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...
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