The Sophie's Choice

Essay by pqpqpq March 2004

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The Holocaust becomes a breathtaking personal drama, in the midst of a vast cataclysm, in William Styron's Sophie's Choice, a big and questing novel with autobiographical elements and a fearless determination to explore a particular human dimension of a historical nightmare. The novel speaks through the voice of Styron's alter ego, a polite young Tidewater Virginian called Stingo who comes to New York in 1947 in the hopes of being a writer. With a small legacy that will enable him to devote himself to writing, Stingo lands in a boarding house in deepest Brooklyn. There he befriends an irresistible character named Nathan Landau, a compelling but deeply disturbed Jewish intellectual who has nursed back to health a beautiful Polish war victim, Sophie Zawistowska, who is now his lover. Stingo revels in his time with his new friends but gradually becomes aware of the shadows that surround them. Their relationship is tormented, even violent.

Sophie begins to describe to Stingo her experiences during the war, when-as a Polish Catholic, the daughter of a law professor and the married mother of two-she was persecuted with all the viciousness the Nazis could muster. Her husband and father were murdered, and she and her children were sent to Auschwitz. Sophie lived through it, amazingly, but only in the technical sense, an act of survival that begins with an awful decision she was forced to make. With her unstable lover, she now waits for a fate that seems, to Stingo, as inevitable as it is tragic. Sophie's Choice is a rare event in late-20th-century American fiction-a bold, substantial novel with serious themes that also tells a riveting story. Styron meditates frequently on the historical dimension of the Holocaust and how such a thing could happen, letting the matter resonate with his own knowledge...