Stingo, the narrator and one of the principal characters, comes from the South to live in a Brooklyn rooming house where he hopes he can learn how to become a writer. He soon becomes passionately involved in the lives of his neighbors--Sophie, a Polish Catholic and concentration camp victim, and Nathan, her manic-depressive and paranoid Jewish lover.
The novel is as much about Stingo’s education as it is about Sophie’s tragic European life and Nathan’s ambivalent reactions to it. She is a victim, but she has also collaborated in various ways with the enemy. Her own father had been a party to the anti-Semitism sweeping Europe, and Nathan alternately absolves and accuses her and Stingo of infidelity and deceit that arises out of his acute sense of how dreadfully human beings have betrayed one another in the Holocaust.
Stingo has to learn how to read both of these complex characters and to sense how their lies about themselves are also expressions of deeper truths about the human personality. He falls in love with Sophie, but her loyalty is to Nathan--not only because he has saved her once after a complete physical collapse but because his erratic behavior somehow sums up the ordeal of history which she has experienced.
Occasionally, in passages which read like essays, Styron seems to lean too much on his historical research, but the way he is able through his characters to call every human motivation to account is an impressive achievement. He does not simply dwell on the tragic human waste of the Holocaust; rather, he explores the human responsibility for it.
Casciato, Arthur D., and James L. W. West III, eds. Critical Essays on William Styron. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. A cross-section of reviews of Styron’s fiction, with essays on Sophie’s Choice and other works.
Coale, Samuel. William Styron Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Chapter seven provides an insightful analysis of characters.
Heath, William. “I, Stingo: The Problem of Egotism in Sophie’s Choice.” Southern Review 20, (Summer, 1984): 528-540. Discusses the novel as competitive storytelling.
Karl, Frederick. American Fictions, 1940-1980. New York: Harper and Row, 1983. Broad coverage of the topic, but contains especially high praise for Sophie’s Choice as Styron’s best novel.
Kreyling, Michael. “Speakable and Unspeakable in Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.” Southern Review 20 (Summer, 1984): 546-561. Explores thematic relations between language and sexuality.