Sophie's Choice Themes
by William Styron

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Sophie's Choice Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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The power of history to destroy and annihilate the individual self emerges in Sophie's Choice. As a result of Sophie's victimization at the hands of and complicity with the Nazi occupiers of her country, she commits suicide. Nathan Landau, her savior but also her victimizer and executioner, deriding her for her complicity in the Holocaust and at the same time drawn to her beauty and desperate sensuality, commits suicide with her. The novel is strewn with history's victims, a series of deaths from Stingo's mother to Maria Hunt, the doomed woman from his Virginia youth.

In order to survive as she has, Sophie has had to lie, steal, and cooperate with the Nazi authorities. Her very survival is based upon her cooperation with the enemy, and the guilt and terror that remain as the legacy of such involvement necessarily lead to her self-destruction. Sophie is no mere victim of history. She has also participated in it, if only to survive. Such personal complicity complicates her role as victim and adds to the tragic burdens and fate of Styron's novel.

As a product of the sexually repressed American era of the puritanical 1940s, Stingo is obsessed with sex and spends much of his time fantasizing about and plotting to possess Sophie. His own thirst for such a conquest suggests his own "Nazi-like" propensities, the need of the western man to dominate and devalue the woman. Such a master-slave relationship, however sexually expressed, parallels the other relationships in the novel between men and women in Polish, German, and American cultures and reveals an intimate connection between western sexuality, western dominance, and western imperialistic drives.

Styron's assessment of the American avoidance of tragedy and the lessons of history, with America basking in its own post-World-War-II victorious powers and seemingly triumphant optimism, is explored by the narrator, the older Stingo, who looks back on his loss of innocence, his own incredible complicity in the tragic events that have engulfed him, and at the same time tries to explain the seeming inevitability of the Nazi ascendancy. This constant quest in search of the ultimate meaning of Auschwitz propels both the narrator, Styron, and the younger Stingo, but in the end only the fact of evil remains, an enigmatic catastrophe that Americans must constantly try to understand in order never to repeat it. That awareness comes as the culmination in Styron's fiction so far of his persistent need to keep the tragic and horrifying events of history and the individual's complicity with them forever in the forefront of our minds. Throughout the novel Styron also explores the process of interpretation and understanding and views them as acts of penetration and violation. Such acts infect the use of language as well, so that the interrelationships between sexual conquest, self-destruction, and murder, along with linguistic interpretation, reflect and eerily parallel one another. No one remains innocent. Both Stingos try to possess Sophie whether through interpretation or sexual conquest, and both lose her. Perhaps Styron is trying to suggest that to possess Sophie, sexually and spiritually, is to lose her, just as in trying to possess the ultimate implications about Auschwitz, the best we can possess is the ultimately inexplicable.

Themes

(Novels for Students)

Evil

This novel explores evil in many forms (racism, sexism, substance abuse, domestic violence, and wartime atrocities). It suggests that oppression is a source of evil—that the state of complete domination achieved by the Third Reich evolved from the institution of slavery. It illustrates how people try to save themselves from the widening vortex of hatred. For example, Sophie thinks she is safe as long as the Germans focus on destroying the Jews. She insists her children are “racially pure,” exploiting Nazi racism in a futile attempt to protect her children. Later, Höss informs Sophie that Poles are “an enemy of the Reich.” He says Poles living in Germany are being...

(The entire section is 1,125 words.)