Sophie’s Choice is Styron’s most ambitious novel. It contains the major themes of his previous fiction, embodying his loves of the South and of literature, his experience of war, and his quest to write a major novel summing up the significant issues of his age. His narrator, Stingo, is a callow youth who is living in Brooklyn, as Styron did, trying to write fiction. Stingo’s sexual experience has been limited, and he finds himself attracted to a beautiful Polish woman, Sophie, a survivor of a concentration camp.
It is 1947, and the incredible suffering of the Holocaust is just beginning to be revealed and understood. The situation becomes complicated for Stingo, who becomes the third member of a triangle when he befriends Sophie’s lover, Nathan, who is erratic and paranoic but also charismatic. Nathan flouts propriety, and his radical individualism appeals to the young Stingo, who—again, like Styron—has fared poorly in the bureaucratic publishing world and who is looking for a way to express himself.
Sophie’s behavior is puzzling to Stingo; she is passive and willing to let Nathan abuse her. Nathan’s cruelty is eventually explained in terms of his drug addiction and mental illness. Similarly, Sophie’s willingness to be treated as a victim begins to make sense when Stingo learns of her concentration camp experience—the way she had to make herself available sexually to her captors, and to make her awful choice: surrendering one of her children to the gas ovens.
Sophie is not Jewish. In fact, her father wrote anti-Semitic tracts. Being Polish was enough to send her to the camps. Styron’s point is an important one: Millions of non-Jews died in the camps, and the fate of Jew and non-Jew alike is a human tragedy that involves everyone.
Styron’s decision to have Stingo narrate the story allows him to deal with the Holocaust sensitively and tactfully. His young alter ego is able to learn gradually about these horrifying events, so that they become a dramatic and believable part of the novel. Yet the narrator alone does not suffice. Styron also includes a narrator who provides essay-like excursions into the history of the Holocaust—a daring and perhaps not always successful addition to the novel.
Sophie’s Choice is Styron’s darkest vision of the modern world. Sophie and Nathan eventually commit suicide. Her burden of guilt is too great for her to endure life after the war, and Nathan seems to have chosen her for a lover to fulfill his own self-destructive course. What redeems their lives, in a sense, is Stingo’s devotion to them, his passion to understand what happened to them and what it means for him. By implication, their story becomes the writer’s story, an account of why he writes, and why others should care for lives that end in failure.
Stingo, an aspiring southern novelist in his early twenties, resigns an unrewarding editorship with a major New York publishing firm and moves into economical lodgings in a Brooklyn rooming house to devote all of his energies to his writing. Stingo’s father sends him five hundred dollars from a recent discovery of old gold pieces that were obtained by his great-grandfather for the sale of a slave, Artiste. Although embarrassed by the source of this windfall, Stingo uses the money to live on while he creates his first literary masterpiece, a novel about Maria Hunt, a high school friend whose suicide Stingo’s father relates to him as of possible interest. His father writes him regularly and once comes to visit him to try to persuade Stingo to return to his roots in the South. Stingo refuses to leave New York, but he often reconsiders that decision.
Soon Stingo is deeply involved in the lives of Nathan Landau, one of several Jewish boarders, and Nathan’s passionate lover, the beautiful Polish, former Catholic refugee, Sophie...
(The entire section contains 4599 words.)
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