. By placing his South in such a broad context Styron is able to make his point that suffering is universal for human beings, and even the Holocaust may be integrated into a larger picture of human tragedy. The risk is in proposing such a morally ambiguous world and such a pessimistic vision of life that creativity becomes wholly arbitrary and useless. Styron seems to find a sufficient balance and some rays of convincing hope, but only as Stingo overcomes his youthful naïveté and exercises self-control in his relationships with others. The South of his youth and the European past are as sweet, as innocent, and as irrecoverable as Sophie’s own childhood in Gothic Cracow, resounding with the divine music of the classic composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George Frideric Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Johannes Brahms. The past is not altogether obsolete and archaic, however, nor are the obstacles to happiness the only powers at work. Joy visits at unexpected moments. Whether readers find in these moments sufficient recompense for pain or little more than an interruption of pain will determine the degree to which they find Styron’s tragedies absolute. The joy is, in any case, real in Nathan’s brilliant conversation, in the progress of Stingo’s first novel, in Sophie’s friendship, uninhibited sexuality, and beauty. Joy is there even in his father’s idealism and old-fashioned manners, his solicitous love for and faith in his son. It is present in Sophie’s quasi-mythical youth in prewar Poland; in her struggles to help others and make the best of her imprisonment in the concentration camp at Auschwitz; and in her efforts to regain her health, to love faithfully, and to rebuild her life in the United States, although she is haunted by memories, especially guilt over her choice.
Structurally, Sophie’s Choice is a complex achievement. Styron structures the novel on stated and implied parallels—between Poland and the American South, between...
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