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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.)
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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 civilians hurt by neurosis-inducing fright or guilt. It is, in fact, a "witness novel," that testifies to a special depth of human suffering and struggle. It is, as such, one of the representative novels of the 1950's and 1960's: the postwar novel of anxiety and manners…. (p. 148)
I think it is a mistake to assume that Darkness is simply a study of "decadence" or "degeneration," two terms that have been too easily applied to both Styron and Faulkner. They do not explain anything. (p. 149)
Lie Down in Darkness, as its title directs it to be, is concerned with human mortality, with the relentless drive of the death wish, which is underscored, of course, by a sense of almost total hopelessness. (pp. 149-50)
Darkness is, much of the way, a story of ordinary middle-class incompatibility and adultery: "ordinary," because the description of it is mean, tawdry, and without hope. Neither husband nor wife is heroic in any of it, though for a short time he appears in one of those interludes of fidelity and good intentions. It is also, and in close relationship to its other function, a novel which concerns the modern sensibility's frantic compulsions, its all but helpless drive toward self-destruction. (p. 151)
Perhaps Styron is saying: These people do not deserve a better fate. Or he may be saying: they are ineluctably fated to end as they do. But beyond any "naturalistic" or "fatalistic" view of them he sees them as persons engaged in pitifully trying to save themselves, or each other, from a fate they are somehow not able to forestall. (p. 152)
The great achievement of Darkness is that it is a universal situation. There is nothing peculiarly Southern, or even especially characteristic of the "U.S.A." in the novel. It is a bit too much the melodrama to be called a tragedy. Yet the images of a death hovering over life are sufficiently clearly there, to make the whole comparable to the seventeenth century of Urn Burial, and of John Donne's sermons.
In short, Darkness poses the metaphysical problem of death in a setting in which there is insufficient accommodation for it. The ambiguities of a love and a happiness that seem always beyond reach, for one reason or another; the further perplexities of a man who loves too much, too earnestly, and too vainly…. (pp. 152-53)
Set This House on Fire bears a relationship to Darkness as an epic resembles a "tragedy of manners." Neither term quite successfully defines either novel, but there is an extensiveness of scope and scene in House, a largeness of ambition, that do not seem relevant to Darkness. The suggestiveness of the title is similarly involved in seventeenth-century metaphysics. This time, the source is John Donne's sermon "To the Earle of Carlile, and his Company, at Sion."… In identifying both his major novels with seventeenth-century texts, Styron is in a sense also identifying them with the twentieth century: for in their contexts, he sees strong resemblances between the two centuries, at least within the limits of certain basic meditations upon "last things." (pp. 154-55)
The story of Cass's illness and of his own curing of it has something of the existentialist impact of Faulkner's A Fable. Or, it is a dramatization of Faulkner's key phrases in the Stockholm Address of 1950. The fact is that many great artists of the twentieth century have had visions of this Manichaean struggle: Catholics, Protestants and Jews have all had some hand in portraying the agony, and some have suggested—or imagined—a cure. Set This House on Fire is notable for its having come really to grips with the problem, and left it after a masterpiece of storytelling; this, Faulkner, in all his earnestness, was not able to do in A Fable, though he certainly managed elsewhere. [Set This House on Fire] sets the imagination agoing, in the expectation of an American literature of existentialism…. But it is perhaps best not to name it that, for fear of weighing it down with labels and classification. The important fact is that Styron has used his talents mightily and to a good effect in this novel. (p. 160)
Frederick J. Hoffman, "William Styron: The Metaphysical Hurt," in his The Art of Southern Fiction: A Study of Some Modern Novelists. (copyright © 1967 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1967, pp. 144-61.
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"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 it, and create a planet fit for God and man….
Though no one will deny that writing about the holocaust and its aftermath in personal terms—"Sophie's life and death"—may be the best thing one can do to wring at least some fragmentary sense out of those numbing times, I wonder if Styron's scaled-down goal is not as innocently absurd as the earlier goal. "Absolute evil." What a chaos of medieval phantoms nestles in those words! Like absolute good, a concept abandoned in Styron's vision as in much of modern Christianity, absolute evil is the stuff of which witch cults, country sermons and Gothic tales are made….
Styron is very conscious of being one of the last to work a dying literary tradition—in effect, the Southern Gothic…. In "Sophie's Choice" he … transfers, down to the last detail, the conventions and implicit metaphysic of the Southern Gothic—especially as it was handled by Robert Penn Warren—to the world at large. It is no longer just the South that is grandly decayed, morally tortured, ridden with madmen, idiots and weaklings, socially enfeebled by incest and other perversions; it is the world….
The hothouse quality of the style—the scent of overripe black orchids—seems to be thoroughly appropriate, as suited to rotting Europe as to the decaying Old South. The only question I would raise is Heisenberg's: Does the instrument of vision—in this case, the transferred Southern Gothic form—seriously alter the thing seen?
But even more than style and setting, the glory of the Southern Gothic is plot. We must get surprise after surprise, revelation after revelation, each more shocking and astonishing than the last…. Insofar as plot is concerned, "Sophie's Choice" is a thriller of the highest order, all the more thrilling for the fact that the dark, gloomy secrets we are unearthing one by one … are not just the secrets of some crazy Southern family but may be authentic secrets of history and our own human nature: why people did what they did at Auschwitz….
"Sophie's Choice," as I hope I have already made clear, is a splendidly written, thrilling book, a philosophical novel on the most important subject of the 20th century. If it is not, for me, a hands-down literary masterpiece, the reason is that, in transferring the form of the Southern Gothic to this vastly larger subject, Styron has been unable to get rid of or even noticeably tone down those qualities—some superficial, some deep—in the Southern Gothic that have always made Yankees squirm. (p. 16)
In short, though I am profoundly moved by "Sophie's Choice" and consider the novel an immensely important work, I am not persuaded by it. Styron's vision may have humor in it—he tells us about Nathan's hilarious jokes, none of which turn out to be funny on the page—but if so, not an ounce of that humor is in the novel. Perhaps it may be argued that, in a book about American guilt and the holocaust, humor would be out of place. But it seems to me that humor is central to our humanity, even our decency. It cannot be replaced, as it is in "Sophie's Choice," by great classical music or (a major concern in the novel) sex. If anything, classical music leads in exactly the wrong direction: it points to that ideal Edenic world that those master musicians, the Poles and Germans, thought in their insanity they might create here on earth by getting rid of a few million "defectives." I'm not, God knows, against Bach and Beethoven; but they need to be taken with a grain of salt, expressing, as they do, a set of standards unobtainable (except in music) for poor silly, grotesque humanity; they point our hearts toward an inevitable failure that may lead us to murder, suicide or the helpless groaning and self-flagellation of the Southern Gothic novel. (pp. 16-17)
John Gardner, "A Novel of Evil," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 27, 1979, pp. 1, 16-17.
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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 too quickly for the received wisdom of those who have preceded him in the "field."…
Other problems surface, large and small, none more significant than that presented by the narrator himself—or rather by the immense gap between the youthful Stingo's level of comprehension and the inexpressible horror through which his friend has passed….
From none of this does it follow, though, that Sophie's Choice is a failure—merely another of the relentlessly overreaching blockbusters that litter the landscape of late twentieth-century American letters. Looked at in terms of craft, even with defects weighed, it's far from negligible enterprise…. Changes of key and pace are unobtrusively managed. The principals speak with recognizably personal accents, becoming characters by virtue of possessing individual voices.
And, enormously more important, the book is animated throughout by a courageously judged sense of mission. At times, to be sure, the grip loosens…. But in the main William Styron holds fast to two most urgent and relevant truths. The first is that the task of searching for a language not wholly incommensurate to the slaughter of the six million can never be finished. The second is that, in Western culture, in quarters more influential than those in which sitcoms such as Hogan's Heroes are manufactured, that search has in recent times taken a turn that is potentially dangerous to the future of our kind….
Everywhere, as Bruno Bettelheim points out in a recent essay surveying … contemporary intellectual responses to the Holocaust, "the survivors are … being used to bear witness to the opposite of the truth."
No such witnessing occurs in this book. Like several works in the Styron canon, it is smutched in places by morbidity and exhibitionism, and, to repeat, it never takes full command of the heart in the manner of classic fictional achievement. But its reading of mass murder is serious to the core. The portrait of Sophie in terror of the gas chambers reaches toward the full truth of human panic at the edge of oblivion. The portrait of Nathan Landau grasps the maddening force of the "outsider's" impotent rage at the slaughter of his people. The portrait of Stingo, despite its embarrassments, shows us the lameness of our own incomprehension. And the overall scale and tone, the willingness to ask some height of the reader, the quality of the book's ambition to be adequate to a major moral challenge, stand forth, well before the end, as thoroughly admirable.
There are successes in letters whose measurement requires alertness first to pressing cultural need rather than to formal excellence and aesthetic accomplishment. Sophie's Choice is one of them. (p. 79)
Benjamin DeMott, "Styron's Survivor: An Honest Witness," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1979 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 244, No. 1, July, 1979, pp. 77-9.
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[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; a youth with a traditional genteel literary education among psychoanalytically minded New York intellectuals; and, above all, a Christian among Jews. The basic structure of the novel, then, is an attempted movement from the periphery to the center. Superficially, this involves geographical displacement…. More essentially, the movement from the circumference is a moral and an imaginative one. What Stingo finds at the center, during this long mid-century moment of his initiation to adulthood, is a reality too obscene to be conceived by the mental equipment his comfortable Southern boyhood has given him. (pp. 42-3)
Styron's novelistic strategy for approaching the abysmal center of recent European history is a simplified version of the technique of oblique multiple narration Faulkner used to move gradually toward the core of racial blight of Southern history in Absalom, Absalom! Sophie's tale is told in overlapping fragments, occasionally in her own words but by and large through Stingo's reconstruction, which bring us gradually closer to the final revelation of the unspeakable choice that the Nazis forced her to make. There are a good many moments when this procedure of narrative mediation works brilliantly: The American writer cannot presume to see the horror directly, but he can intimate its awful magnitude by imagining how it looked through the eyes of a figure who was there….
Unfortunately, the execution of this plan of embedded narration is flawed in a number of ways. To begin with, Styron, conscious of the moral extremity of his subject, strains too hard to produce intensities…. Stylistically, the striving for intensity results in an overwrought quality that mars a good deal of the prose, whether Styron is writing about Sophie among the Nazis or Stingo coming of age intellectually and sexually. There are abundant Faulkneresque epithets of ultimacy like "immemorial" and "perdurable," an occasional touch of D. H. Lawrence …, but, most pervasively, a tendency to hopped-up language that is either cliché, or grotesque overstatement, or even plain redundancy….
Beyond such effusions of style and detail, there are two aspects of the framing narrative that tend to interfere with the central vision of history gone awry. One is Nathan's evident psychopathology and, perhaps, Sophie's as well…. More blatantly, the painful, dubiously comic efforts of the 22-year-old Stingo to disembarrass himself of his virginity—efforts to which an inordinate number of pages is devoted—progressively detract from the seriousness of the moral issues pursued in Sophie's story….
Styron has obviously devoted much careful reading and much serious reflection to the implications of the Hitler years, and he has made a daring effort to focus his vision of that awful time through the lens of autobiographical fiction. There are flashes of probing perception, and the narrative itself is constantly absorbing, but finally the ties between personal frame and historical subject do not quite hold. (p. 43)
Robert Alter, "Styron's Stingo," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1979 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 6, No. 14, July 7, 1979, pp. 42-3.
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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 Stingo as the exact replica of his youth. Styron and narrator, Stingo the fictional and Stingo the actual, do have identical histories. They write identical books and develop the same literary reputations. But this is no autobiography; and Styron's balance between fiction and fact is breathtaking. He moves from confession to invention, from deeply felt compassion to glibness, from wisdom to asininity, in the most brilliant display of pyrotechnics in the uses of a narrator since Byron's Don Juan. He is always ambiguous. The Stingo of the book is more naive, more jingoistic, than its writer could ever have been, and the pit of Stingo's stomach, a major character in itself, reacts with equal queasiness to lust, overeating, and outrage. In turn the narrator, the fictional adult looking back at the fiction of his own young years, is often slightly befuddled, divided from his own novel, making mistakes about what it means and where it is going. He tends to be too romantic about things; his earlier novels, his lost loves. Sometimes he seems to become the butt of his own narrative; and one certainly cannot believe completely everything he says.
One cannot believe everything he says, for instance, about Sophie. He describes her as beautiful, gentle, loving, and full of life. But glimpses reveal her gradually as an artifact, whose reality, toothless, ill, bereft of dignity and will, pierces poignantly through the desirable, vibrant appearance…. In a way, this is a mystery novel, which sorts through a labyrinth of Sophie's self-deceptions and lies about her past to the final truth, which is not so much a truth as a schedule of impotence…. Constantly giving in, constantly avoiding taking over, Sophie chooses again and again the shards and dregs of life so as to avoid the death-dealing courage which, in this novel, is her only alternative. She is a magnificently cogent character; the ordinary human being savaged by the extraordinary and dehumanizing forces of her world. (pp. 91-2)
As much as she, Nathan is the center of the novel. Charismatic, brilliant, prophetic, he has the same tragic, obsessed insight into his own doomed place in the scheme of things as Styron's other hero, Nat Turner…. [There] is more than a slight suggestion here that, in a world gone mad, a world which could look kindly on both Auschwitz and slavery, insanity may be among the nobler paths. (pp. 92-3)
A dense, deeply despairing novel, whose brilliant life belies the bleak simplicity of its final vision, Sophie's Choice moves in two, opposite directions: towards death, terror, and shame in Sophie's past; towards lavish bedroom games and fantasies in Stingo's present. The revelation of her tainted life is balanced against his idiot urgency to bed down with someone, anyone, for the night. Their flight towards the South, into that night, is juxtaposed to Nathan's descent into loathing, madness, and suicide. But, after all, the two directions meet. What the narrator offers by way of uplift and morning star in the last paragraph seems to me almost intended to be feeble. It is Nathan's dark summation of life, "'Don't … you … see … we … are … dying! Dying!'" which triumphs.
In its reach and the depths of its enquiry into psychological and historical perversity, Sophie's Choice is tremendous. (p. 93)
Edith Milton, "Looking Backward: Six Novels," in The Yale Review (© 1979 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LXIX, No. 1, Autumn, 1979, pp. 89-103.∗
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[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 determination to survive at the cost of others….
[The] Auschwitz scenes are meant to throw their shadow forward to the present. The choice made by Sophie is not only to lose her daughter for her son, but also to die in the company of the Jewish Nathan rather than to live with Stingo. There are other points of implicit comparison, for instance between "the Jewish novel" and "the Southern novel", yet for the most part they seem arbitrary and artificial. Mr Styron is energetic, inventive, resourceful, but in the end it must be said that he has produced not tragedy but melodrama.
Julian Symons, "The Penalties of Survival," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1979; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4002, November 30, 1979, p. 77.
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[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 not, and can only defend them by saying I thought they made the texture of the novel richer, and perhaps provided a necessary bit of aesthetic distance, which is still as necessary for a serious novel dealing with the concentration camps as it is for one dealing with the death camps. Sophie's Choice is a thoroughly successful effort, and it was worth Styron's taking over ten years to complete it. (p. 14)
Paul Levy, "American Giants" (© copyright Paul Levy 1979; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 25, No. 3, December, 1979, pp. 13-15.∗
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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 category of novel that portrays the artist as a young man. As it happens, this particular young man's artistic and sexual drives attach him to a woman survivor of Auschwitz, but her story, while time and again moving, is largely sub-ordinate to his, and in the last analysis she serves him the way any female muse figure serves an aspiring writer: she excites his imagination and leads him on to express the finer tones of feeling that belong to the artistic life at its most fervent. History's involvement in such business is peripheral; the history of the Jews under the Nazis, largely irrelevant. (p. 43)
The drift of [Styron's] revisionist views, all of which culminate in Sophie's Choice, is to take the Holocaust out of Jewish and Christian history and place it within a generalized history of evil, for which no one in particular need be held accountable. Auschwitz may have been a great horror, "a supreme horror," as Styron puts it, but one "on the part of the human race." "I do not believe it is true," he says, "that you can damn a whole nation, Germany, in this case, for the concentration camps." It is as if Auschwitz achieved itself, helped along by modern methods of technology, to be sure, but otherwise, to quote the kind of elevated language that Styron loves to use, the apotheosis "of the titantic and sinister forces at work in history and in modern life that threaten all men, not only Jews."
Disease, smog, and inflation may threaten all men, but Auschwitz was established to murder Jews. (p. 44)
To generalize or universalize the victims of the Holocaust is not only to profane their memories but to exonerate their executioners, who by the same line of thinking pursued above also disappear into the mist of a faceless mankind.
Not surprisingly, that is where Styron prefers to see them, for he holds strongly to the view, set forth in Sophie's Choice and elsewhere, that it is "inexcusable to condemn any single people for anything," as he has one of his characters say, "and that goes for any people … even the Germans!" In one of his interviews, Styron has even gone so far as to say that "if you examine Nazi Germany, one of the remarkable things about the whole story, one of the most moving parts of the story, is the number of Germans who stood up and became martyrs because of their opposition to Nazism." Such a view of Nazi Germany goes beyond apology and enters fiction as a new and extravagant mythology, for the facts of the Holocaust, as any credible history of the period will bear out, simply do not support Styron's praise for the German citizenry under Hitler. A few genuine heroes and martyrs there doubtless were, but the vast numbers of Germans, far from opposing Nazism, either remained conspicuously quiet or ardently threw Hitler their support.
Fiction, or "story," as he twice refers to it in the quotation above, gets a bad name when it confronts history in so fanciful a manner, yet it is probably the case that, owing to its affective powers and its ability to satisfy certain mythological cravings we all have, fiction can make a more immediate and pervasive impact than history. For this very reason, fictional representations of the Holocaust need to be judged against a particularly careful standard of truth…. (pp. 44-5)
It is not possible here to separate out the many co-minglings of fact and fiction in Sophie's Choice, but a few prominent examples need to be looked at. (p. 45)
The most troublesome of Styron's Nazi portraits … [is] someone called "Hauptsturmführer Fritz Jemand von Niemand," an S.S. doctor at Auschwitz. Dr. Jemand von Niemand is assigned to the platforms of the camp where, like his infamous historical prototype, Dr. Mengele, he could decide on the spot and with the merest wave of a hand who might live and who would die. A drunken, degenerate sadist, he toys with Sophie and forces her to choose between her two children: one will go immediately to the furnaces, the other will live awhile longer. "Which one will you keep?" he taunts her. Such things happened at Auschwitz, and, repellent though they may be, it is imperative that they be recorded and remembered. To invent them as part of a fiction, though, is obscene. Moreover, to fictionalize them as the handiwork of a Nobody—which is more or less how "Jemand von Niemand" translates—is, through the workings of abstraction, to all but dismiss them…. In [his] liberal manner—taking the large-hearted, spacious, Christian view—Styron unfolds his novel of the Holocaust as an extended parable of all men's travail.
"All men" in Sophie's Choice are represented chiefly by a woman—Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz. Why choose Sophie as the representative victim of the camps? "Although she was not Jewish," the narrator tells us, "she had suffered as much as any Jew who had survived the same afflictions, and … had in certain profound ways suffered more than most." To make that point graphic, poor Sophie has to be put through hell, not only in Auschwitz, where, as expected, the Nazis cruelly mistreat her, but, after her liberation, in New York, where, in "the Kingdom of the Jews" (by which Styron means Flatbush), others can abuse her as well.
Chief among Sophie's post-War oppressors is her Jewish lover, a brilliant but mad fellow who strikes one as an inspired cross between Othello and Svengali and who bears, surely not by accident, the same first name as that black terrorist bogey about whom Styron devoted an earlier novel—Nat Turner. In Nathan all the white man's fears about black potency come together with the Christian's fears about an imagined Jewish diabolism. (pp. 45-6)
"Call me Stingo," the narrator of Sophie's Choice starts out, parodying John Wayne ("Call me Ringo") parodying Melville ("Call me Ishmael"). This opening note carries through much of the novel, which is, by turns, a parody of the Southern novel, as written by Faulkner, Warren, and Styron himself; the American Jewish novel, as written by Roth, Malamud, and others; the novel of Sexual Initiation, written by just about everybody under the sun; and even—such being the state of American letters—the novel of the Holocaust. Styron, a gifted and accomplished writer, has little trouble managing these elaborate imitations, some of which are very well done. The question is, Why do them at all? Who is this Stingo, and what is he up to?
In brief, and without a lot of camouflage to hide the fact, Stingo is Styron, the author/narrator of this emphatically autobiographical novel (if there is still another level of parody here it involves the autobiographical fiction of Thomas Wolfe, even down to the ill-spirited anti-Semitic portraitures of some of the minor characters). Stingo/Styron wants two things out of life—to write a novel and finally to break through a long and unwanted virginity and know a woman—any woman, so long as she can relieve the ache in his loins. In short, he wants to grow up. What do such desires, it may be asked, have to do with Auschwitz? On one level, of course, nothing at all, but with respect to some of Styron's deeper symbolic interests, quite a bit.
Styron's subject, like so much of the subject-matter of Southern fiction, grows out of an irrepressible and emphatically regional fascination with the elaborate interconnections among race, sex, and death. At one time, the South itself was a potent fictional breeding ground for the imaginative workings out of these powerful and always destructive obsessions, but Southern fiction, which played so important a role in American literature a couple of decades ago, has since given up the ghost and for the most part is no longer alive enough to sustain such strong imaginings today. (pp. 46-7)
As Sophie's Choice works it out,… Poland is a stand-in for the American South, a place where all shades of social violence and perverse eroticism can be indulged. The prose that Styron uses to describe the country is lush and romantic—High Southern, as this mode of rhetoric is known—and endows the novel with a tone as burnished and lofty as any found in the pages of a Faulkner novel…. (p. 47)
Stingo's contest with Nathan is not on one but two levels—the first sexual, the other vocational and literary. Both are fraught with the anxieties of regional, religious, and racial competition and, to go right to the heart of the matter, probably define better than anything else what motivated Styron in writing large sections of Sophie's Choice. As the innumerable love scenes portray her, Sophie is choice, deliciously so as Stingo views her and wants her, but her desires bring her to choose Nathan, one of the chosen. In that situation, Stingo gets passed over, an erotic mischoice that he tries to correct at one point by imagining himself a "fictive Jew" and, at another, by "feeling" himself Polish. Neither, of course, works for him, for his origins and fate are both other. A different history spawned him and gave him another kind of story to tell. (p. 48)
The Holocaust, as William Styron knows and has said, is "a central issue, the central issue of the times," and has "altered forever our consciousness of evil." For this very reason, most writers have been helpless before it and reluctant to touch it. Styron, though, feels that "no event could be so hideous that it would defy a novelist to trespass upon it" and sees the Holocaust as "the ultimately challenging subject for a novelist."
That it may indeed be, in the same manner that the silence that attends the finality of death challenges the sensibilities of the living. When the death is mass death—the result of an unparalleled and systematic destruction—the silence enters history, consciousness, language and cannot be brought into words through novelistic invention alone.
There is no doubting Styron's facility as a writer of fiction, but Sophie's Choice shows that more is needed to penetrate so extreme a history than a transposition of erotic and aesthetic motives onto a landscape of slaughter. The Southern novelist's slave society categories of sexual oppression do not hold for Auschwitz, just as his artistic preoccupations with the growth into writerhood likewise are seriously misapplied. Styron wants to beat the Jews at their own game, but in telling us his story of the Polish girl who stole a ham and forever after suffered sexual, moral, and psychological abuse, he has written not so much a novel of the Holocaust as an unwitting spoof of the same. Reducing Hitler's war against the Jews to a literary war, he has turned the tables on his competitors and given us the Holocaust in whiteface, de-Judaizing Auschwitz and making it the erotic centerpiece of a New Southern Gothic Novel.
Fiction of this sort, no matter what the extent of its earlier horrors, will predictably conclude on a note of easy restoration. The punishments of history aside, the mode, and the particular strain of American imagination that produces it, calls for catharsis and recovery. At the end of Sophie's Choice, Sophie is dead, Nathan is dead, six million Jews, two million Poles, one million Serbs, and five million Russians are dead, but Stingo/Styron is healthy, awake, and ready to begin a new day. "Blessing my resurrection," Stingo says, "I in scribed the words: 'Neath cold sand I dreamed of death/but woke at dawn to see/in glory, the bright, the morning star.'"
And that is the end of the matter: Auschwitz as a bad dream, to be shaken off with the coming of a new day and the writing of some maudlin poetry. As Styron wills it, the South will rise again, even if it has to do so on the ashes of the dead. (p. 49)
Alvin H. Rosenfeld, "The Holocaust According to William Styron," in Midstream (copyright © 1979 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), Vol. XXV, No. 10, December, 1979, pp. 43-9.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1532
[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 questionable. Problems arise. The holocaust is such an emotional quagmire, I want my feelings to earn their trust! (p. 48)
[Here is my major] problem with Sophie, for it throws me upon my own work as a writer who deals mainly in firsthand experience. The imaginative recreation of reality either illuminates intellect or deepens feeling or sharpens sensibilities, or all three. The question then becomes not: Are there certain realities which art trivialises, or which memory is forced to distort; but—are there certain realities which it is impossible for art to recreate adequately enough to enable us to exercise our emotions, sensibilities and intellect trustworthily?
Sophie's Choice makes us feel deeply. How could such a reality fail to achieve that? But precisely because the reality is that horrendous reality one can reasonably ask: Is feeling enough? Does not this reality call for more in its recreation? Does it not call for intellectual illumination? My uncertainty is not knowing whether something inherent in that particular reality is what inhibits art or whether it's Styron's recreation of it which fails. I find myself asking this question: Where are we dealing with fact and where with fiction? Why, in this novel more than any other, do I want to know? I am perfectly aware of the degree of real experience and encounter which becomes woven into fiction and achieves that harmony between art and reality which we call literature. But the need to understand this unbearable chronicle in our century is a burning need. What confronts us is a systematic extermination justified by a philosophically grotesque system of aesthetics which judged one race to be so inferior to all others that it became a holy duty to drain them irretrievably from the bloodstream of civilisation. That story requires immaculate handling. We need to know clearly what is being placed before us, taken by the hand with great care and sensitivity, and no tricks. That is what the survivors are afraid of, the tricks of art.
With historians we know where we are. For them there exists no event in the history of civilisations from which they can turn away in contempt or dignified silence. To do so opposes the very nature of their function. But is Styron confusing history with art? Where in this novel does fiction end and history begin? (p. 52)
[The] mixing of fact with fiction in a novel about the holocaust seems to confuse our responses in a way that does not occur when we read historical novels or literature set against an historical background. If the "recognisably human side" [Styron presents in his portrayal of the commandant of Auschwitz] is only a fiction (and of course we know that it is) then we want to direct our responses at judging Styron's powers of perspective invention, but Styron insists upon presenting everything as if it were fact. Our responses are confused. We imagine we're in touch with the living moment, and that we can come upon our own thoughts and not be thinking about Styron's, but—they are Styron's! What's he doing to us? This awful reality nags at us for purity, not contrivance….
I suspect [Styron] might say: "I am imaginatively recreating an historical man's character in order to understand his behaviour."
And here he would touch the core of my uncertainty: Does what we are being told about this man help in our understanding of the demonic duties he unhesitatingly takes upon himself? I broaden the question even further: did it ever surprise us that evil men could love animals, be moved by music, touched by the innocence of their children? History is so full of man's cruelty that to remind us of its human face explains nothing about the cruelty. Does cruelty even require explanation? After all these centuries? Its place in men's hearts is a fact—the only question to be answered is: in what soil does it flourish? Does Styron's book bring us closer to answering that question? (p. 54)
[One] realises how profound is the need for people to attach themselves to higher authorities, to surrender everything to them, every last drop of that humanity which makes the human being blessed among animals. But nowhere does Styron's book explore the nature of such needs and the society which nurtures them….
As all good story-tellers Styron releases his information gradually, moving from Manhattan, to Brooklyn, to the South, to Auschwitz, to Brooklyn, the South. Auschwitz—backwards and forwards. Sophie lies to begin with but Nathan's rages—"How did you survive?"—force her to tell him part of the truth. She lies to the author's author as well, but a tortured conscience forces the other part of the truth out to him. (p. 55)
But the story-teller holds back—with too crafty a tantalisation—information which when revealed dilutes the tragic proportions of this tempestuous relationship: the brilliant, knowledgeable, witty, exhilarating Nathan is no biologist after all, he's a clubbed genius whose brains the Gods envied, and cursed with fits of madness. (pp. 55-6)
Was this why the awful tale was told? To paint a portrait of a poor mad Jewish boy? Was that all? Or is the poor mad Jewish boy a metaphor for all those poor Jewish boys who were driven mad by persecution? Metaphors are tricky devices, they can conjure up many different explanations for themselves which say the same thing, but they must not summon up conflicting explanations of themselves….
The madness, the metaphor seems to say, cannot be helped; who can wonder at it, the metaphor seems, with Sophie, to ask, after 2,000 years of the world's cruelty? Forget the madness, the metaphor seems to say, it is his life-enhancing qualities to which she responds: he saved her, brought her back to life, revived her passion, called further gaiety from her tortured soul. But does the metaphor mislead? She returns to him not drawn by helpless love but knowing his madness will end the life she cannot bear to live anyway. He becomes a mere instrument for ending her guilt. In which case can he have tragic proportions?
The tragedy of a race locked in seemingly endless conflict with the world is played out here through two people locked in mortal conflict with one another. But so preoccupied is Styron with sustaining narrative suspense that he invents twists and turns of plot at the cost of a diminished metaphor: the clinically mad Jew rather than the Jew driven mad. I know that whom the Gods destroy they first make mad, but the Gods are fate in the form of worldly misfortune, not chemistry gone wrong in the genes.
But what of Styron's treatment of sex, his hilarious treatment of sex? Laughter and carnal pleasures in the midst of malevolent suffering, how could he move with such speed from the horrors of Birkenau to the pleasures of that creaking bed upstairs? I was not shocked…. It may be insensitive to force sex into a moment where it is not mutually acceptable, but the mutual recognition of the commonness of "hideous irreconcilabilities" renders the sexual act not merely inoffensive but infinitely desirable, even necessary. People need to comfort one another faced with the "hideous irreconcilabilites" of life….
Styron is not in the league of shock-makers. His courage lies in his attempt to reach some "bearable perspective" of that grotesque time of carnage by recording the life force that clings on after, and his achievement is to have coupled respect with juicy enthusiasms for life, sex and art, each inextricably linked with the other….
There is some innocence in his defiant juxtapositioning of the two, that special kind of urgent innocence which is one of the hallmarks of any work of art deserving the name. He succeeds in uniting despair with defiance, pity with contempt, horror with laughter, and artful narrative with honest intent.
And what a twelve-year high [it] was, to have been chosen to catch this tale on the wind. If the characters end up lacking tragic proportions the story does not. So sure is Styron's foot, so beautifully woven is his canvas, and so without piety has he recorded these evil deeds that I for one—even though the dark corners which I needed illuminating have not been explored—am humbled enough to accept his own declaration of honest intent. (p. 56)
Arnold Wesker, "Art between Truth & Fiction: Thoughts on William Styron's Novel," in Encounter (© 1980 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LIV, No. 1, January, 1980, pp. 48-57.