Sophie's Choice

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

In a world filled with disasters and psychologists, a subspeciality of psychology in our day has become the study of survivors. As a result, when a plane crashes with three hundred people on board and only a handful survive, students of human personality can predict with some accuracy what the reaction of that small group of survivors will be. After the initial shock and sense of relief wears off, psychologists tell us, survivors can expect to experience a strong sense of guilt at the fact of their survival. While a rational approach might be that our world has a goodly amount of randomness built into it, and thus a survivor is simply that, and might as well pick up his life and get on with it, real survivors tend to wonder why they survived and not others, and to feel guilt over their situation. They might also look for outside causal agents, and call them luck, fate, providence, fortune, or whatever, to account for their situations. Even that would be a healthier response than guilt, which can lead only to despair and desolation at the denial to them of the death from which there is no logical reason for their escape. In some cases, however, the nature of the disaster is such that it denies the possibility of any external causal agent; in situations like this, guilt is understandably a valid and appropriate human choice of response.

Or, so it seems is the case for the central character in William Styron’s latest novel. Sophie, a Polish Catholic, gets caught up in a German raid against suspected anti-German elements in Occupied Poland during World War II. She, along with her two children, is dispatched to Auschwitz, where on the day she arrives literally hundreds of Jews, along with large numbers of Sophie’s fellow non-Jewish Poles, are summarily put to death. Through a series of seemingly random circumstances, Sophie survives, although her children do not. When the novel opens, Sophie is living in New York City, trying to put her life back together with the help of Nathan, a young Jewish man who has been able to put her in touch with doctors who have restored her health. The only problem is that Nathan is a certified psychotic, prone to episodes of delusions heightened by a serious drug dependency. The fact that Sophie survived while so many Jews did not aggravates Nathan’s rage when he has his psychotic episodes; Sophie’s own sense of guilt at her survival makes her vulnerable to Nathan’s rage and binds her to him in spite of the verbal and physical abuse she takes from him.

The complexities of their situation emerge in the book piece by piece as the narrator, called by his old nickname of Stingo, gradually gains Sophie’s confidence and hears her tale of Auschwitz and her relationship with Nathan. Much of this novel is made up of Sophie’s long, rambling accounts of her life; rarely in fiction does one meet with such powerful, gut-rending narration. The narrator’s own situation amplifies our sense of horror; he is young and naïve, and his innocent curiosity about Sophie encourages her to tell her story. His sense of shock, his constant recollection of the innocent and naïve life he was living while...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*New York City

*New York City. Great cosmopolitan city in which Stingo meets Sophie. The city has long drawn young people from the hinterland, and Stingo is no exception. Certain that the bright lights of the big city will make New York the perfect place for his writing career to develop, he takes a job with a major publishing firm, only to discover that he does not fit into the corporate culture there. Unwilling to return to his southern home, he uses a tainted legacy of money from a slave-owning ancestor to support himself while he writes his first book. Thus he meets Sophie and becomes entangled in her tormented relationship with Nathan Landau, the mentally ill scion of a wealthy Jewish family.

The city’s cosmopolitan and democratic setting functions as a powerful contrast to the story of bigotry and tyranny from her past that Sophie reveals to young Stingo. At first Stingo knows only that Sophie is a European refugee, a survivor of the horrors of the Holocaust who suffered terribly and nearly died in a Nazi concentration camp. Gradually—as though peeling an onion—Sophie reveals more and more of the specific horrors she endured, as well as her own ambiguous role in those horrors—a role that has left her with strong feelings of guilt. At the same time, the disturbing nature of Nathan’s mental illness is revealed. At length the pressure in their tormented relationship drives them apart, and Stingo tries to save Sophie, but at the end the story returns full circle and Sophie goes back to New York, to Nathan and her destruction.


*Auschwitz. Infamous Nazi concentration camp in southern Poland in which Sophie was a prisoner during World War II. The name of Auschwitz has become almost synonymous with the Holocaust, a symbol of the enormity of Adolf Hitler’s obsession with exterminating Europe’s Jewish population. However, for Sophie, a Polish Roman Catholic, Auschwitz is a more personal horror of death and deprivation, combined with the ambiguity of having had special skills that afforded her a privileged position as a secretary to the camp commandant, Rudolf Höss. Although she was still a prisoner, she...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

World War II

The Nazi system of human extermination during World War II (1941–1945) was publicized following the...

(The entire section is 109 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Literary Allusion

A literary allusion is a reference to another work of literature. It places the work at hand in a...

(The entire section is 307 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As usual Styron structures his novel by rearranging the time sequences within it to provide the most shocking and dramatic events which are...

(The entire section is 254 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Holocaust like racial slavery remains a monumental and troubled issue. Some writers have suggested that even trying to write about it...

(The entire section is 791 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Nazi Holocaust in the twentieth century has been so overwhelmingly documented and discussed that it is difficult to grapple with the...

(The entire section is 269 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1940s: While suicide is often the result of emotional or mental illness, it is treated as a crime by the U.S. legal system.


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Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Imagine that you have only twenty-four hours to vacate your home, possibly for the last time. You have no idea where you are going or why you...

(The entire section is 284 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The second paragraph of Styron's novel mimics the opening of Melville's Moby Dick (1851): "Call me Stingo." In doing so Styron points...

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Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Sophie's Choice distinctly parallels Styron's own journey as a writer. Stingo's fascination with the death of a youthful friend, Maria...

(The entire section is 88 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Sophie's Choice became a successful film directed by Alan Pakula in 1982. Meryl Streep as the doomed Sophie won an Academy Award in...

(The entire section is 25 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Sophie’s Choice was made into a film starring Meryl Streep as Sophie and Kevin Kline as Nathan. It is available on a 1992 video and...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

In the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), Styron tells the story of the 1831 Virginia slave...

(The entire section is 187 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

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.

Hadaller, David. Gynicide: Women in the Novels of William Styron. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.

Heath, William. “I, Stingo: The Problem of Egotism in...

(The entire section is 182 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Aldridge, John W., “Styron’s Heavy Freight,” in Harper’s, September 1979, pp. 95–98.


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