Sophie's Choice Criticism
by William Styron

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      William Styron’s book, Sophie’s Choice, tells a story inside another story and, in the telling of these stories, the book reads like a novel. But, in other places in the text, the book does not read like a novel. There are excerpts from unpublished work (with editing comments on them), historical background information, and summaries of scholarship. If readers are to understand the meaning of Sophie’s Choice, then they must be able to explain how these disparate parts work together.

      The central content of Sophie’s Choice is the story of Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish gentile who survives Auschwitz where she loses her children. And who then, having arrived in New York, is drawn into a self-destructive, abusive relationship with an American Jew—the psychotic drug addict, Nathan Landau. Paralleling Sophie’s story is the story of Stingo during the summer of 1947, when he becomes friends with Sophie and Nathan. Stingo’s story is mostly about his setting out to become a writer and about his sexual initiation. Stingo’s story contains letters from his father and excerpts from writing Stingo does in 1947. In 1947, Sophie draws her story from her immediate memories of living in Poland before and during World War II; Stingo’s story, full of his hopes for the future, is told across the span of thirty years, from the point of view of the successful author Stingo is to become.

      In addition, the novel includes information about the real world on which this fiction of Sophie is based: population statistics for Jews in Warsaw; information about the IG Farben chemical conglomerate at Auschwitz; biographical information on Rudolf Höss, the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz from 1940 to 1943; and quotations from theoretical works by mid-twentieth century scholars and thinkers, such as Simone Weil, George Steiner, Richard Rubenstein, and Holocaust survivor, Elie Weisel. These parts of the book interrupt the “fiction” of the novel in order to discuss the Holocaust.

      Why does Styron frame Sophie’s story with Stingo’s story? Why are these two stories freighted with historical, biographical, and theoretical writings? The answer to these questions lies in a connection drawn in some of the research material Styron quotes—namely, that the Nazi state of domination developed out of the institution of slavery. The same evil at work in kidnapping human beings and reducing them to property (as in slavery) is at work in the domination and dehumanization that culminate in a machinery for extermination.

      Disbelief in these connections derives, in part, from the fact that others remote from the events are unaware of them or deliberately disassociate themselves from them. Their tendency to disconnect is partly explained by George Steiner’s theory about simultaneity: at the same moment hordes of people were being gassed in concentration camps, “the overwhelming plurality of human beings, two miles away on the Polish farms, five thousand miles away in New York, were sleeping or eating or going to a film or making love or worrying about the dentist. . . . Their coexistence is so hideous a paradox—Trebinka is both because some men have built it and almost all other men let it be.” In other words, because people are separated across time or space, they can deny their connection to human events in which they are not immediately and directly involved.

      In reading Steiner, the narrator feels a “shock of recognition.” As Sophie stepped onto the train platform at Auschwitz, embracing her two children for what was to be the last time, Stingo was gorging himself on bananas. It was a lovely April day, rimmed with forsythia, but Sophie was slipping into “living damnation,” to use Steiner’s words, while Stingo was hoping to bulk up his weight in order to pass the physical examination for entrance into the Marines. Sophie was already starving and would continue to starve; Stingo was...

(The entire section is 1,586 words.)