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 Sophie was going through what she describes, combine to add power and vigor to Sophie’s account.
The nature of Sophie’s experience is such that it flies in the face of any notions of order and justice in the universe. The sheer magnitude of the Nazi death operation, its thoroughness as applied to Jewish people and its randomness when applied to non-Jews, all seem to throw into question notions of God and benevolent humanity. Different people reach different conclusions about the meaning of Auschwitz; certainly the characters in this book have little or no use for familiar formulations of religious belief or the Judeo-Christian tradition. All that is left is shock, horror, and guilt, with all their debilitating...
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