William Styron. Sophie's Choice

Human nature and societal pressure

By Stephanie Beranek


 

William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice explores the way people moved on with life after the Great Depression, and World War II. The book gives an inside look into the lives of two very different individuals, Sophie, a Polish woman and an Auschwitz survivor, as well as Nathan, a Jewish man who is a paranoid schizophrenic and growing more mentally unstable. The story is told through the eyes of a young writer named Stingo and tells of his interactions with the couple. Grief and depression are a lot more complicated than anyone would like to imagine, and the difficulties victims of those conditions endure need to be dealt with, but in the 1940's people were encouraged to "live the good life" rather than deal with the problems echoing continuously in the backs of their minds.

Coming out of the Great Depression, this generation was encouraged to be anything but depressed. In this book these two characters, although distinct in background, must deal with their problems, and face the consequences. The pressure to move on, as is human nature, eventually leads to a sadly fatal conclusion.

Sophie Zawistowska, a gorgeous Polish woman living in the same house as Stingo, is a troubled survivor of the concentration camps during World War II. Throughout the book her story is revealed, through long monologues and stories Stingo, the narrator, tells. The title of the book is Sophie's Choice, but not until the last few pages is it told what Sophie's choice is. Sophie is shown as a vulnerable character, a lover of music and her boyfriend. Her passions also include America, the beach, and creative outfits. Everything in the world in which Sophie lives is the American Dream, the world after the depression.

Throughout the book her story is unveiled. Sophie, the fun-loving Polish girl, has been twice widowed and lost two children. On top of these disasters she is also sent to a concentration camp. In the final pages of the novel she is given the ultimatum by a Nazi soldier,

You may keep one of your children. The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep? (p. 562)

This decision is possibly the most difficult one a parent would ever have to make, and tormented Sophie for the rest of her short life.

Suppose I had chosen Jan to go . . . to go to the left instead of Eva. Would that have changed anything?" (p. 572)

This question remained unanswered to Sophie, who was never given the opportunity to grieve properly for her loss. Instead, she was cast into a world where she has no choice but to be happy.

One thing that gives her hope for true happiness is Nathan, a man she meets in the library one day. Nathan plays the role of her hero. He is a biologist who has plenty of financial resources. He nurses her back to health and the two become lovers. However, there is one glitch in this wonderful chance meeting. Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic. He is addicted to the drug Benzedrine Sulfate, and drinks excessively. More than once he is thrown into a rage, caused by a chemical imbalance in his brain, where he hits and screams at Sophie and anyone else near him. He threatens to leave. These stresses add to Sophie's struggles to maintain a normal life. Nathan's problems expand past his effect on Sophie and into his own personal life.

Nathan is presented as a biologist for a successful company. He may be opinionated and have a temper, but he has money and appears to have everything in his life together. However, things are not always as they seem.

You're a cheater. You're worse than any little yenta that ever came out of Brooklyn. (p. 73)

These words to Sophie are an exemplar of his outbursts. During one argument he screams at her,

Let me out of here before I murder you - you whore! You were born a whore and you'll die a whore! (p. 53)

Nathan proceeds to hit her and stomp out of the apartment.

Anger is not Nathan's only problem. Certainly there is a lot of hate in him for many different types of people and events.

Then he can get out of control and go into some, I don't know, area of psychosis where no one can reach him. (p. 383)

On this occasion, Sophie discovers the severity of Nathan's problems. After taking six amphetamines and snorting two lines of cocaine, Nathan is out of control. He gets into a car, speeds, and ends up in a car chase. Sophie, who is along for the ride, screams for him to stop the car, but like many who suppress their problems, once over the brink, there is no turning back.

This event however, is not the one which leads to Nathan and Sophie's untimely demise. The internal pressures resulting from suppressing one's feelings inevitably lead to misfortune or catastrophe, and this case is no different from others. The last pages of the book are littered with shocking details of Sophie and Nathan's fates. After a spontaneous and intimate night with Stingo, the narrator and participator in this tragedy of a love story, Sophie leaves Stingo's farm in Virginia to return to Brooklyn, and to Nathan. Sophie states,

I love Nathan but now feel this Hate of Life and God. F*CK God and all his Hnde Werk. And Life too. And even what remain of Love. (p. 580)

In what would be considered a suicide letter, Sophie apologizes to Stingo, and leaves another mountain of issues that will never be resolved. Her anger finally burst inside of her and all of the issues within her could no longer be suppressed. When Stingo returns to Brooklyn he finds police, an ambulance, and a room of shocked people.

Nathan and Sophie took their own lives by taking sodium cyanide together. The papers write the suicides off as a statement of love and devotion. This final effort to avoid any suggestion of sadness is another example of how people choose to sugar-coat problems and live the 'good life'. Stingo decides to move on and forget Sophie, and this attitude is the one that is reflected in this book. The fortunate element of this is that Stingo chose to write out this story, instead of bottling it up inside until it controlled him.

In Sophie's Choice human nature and societal pressure are shown to come together in a fatal interaction. The expression of grief, and the consequences of bottling up emotions are displayed with both of these characters. Sophie's life had many stresses in it, from her experiences in Auschwitz to her relationship with Nathan. Nathan's life consisted of running away from a problem that was undeniably a part of him. These two unique people are examples of what happens when people allow societal pressures to overcome human nature. As depicted in this novel, society can be a powerful force, great enough to trump even the most instinctive qualities of human nature.

Bibliography

Styron, William. Sophie's Choice. Random House, Inc. 1994.

© Stephanie Beranek, June 2003

See also: American and Canadian Books on Film >

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