I cannot honestly say that I have given myself the easiest time of it recently. I have travelled from heavy read to heavy read, without reprieve. I accept full responsibility for this decision, largely a consequence of my determination to fill in some obvious gaps in my reading repertoire. Sophie’s Choice is a novel that I have intended to get around to for some time but, with some knowledge of the subject matter, I have been hesitant to actually throw myself into it. In the same way that Schindler’s List constitutes a reluctant ‘must see’, William Styron’s classic is a novel that all avid readers must at some point face. It is a tragic interrogation of humanity’s capacity for evil, told with a lightness of touch that makes it a surprisingly accessible read. To neglect this novel for fear of its subject matter is to miss a truly breathtaking classic.
“The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response. The query: ‘At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?’ And the answer: ‘Where was man?'”
Sophie’s Choice tells the story of the Polish Catholic immigrant, Sophie Zawistowska. Having survived imprisonment at Auschwitz and subsequently taken up residence in the United States, it is Sophie’s story and her ongoing love affair with the unpredictable Jewish American Nathan Landau that serve as the novel’s focal points. The narrative is delivered through the first person perspective of Stingo, a southerner who enters into a friendship with Sophie and Nathan after taking up a room in their Brooklyn boarding house. Stingo’s relationship with Sophie deepens, and she gradually reveals to him the details of her tragic past – her deportation, imprisonment and survival. As Stingo comes to understand the extremity of Sophie’s continued grief, he also faces the reality of her guilt-ridden submission to Nathan’s domestic violence. And as Sophie’s conscious path of self-destruction reaches its conclusion, it becomes clear that, for her, there is no escape from the consequences of her past.
“It is more often that not the person one loves from whom one withholds the most searing truths about one’s self, if only out of the very human motive to spare groundless pain. But at the same time there were circumstances and happenings in her past which had to be spoken; I think that quite unbeknownst to herself she was questing for someone to serve in place of those religious confessors she had coldly renounced. I, Stingo, handily fitted the bill. In retrospect I can see that imperiling her mind had she kept certain things bottled up; this was especially true as the summer wore on, with its foul weather of brutal emotions, and as the situation between Sophie and Nathan neared collapse. Then, when she was the most vulnerable, her need to give voice to her agony and guilt was so urgent as to be like the beginning of a scream, and I was always ready and waiting to listen with my canine idolatry and inexhaustible ear.”
Sophie’s Choice makes for an undeniably tragic read. And yet it is tragic more in its implications and allusions than in its narrative. Stingo’s story is one of self-discovery, as much as it is one of unpicking Sophie’s past and present. This perspective means that the novel is often times upbeat, always insightful, and rarely explicitly dark. Such an impression is only consolidated by the easy narrative style used by the novel’s author. Styron gives Stingo’s voice a simplicity that lends a sense of authority to the tale, and oozes reluctant acceptance of a harsh reality.
Yet Styron’s style does not lack life. The author consistently invokes powerful descriptive passages as a means of emphasising the continuing presence of Sophie’s past:
“…I announced myself with a small cough. She turned from the mirror with a startled gasp and in so doing revealed a face I shall never in my life forget. Dumfounded, I beheld – for a mercifully fleeting instant – an old hag whose entire lower face had crumpled in upon itself, leaving a mouth like a wrinkled gash and an expression of doddering senescence. It was a mask, withered and pitiable.”
The fear of this novel is, I think, a fear of facing a narrative focussed on the abominations of the Nazi regime. And while certain passages do deal with the reality of existence in the concentration camps, it is the consequences of this experience that provide the novel’s shape and direction. In this sense, the novel is entirely different from the likes of Elie Wiesel’s Night. Sophie’s Choice deals with the important, and undeniably underrepresented, question of what happens to the survivors of atrocity. This story is one of Sophie’s attempts to survive following her experiences in Auschwitz. It is a story of how survivors reconcile themselves with the guilt of survival, and the choices that they were forced to make in the process of protecting their lives and assisting their freedom. These are stories that are rarely explored, but are ones that are integral to a complete understanding of atrocity.
Through Sophie’s Choice, Styron achieves a literary feat. He masterfully explores the complexity of survivor’s guilt, and does so through the mind and voice of an outsider. In choosing to represent Sophie’s experiences through Stingo’s narrative, Styron pulls the reader into a position of understanding. We become Stingo – desperate to unravel and understand the plague of guilt and sorrow that continues to dominate and dictate the course of Sophie’s present. Sophie’s Choice is a complex and multifaceted work. It is a novel that explores humankind’s depravity and the difficulty of personal redemption. And it is a novel that should be read, for it will undoubtedly be remembered.