William Styron Styron, William (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Styron, William 1925–

Styron is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer, and playwright. The public controversy surrounding The Confessions of Nat Turner has somewhat obscured the critical acclaim elicited by his previous work. The Long March, for example, is often described as a small masterpiece. A southern writer, Styron has often been compared to Faulkner because of his dense imagery and rhetorical style. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 5, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Frederick J. Hoffman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is futile to stir up the old clichés about "decadence," "Southern tradition," the "Southern model," etc. Styron has better and larger fish to fry. He is, above all, concerned with a basic and timeless issue, though it surely has its place in twentieth-century literature.

It is, in brief, the problem of believing, the desperate necessity for having the "courage to be." Almost all of his fiction poses violence against the human power to endure it and to "take hold of himself" in spite of it. The pathos of his creatures, when it is not directly the result of organizational absurdity, comes from a psychological failure, a "confusion," a situation in which the character, trying to meet an awkward human situation, makes it worse and (almost invariably) retreats clumsily or despairingly from it. (p. 144)

I do not mean to suggest that Styron inhabits or has created a simple-minded world. It is perhaps the most difficult feat of all, this one of asserting not only the pre-eminence of values (love, joy, and hope) but of creating meaningful situations in which men and women struggle to gain them, or even to understand them. The "modernness" of Styron's world, then, is not related to nihilism, but to humiliation, and to struggle: the ghastly struggle just to assert one's humanness, to get over the barriers to understanding, to clear one's personality of obsessions. (pp. 145-46)

Styron's minor prose is largely confined to asserting these essentials, as though the essays and sketches were a clearinghouse, to provide the novels a freer range of observation and action….

The Long March gives an insight into the simplest variant of Styron's moral speculation. If we assume that the human creature deserves (or can rise to) dignity and even nobility, but is often the victim of accident and absurdity, The Long March illustrates our assumption with the simplicity of a blackboard demonstration. (p. 146)

[The Long March] is a statement concerning the world of the absurd. Mannix does not defy its absurdity; he simply goes about to prove that he can meet its terms, and becomes in the end a reduced figure as a result of his efforts. Perhaps, by way of extenuation, it should be said that the terms here are extraordinarily simple. Despite the fact that this world is absurd, there are few problems of communication here. It is not the military world that usually bothers Styron's persons, but the civilian world living in the shadow of a war, a "bomb," and, principally, in a circumstance that permits no easy belief.

It is this combination of appalling and threatening circumstances that makes Lie Down in Darkness so sad a novel. Throughout the interior monologue … of young Peyton Loftis, the atom bomb just dropped on Hiroshima appears as a menacing minor overtone. This is not a war novel, however; nor is it a novel devoted to diagnoses of...

(The entire section is 1212 words.)

John Gardner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Sophie's Choice" is a courageous, in some ways masterly book, a book very hard to review for the simple reason that the plot—even the double entendre in the title—cannot be given away. Certain things can be said without too much harming the novel's considerable effect: The story treats two doomed lovers, Nathan Landau, a brilliant, tragically mad New York Jew, and Sophie Zawistowska, a beautiful Polish survivor of Auschwitz, and their intellectual and emotional entrapment, for better or worse, of the novelist-narrator.

Thematically, the novel treats the familiar (which is not to say trivial) Styron subject, the nature of evil in the individual and in all of humanity. Brooding guilt is everywhere….

The novel's courage lies partly in this: After all the attacks on Styron, especially after "The Confessions of Nat Turner," which some blacks and liberals (including myself) found offensive here and there, we get in "Sophie's Choice" the same old Styron, boldly and unmercifully setting down his occasional lapses (or his narrator's) into anti-Semitism, and anti-feminism and so forth, bearing his chest to whatever knives it may possibly deserve, even begging for it. Those who wish to can easily prove him anti-black, anti-white, anti-Southern, anti-Yankee, anti-Polish, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, anti-German, anti-American, anti-Irish—the list could go on and on. No bigotry escapes him; the worst that can be said of humanity Styron claims for himself, wringing his hands, tearing his hair, wailing to all the congregation, Mea culpa! (p. 1)

Such all-inclusive, self-confessed sinfulness should absolve a man, and in a way, of course, it does; no reader of "Sophie's Choice" can doubt that Styron has put immense energy into trying to understand and deal justly with the evils in American history and the European holocaust, to say nothing of the evil (as well as the good) in his characters. Yet for all the civilized and, in the best sense, Christian decency of Styron's emotions when he's watching himself, the rabid streak is always ready to leap out and take command….

My point—and I labor it because it seems to me important—is this: Styron's justice and compassion, the desperate struggle to get to the bottom of even the most terrible, most baffling evils—the holocaust, above all—and to come back a just and loving man are impressive, almost awesome, precisely because we know by his slips that they are not natural to him but earned…. [This] novel is as not merely a story of other people's troubles, but a piece of anguished Protestant soul-searching, an attempt to seize all the evil in the world—in his own heart first—crush...

(The entire section is 1112 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Everyone familiar with the shameful media treatments of Nazidom over the years has to have felt an obligation to protest…. But I wouldn't have predicted that, among American fictionists of established reputation, the author of Set This House on Fire would have been the figure who met that obligation. And certain signs in Sophie's Choice suggest that Styron isn't entirely at ease in his role. (p. 77)

A long narrative (more than 500 oversized, tightly printed pages), circumstantially detailed, Sophie's Choice has defects as a work of fiction. About many events in the heroine's life the narrator has no direct knowledge, which means that Sophie must tell all, slipping into a volubility awkward in someone first presented as a human being of style and dignity. (Stingo asks us to believe that a taste for American bourbon, rather than a spell of the novelistic clumsies, lies behind Sophie's garrulousness, but he's unconvincing.) The events are both hideous and unsurprising…. [Sophie] endures unimaginable degradation—yet scarcely a word of what happens to her is new to print. And the narrator is hyperconscious of this, alluding often to the literature of the Holocaust—works by Hannah Arendt, Bruno Bettelheim, George Steiner, and others—for parallels to, and commentaries on, Sophie's case.

Subtler problems grow from these roots, erupting from page to page and frequently disengaging the reader's feelings. The author's honorable sense of responsibility to sources leads to incongruous, reductive juxtapositions. (p. 78)

Uneasy disengagement is one result, as I say. Another is a tic of skepticism—fear that the novelist, when he undertakes to probe the foundations of individual behavior, is settling...

(The entire section is 729 words.)

Robert Alter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Sophie's Choice Styron] tries to address himself simultaneously to some of the fundamental issues of his own life as a writer and to a central dilemma of the moral history of our century. The novel he has shaped to confront these urgent questions is remarkably compelling, eloquent at its best, but not altogether satisfying—perhaps chiefly because the intertwined stories of a writer's coming of age and the meditation on the horrors of the Nazi death camps generate more static than resonance between them. (p. 42)

Styron rather consciously represents himself in his fictional surrogate Stingo as a Young Man from the Provinces: an inexperienced small-town Southerner among Northern urbanites;...

(The entire section is 600 words.)

Edith Milton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sophie's Choice is an ambiguous, masterful, and enormously satisfying novel. It reconstructs Auschwitz, the ultimate system of falsehood organized, from the vantage point of the commandant's house, and perceives its litanies to human degradation through an appalling, ordinary focus of daily life. The extermination of the "undesirable" is measured in terms of their clothes piled in the laundry, and the stench of the smoke from the crematorium. Auschwitz is order imposed on quintessential chaos, making chaos efficient. (pp. 90-1)

The novel's credibility depends a great deal on Stingo's lack of it. I was rather nonplussed to find how many reviewers accepted the narrator as Styron himself, and...

(The entire section is 676 words.)

Julian Symons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Sophie's Choice] is divided into two parts that are not very closely stitched together. The Stingo-Sophie-Nathan relationship is one part, Sophie's life in Auschwitz as she tells it to Stingo the other, and the Auschwitz passages are much more vivid and convincing than the scenes from American life circa 1947. If the camps cannot be satisfactorily treated in terms of Zolaesque naturalism (no novelist has yet succeeded in this), what technique can suggest their horror, and convey something of the terrible new world in which the prisoners lived? Mr. Styron's approach reminded me sometimes of Lina Wertmuller's film Seven Beauties in showing horror through grotesque comedy, and in stressing the individual's...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

Paul Levy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Much of Sophie's Choice is concerned with Sophie's experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau] and the diabolical choice she is forced to make there. There is another, sunnier subplot, concerning Stingo's efforts to rid himself of his virginity, which shows that Styron can do superbly what the young Philip Roth did well…. Some reviewers have taken exception with the manner of the narration of this novel. Stingo tells the story in the first-person, and the telling of them usually seems to be contemporary with the events themselves. There are exceptions when the narrator anachronistically introduces reflections on recent studies of the 'Holocaust' and on history, and some readers found these occasions disturbing. I did...

(The entire section is 201 words.)

Alvin H. Rosenfeld

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The American Muse dictates its own terms of refashioning reality, and almost always these will take a highly personal, even solipsistic turn. One prominent example of such turning is William Styron's Sophie's Choice, ostensibly an attempt by one of our major novelists to come to grips with the meaning of Auschwitz but actually, as we shall see, a much different kind of book.

Sophie's Choice is not an historical novel and, despite its fascination with Auschwitz, is at bottom not even primarily "about" the Holocaust. Its core subject is an aesthetic one, not an historical one, and as a result its essential concerns are chiefly those that belong to the Künstlerroman, or that...

(The entire section is 2132 words.)

Arnold Wesker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[William Styron] has hazarded a novel, Sophie's Choice, which attempts to defy the notion (George Steiner) that "in the presence of certain realities art is trivial or impertinent." It is an extraordinary work, destined, I would dare forecast, to become a major landmark in this debate around the morbid genre which has become known as Holocaust Literature. Not that Sophie's Choice is morbid; even though the novel's atmosphere hangs over me and I feel it will haunt for a long time, yet it is often hilarious! But so moved, disturbed and grateful was I for it that in self-protection against duplicity I want to sort out and dwell upon not the book's virtues but its equivocalities, for some of its aspects are...

(The entire section is 1532 words.)