Sophie's Choice (novel)
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Sophie's Choice is a 1979 novel by American author William Styron. It concerns the relation between three people sharing a boarding house in Brooklyn: Stingo, a young aspiring writer from the Southern States who befriends the Jewish Nathan Landau and his beautiful lover Sophie, a Polish survivor of the German Nazi concentration camps. The plot ultimately centers around a tragic decision which Sophie was forced to make upon entering the concentration camp.
An immediate bestseller and the basis of a successful film of the same name, the novel is often considered both Styron's best work and a major novel of the twentieth century. The difficult decision that shapes the character Sophie is sometimes used as an idiom: a Sophie's Choice is the necessity to choose between two unbearable options.
Sophie's Choice is narrated by Stingo, a novelist who is recalling the summer when he began his first novel. As the story begins, in the early summer of 1947, Stingo (like Styron, a writer and Duke graduate) has been fired from his low-level reader's job at the publisher McGraw-Hill and has moved into a cheap boarding house in Brooklyn, where he hopes to devote some months to his writing. While he is working on his novel, he is drawn into the lives of the lovers Nathan Landau and Sophie Zawistowska, fellow boarders at the house, who are involved in an intense and difficult relationship. Sophie is a beautiful, Polish-Catholic survivor of the concentration camps of World War II, and Nathan is a Jewish-American – and, purportedly, a genius. Although Nathan claims to be a Harvard graduate and a cellular biologist with a pharmaceutical company, it is later revealed that this is a fabrication. Almost no one – including Sophie and Stingo – knows that Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic. However, Sophie is aware that Nathan is self-medicating with drugs, including cocaine and benzadrine, that he supposedly obtains at Pfizer, his employer. This means that although he sometimes behaves quite normally and generously, there are times that he becomes frighteningly jealous, violent, abusive and delusional.
As the story progresses, Sophie tells Stingo of her past, of which she has never before spoken. She describes her violently anti-Semitic father, a law professor in Krakow; her unwillingness to help him spread his ideas; her arrest by the Nazis for smuggling food to her mother, who was on her deathbed; and particularly, her brief stint as a stenographer-typist in the home of Rudolf Höss, the commander of Auschwitz, where she was interned. She specifically relates her attempts to seduce Höss in an effort to persuade him that her blond, blue-eyed, German-speaking son should be allowed to leave the camp and enter the Lebensborn program, in which he would be raised as a German child. She failed in this attempt and, ultimately, never learned of her son's fate. Only at the end of the book does the reader also learn what became of Sophie's daughter, named Eva.
As Nathan's "outbreaks" become more violent and abusive, Stingo receives a summons from Nathan's brother, Larry. He learns that Nathan is schizophrenic and is not a cellular biologist, although, as Larry says, "he could have been fantastically brilliant at anything he might have tried out … But he never got his mind in order." Nathan's delusions have led him to believe that Stingo is having an affair with Sophie, and he threatens to kill them both.
Sophie and Stingo attempt to flee to a peanut farm in Virginia which Stingo's father has inherited. On the way there, Sophie reveals her deepest, darkest secret: on the night that she arrived at Auschwitz, a sadistic doctor made her choose which of her two children would die immediately by gassing and which would continue to live, albeit in the camp. Of her two children, Sophie chose to sacrifice her seven-year-old daughter, Eva, in a heart-rending decision that has left her in mourning and filled with a guilt that she cannot overcome. By now alcoholic and deeply depressed, she is clearly willing to self-destruct with Nathan, who has already tried to persuade her to commit suicide with him. Despite the fact that Stingo proposes marriage to her, and despite a shared night that relieves Stingo of his virginity and fulfills many of his sexual fantasies, Sophie disappears, leaving only a note in which she says that she must return to Nathan.
Upon arriving back in Brooklyn, Stingo discovers that Sophie and Nathan have committed suicide by ingesting sodium cyanide and is devastated.
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One of the important parallels in Sophie's Choice, as Stingo explicitly points out, is between the worst abuses of the American South – both its slave-holding past and the lynchings of the book's present – and Nazi anti-Semitism. Just as Sophie is left conflicted by her father's attitudes towards Poland's Jews, Stingo analyzes his own culpability derived from his family's slave-holding past, eventually deciding to write a book about Nat Turner – an obvious parallel to Styron's own controversial novel The Confessions of Nat Turner.
Similarly, by placing a non-Jewish character at the center of an Auschwitz story, Styron suggests the universality of the suffering under the Third Reich. Though several characters, including Stingo, discuss in detail the fact that the Jewish people suffered far more than other groups, Stingo also describes Hitler's attempts to eliminate the Slavs or turn them into slave labor and makes the case that the Holocaust cannot be understood as an exclusively Jewish tragedy. In contrast, Nathan, whose paranoid condition makes him particularly sensitive about his ethnicity, is the novel's prime spokesman for this exclusivity. His inability to cope with the fact that Sophie, a Polish-Catholic, shared the sufferings of European Jews, while he was prevented, by his mental illness, from even enlisting in the military, causes him to accuse Sophie of complicity in the Holocaust and leads to their mutual destruction.
Making a "Sophie's Choice"
The cultural impact of the book gave rise to the expression "making a 'Sophie's Choice'", which describes being forced to choose between two very dear possessions; keeping one and losing the other forever.
As recently as 2002, the book was pulled from the shelves of the La Mirada High School Library in California by the Norwalk-La Mirada High School District because of a parent's complaint about its sexual content. However, a year after students voiced protest and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to the school district requesting that the district reverse its actions, the book was reinstated.
The novel was made into a United States film of the same name in 1982. Written and directed by Alan J. Pakula, the film was nominated for Academy Awards for its screenplay, musical score, cinematography, costume design, and won for the performance of Meryl Streep in the title role (Best Actress).
- This was the 1980 award for hardcover general Fiction.
From 1980 to 1983 in National Book Awards history there were dual hardcover and paperback awards in most categories, and multiple fiction categories, especially in 1980. Most of the paperback award-winners were reprints, including the 1980 general Fiction.
Sources and notes
- "National Book Awards – 1980". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-15.
(With essay by Robert Weil from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
- "A History of Fighting Censorship". American Civil Liberties Union. 2006. Retrieved 2009-10-07.
- "Banned Books Week: September 25-October 2". UCSD. September 22, 2004. Archived from the original on May 11, 2008. Retrieved 2009-10-07.