Sophie's Choice (novel)

Sophie's Choice

First edition
Author William Styron
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Random House
Publication date
Pages 562
ISBN 0-394-46109-6
OCLC 4593241

Sophie's Choice is a 1979 novel by American author William Styron. It concerns the relationships between three people sharing a boarding house in Brooklyn: Stingo, a young aspiring writer from the South who befriends the Jewish Nathan Landau and his lover Sophie, a Polish, Catholic survivor of the German Nazi concentration camps. The plot ultimately centers on a tragic decision that Sophie was forced to make on her entry, with her children, into Auschwitz.

Sophie's Choice won the US National Book Award for Fiction in 1980. The novel was the basis of a successful film of the same name. It was controversial for the way in which it framed Styron's personal views regarding the Holocaust.

Plot summary

Stingo, a novelist who is recalling the summer when he began his first novel, 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 beautiful, Polish, and Catholic, and a survivor of the Holocaust and Nazi concentration camps; 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 has paranoid schizophrenia. He sometimes behaves quite normally and generously, but there are times when he becomes frighteningly jealous, violent, abusive and delusional.

As the story progresses, Sophie tells Stingo of her past. She describes her violently anti-Semitic father, a law professor in Kraków; her unwillingness to help him spread his ideas; her arrest by the Nazis; 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. She died in the camp oven.

Later, Nathan's delusions have led him to believe that Stingo is having an affair with Sophie, and he threatens to kill them both.

As Sophie and Stingo attempt to flee New York, Sophie reveals her deepest, darkest secret: on the night that she arrived at Auschwitz, a camp 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 is devastated to discover that Sophie and Nathan have committed suicide by ingesting sodium cyanide.

Inspiration and themes


Sylvie Mathé notes that Styron's "position" in the writing of this novel was made clear in his contemporary interviews and essays, in the latter case, in particular "Auschwitz,” “Hell Reconsidered,” and “A Wheel of Evil Come Full Circle,”[1] and quotes Alvin Rosenfeld's summary of Styron's position, where Rosenfeld states that:[2]

(1) while [Styron] acknowledges Jewish suffering under the Nazis, he insists on seeing Auschwitz in general or universalistic terms, as a murderous thrust against “mankind” or “the entire human family”; (2) in line with the above, he sees his own role as “correcting” the view that the Holocaust was directed solely or exclusively against the Jews by focusing attention on the many Christians, and particularly the Slavs, who also perished in the camps; (3) … Auschwitz was “anti-Christian” as well as “anti-Semitic,” and hence assertions of Christian guilt are misplaced and perhaps even unnecessary; (4) since he rejects historical explanations of Christian anti-Semitism as causative, Styron is drawn to the view, set forth by Richard Rubenstein and others … that in its essential character Auschwitz was a capitalistic slave society as much as or even more than it was an extermination center; and (5) viewed against European examples of barbarism and slavery, epitomized by Auschwitz, the American South’s treatment of the blacks looks pretty good and “… seems benevolent by comparison”.[1][2]

Rosenfeld, summarizing, states, "The drift of these revisionist views, all of which culminate in Sophie’s Choice, is to take the Holocaust out of Jewish and Christian history and place it within a generalized history of evil."[2]:44 Mathé reinforces Rosenfeld's conclusion with a quote from Styron himself, who stated in his "Hell Reconsidered" essay that “the titanic and sinister forces at work in history and in modern life… threaten all men, not only Jews.”[3]:114 She goes on to note that Styron’s choices to represent these ideas, and to incorporate them so clearly into the narrative of his novel, resulted in polemic and controversy that continued, at least into the early years of the new millennium (see section on Controversy, below).[1]

Plot inspiration

A central element of the novel's plot, the personally catastrophic choice referred to in the title, is said to have been inspired by a story of a Romani woman who was ordered by the Nazis to select which of her children was to be put to death, which Styron attributes to Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem.[1] However, Ira Nadel claims that the story is found in Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism.[4]

Reception and controversies

Critical reception

Sophie's Choice won the US National Book Award for Fiction in 1980,[5][6] against competition from Just Above My Head by James Baldwin, The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer, The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth, and Endless Love by Scott Spencer (where the Pulitzer for fiction and the Nobel for literature for that year went, respectively, to Norman Mailer for Executioner's and to Czeslaw Milosz for his body of poetry and other work).[7]


At publication

Sophie's Choice generated significant controversy at time of its publication, in part due to Styron's decision to portray a non-Jewish victim of the Holocaust and in part due to its explicit sexuality and profanity; it was banned in South Africa, censored in the Soviet Union, and banned in Poland for "its unflinching portrait of Polish anti-Semitism".[8]

Sylvie Mathé notes that Sophie’s Choice, which she refers to as a "highly controversial novel," appeared in press in the year following the broadcast of the NBC miniseries Holocaust (1978), engendering a period in American culture where "a newly-raised consciousness of the Holocaust was becoming a forefront public issue."[1] She goes on to note that with regard to the Holocaust (Hebrew, Shoah):

Styron’s ideological and narrative choices in his framing of a novel touching upon the “limit events” of Auschwitz, considered by many to lie beyond the realm of the imagination… spurred a polemic… which, twenty-five years later, is far from having died down.[1]

Here, the reference to a "limit event" (synonymous with "limit case" and "limit situation") is to a concept deriving at least from the early 1990s—Saul Friedländer, in introducing his Probing the Limits of Representation, quotes David Carroll, who refers to the Shoah as "this limit case of knowledge and feeling"[9][10]—a concept that can be understood to mean an event or related circumstance or practice that is "of such magnitude and profound violence" that it "rupture[s]... otherwise normative foundations of legitimacy and... civilising tendencies that underlie... political and moral community" (the oft-cited formulation of Simone Gigliotti).[11]

The controversy to which Mathé is specifically referring arises from a thematic analysis which—in apparent strong consensus (e.g., see Rosenfeld's 1979 work, “The Holocaust According to William Styron”[2])—has Styron, through the novel, his interviews, and essays:

that is, it has him insisting on seeing Auschwitz in particular in more universal terms as "a murderous thrust against 'the entire human family.'"[1][2] Styron further extends his argument, again with controversy:

Speaking of Styron's views as set forth in the novel and his nonfiction work, Rosenfeld refers to them as "revisionist views" that "culminate in Sophie’s Choice" with an aim to "take the Holocaust out of Jewish and Christian history and place it within a generalized history of evil,"[2]:44 and it is this specific revisionist thrust that is the substance of the novel's initial and persisting ability to engender controversy.[1]


Sophie's Choice has been banned in some high schools in the United States. For instance, the book was pulled from the La Mirada High School Library in California by the Norwalk-La Mirada High School District in 2002 because of a parent's complaint about its sexual content.[12] However, a year after students protested and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to the school district requesting that the district reverse its actions, students were again given access to the book via the school library.[13][14]



The novel was made into a film of the same name in the United States, in 1982. Written and directed by Alan J. Pakula, the film was nominated for Academy Awards for its screenplay, musical score, cinematography, and costume design, and Meryl Streep was nominated for and received the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance of the title role.[15]


The British composer Nicholas Maw wrote an opera based on the novel, which was premiered at the Royal Opera House in London in 2002, and has also been performed in Washington, Berlin and Vienna.[16]

Publication history and related works

Selected publication history

Styron's related works

The following of Styron's works have been collected, per Sylvie Mathé, as relevant to the author's philosophical framework with regard to his constructing the history and characters within his novel.[1]

References and notes

  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Mathé, Sylvie (2004). "The "grey zone" in William Styron's Sophie's Choice". Études anglaises. 57 (4). Retrieved 4 November 2015.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Rosenfeld, Alvin H. (1979) “The Holocaust According to William Styron,” Midstream, Vol. 25, No. 10 (December), pp. 43-49.
  3. Styron, William (1978) “Hell Reconsidered,” In This Quiet Dust and Other Writings, [1982], pp. 105-115, New York, NY, USA: Random House, ISBN 039450934X, ISBN 9780394509341, see , accessed 7 November 2015.
  4. Robin, Corey (2015). "Hannah Arendt and Philip Roth: Parallel Lives". Crooked Timber (blog, June 9). Retrieved 4 November 2015.
  5. Weil, Robert (2009) "Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, 1980" at National Book Association [Fiction Blog, August 14], see , accessed 7 November 2015.
  6. This was the 1980 award for hardcover general Fiction, see National Book awards citation, op. cit. The National Book Awards there given for both hardcover and paperback in most categories from 1980 to 1983, and for multiple fiction categories, especially in 1980. Most of the paperback award-winners in that year were reprints, including for General Fiction.
  7. Anon. (2012) "National Book Award, 1980 – Hardcover," at National Book Association, see , accessed 7 November 2015.
  8. Sirlin, Rhoda and West III, James L. W. Sophie's Choice: A Contemporary Casebook. Newcastle UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. p. ix. Accessed 5 Jan 2013.
  9. Friedländer, Saul (1992). "Introduction". In Friedländer, Saul. Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the "final Solution". Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard U Press. pp. 1–21 (esp. 6). ISBN 0674707664. Retrieved 7 November 2015. [See David Carrol citation following, for the relevant quote.]
  10. Carroll, David (1990). "The Memory of Devastation and the Responsibilities of Thought: 'And let's not talk about that' [Foreward]". Heidegger and "the Jews". By Lyotard, Jean François. Translated by Andreas Michel; Mark S. Roberts. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. pp. vii–xxix. ISBN 0816618577. [T]his indeterminacy has special significance when it comes to the Shoah, this limit case of knowledge and feeling, in terms of which all such systems of belief and thought, all forms of literary and artistic expression, seem irrelevant or criminal.
  11. Gigliotti, Simone (2003). "Unspeakable Pasts as Limit Events: The Holocaust, Genocide, and the Stolen Generations". Australian Journal of Politics and History. Wiley-Blackwell. 49 (No. 2, June): 164–181, esp. 164. doi:10.1111/1467-8497.00302. Quote: A 'limit event' is an event or practice of such magnitude and profound violence that its effects rupture the otherwise normative foundations of legitimacy and so-called civilising tendencies that underlie the constitution of political and moral community.
  12. Helmand, Duke (2001-12-22). "Students Fight for 'Sophie's Choice'". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 25, 2016.
  13. "A History of Fighting Censorship" (PDF). American Civil Liberties Union. 2006. Retrieved 2009-10-07.
  14. "Banned Books Week: September 25-October 2". UCSD. September 22, 2004. Archived from the original on May 11, 2008. Retrieved 2009-10-07.
  15. Sophie's Choice at the Internet Movie Database
  16. Ballantine, Christopher (2010), "Sophie's Choice, Maw", in Opera, June 2010, p. 94. Website version accessed 25 April 2015; Gurewitsch, Matthew (2010). "Maw: Sophie's Choice", Opera News, August 2010, on beyondcriticism website, accessed 25 April 2015

See also

External links

Further reading

The following appear in ascending order, by original publication date, and within the same year, alphabetical by author:

Preceded by
Going After Cacciato
Tim O'Brien
National Book Award for Fiction
The World According to Garp
John Irving
Succeeded by
Plains Song: For Female Voices
Wright Morris
Succeeded by
The Stories of John Cheever
John Cheever
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