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William Styron: Sophie’s Choice

This is probably Styron’s best-known novel, partially because of the film and partially because of the horrible choice mentioned in the title. The book is narrated by Stingo, an aspiring Southern writer and, presumably, based on Styron himself. He is writing some thirty years after the events he is describing. Stingo is writing a novel, having lost his job as a publisher’s reader (he had rejected Kon Tiki). He inherits some money and moves to a boarding house in Brooklyn. There he meets two lovers. Sophie Zawistowska is a Polish Catholic refugee, who survived the concentration camps. Nathan Landau is Jewish American. He works for the drug company, Pfizer, and makes claims to be a biologist and a Harvard graduate, both of which claims later turn out to be false. Nathan is witty, a wonderful conversationalist and insane. Stingo first meets them when Nathan is shouting at Sophie and he falls in love with Sophie at once.

During the course of the book he learns about Sophie’s past. She is not Jewish as he had thought (because of the tattoo on her arm). Her father had been a virulent anti-Semite. Her father and her husband were executed by the Nazis as Polish intellectuals, when they took over Poland. She was arrested and, as she spoke fluent German, was taken to Auschwitz to work for the camp commandant. She tried (but failed) to have her blond son introduced into the Lebensborn programme.

Stingo becomes friendly with Nathan and Sophie. On his good days, Nathan is fun to be with and a good companion. However, he is increasingly becoming more violent and starts to believe that Stingo and Sophie are having an affair. Sophie and Stingo manage to escape to a peanut farm in Virginia, which Stingo’s father has recently inherited, where Stingo finally loses his virginity and learns about Sophie’s eponymous choice. But Sophie returns to Nathan with dire consequences.

While Stingo is a fairly reliable narrator, Sophie is not. Her story changes during the course of the book, helped by Stingo’s naivety. Styron’s novel is one of the few major Holocaust novels to show that it was not only Jews that suffered from the Nazis. Indeed, far more non-Jewish Slavs were victims of the Holocaust, like Sophie and her family. Styron also makes the comparison between the Nazi Holocaust and the treatment of slaves in the American South. Stingo’s first inheritance, for example came originally from money for a slave. As with The Confessions of the Nat Turner, some readers and critics found this book disturbing and it was banned in some libraries. Like The Confessions of the Nat Turner, it is a book that is still well worth reading, not least because it deals with controversial subjects face on.

Publishing history

First published 1979 by Random House