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Sophies Choice

William Styron

A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading. William Styron

William Clark Styron, Jr. was an American novelist and essayist who won major literary awards for his work. William Styron was born in the Hilton Village historic district of Newport News, Virginia, on June 11, 1925. He grew up in the South and was steeped in its history. His birthplace was less than a hundred miles from the site of Nat Turners slave rebellion, later the source for Styron's most famous and controversial novel. Although Styrons paternal grandparents had been slave owners, his Northern mother and liberal Southern father gave him a broad perspective on race relations. Styrons childhood was a difficult one: his father, a shipyard engineer, suffered from clinical depression, which Styron himself would later experience. His mother died from breast cancer in 1939 when Styron was a boy, following a decade-long battle.

Literary Works
For much of his career, Styron was best known for his novels, including: Lie Down in Darkness (1951), his acclaimed first novel, published at age 26; The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), narrated by Nat Turner, the leader of an 1831 Virginia slave revolt; Sophie's Choice (1979), a story "told through the eyes of a young aspiring writer from the South, about a Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz and her brilliant but troubled Jewish lover in postwar Brooklyn." Styron's influence deepened and his readership expanded with the publication of Darkness Visible in 1990. This memoir, originally intended as a magazine article, chronicled the author's descent into depression and his near-fatal night of "despair beyond despair."

Literary Style
Be orderly in your life, and ordinary like a bourgeois, in order to be violent and original in your works. Gustave Flaubert
Styron is a highly accomplished storyteller whose fiction is remarkable for its power of characterization, the polish of its rhetorical style, and the complexity of its moral vision. Styron's fiction has been well received both in the United States and in Europe. In his stories, as in his novels, one finds Styron's preoccupation with the struggle of the individual against the corruption of societal and institutional conventions. His protagonists, through their rebellion against these strictures, confront the limitations of their own natures and ultimately achieve a redemptive self-awareness.

Styron is highly regarded as a Southern writer. The injustices of the old South and the materialism of the new are two themes which figure prominently in his novels. But he was more than a regional writer. His major characters generally are decent people thrust among the cruelties of the world: slavery, war, individual madness, and violence. Though he was not particularly optimistic, most of his protagonists achieve illumination or regeneration by observing or struggling with these forces. There are critics, in fact, who see his works as religious. In addition to religious imagery, the novels suggest that when one gets in touch with his humanity he finds some sort of salvation.

Sophies Choice

The novel is narrated by Stingo, a writer recalling the summer when he began his first novel. The story begins in the early summer of 1947, when Stingo is fired from his reader's job at the publisher McGraw-Hill and moves into a cheap house in Brooklyn, hoping to devote himself to writing. While working on his novel, he is drawn into the lives of the lovers Nathan Landau and Sophie Zawistowski, 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, claiming to be a Harvard graduate and a cellular biologist with a pharmaceutical company, facts that are later revealed as 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 antiSemitic father, a law professor in Krakow; her unwillingness to help him spread his ideas; her arrest by the Nazis for smuggling ham to her mother, who was on her deathbed; and particularly, her brief stint as a stenographer-typist in the home of Rudolf Hss, the commander of Auschwitz, where she was interned. She specifically relates her attempts to seduce Hss in an effort to persuade him that her blond, blue-eyed, German-speaking son, called Jan, 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 do we 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 that 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 an 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. Stingo is devastated.

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 lynching 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.