Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
Many of the Modern Library top 100 novels were controversial at the time of publication. And many were initially banned for their provocative content. Sophie’s Choice was included in this group. Among the complaints were sexual content and the stereotyping of Polish anti-semitism. And yet, it won the National Book Award, and still remains number 96 on Modern Library’s prestigious list. And if I am not mistaken, Sophie’s Choice is the only novel on the list that addresses the holocaust, concentration camps, and the Nazi genocide.
Sophie’s Choice is the story of a Polish catholic World War II refuge, Sophie Zawistowski. She’s only in her early 30’s but she has already lived a lifetime of pain and suffering- been through hell- losing her family, friends and her entire past life and identity. She’s survived life in bombed out war torn Warsaw, two concentration camps, physical abuse, malnutrition, and indescribable mental anguish. In the opening scene, it’s 1947 and Sophie is living in a dingy boarding house in Brooklyn, New York called the Pink Palace. This is where the narrator Stingo first meets Sophie.
Stingo is a 22 year old aspiring writer- a southern boy- born and raised in Virginia. He’s temporarily hunkered down at the Pink Palace, living on a small inheritance for a few months while he plans to write a successful novel. He’s inexperienced, naive, and a romantic at heart. He falls in love with Sophie at first sight.
The story is told from Stingo’s observations and- though Sophie already has a lover- Stingo befriends them both and documents the events of the summer. As Stingo’s relationship with Sophie grows during intimate afternoons on the beach and at sidewalk cafes, she slowly unveils her tragic story and all the terror through which she has lived; the fear, grief, pain, physical suffering, torment, hate, desperation, revulsion, and above all… the guilt.
And what was Sophie’s choice? That is the tragedy. She had several pivotal life-altering junctures in her life. And with every incident she found herself in a no-win situation.
The controversy over the narrator’s excessive sexual discourse was mostly about Stingo’s obsession with trying to lose his virginity. Aside from these graphic details, critics complained that the sexual content diminished Sophie’s haunting tale. But perhaps Mr. Styron was attempting to illustrate the vast contrast between Sophie’s battered, impoverished sensuality with Stingo’s childish inexperience. Stingo gave Sophie his heart and she gave him all she was capable of giving. How is one to behave when they have been to hell and back!
The writing style is poetic, often mesmerizing. The plot unfolds layer upon layer, adding depth of character and graphic details about life in Poland during some of the darkest days in history.
The movie starred Meryl Streep in her Academy Award winning performance as Sophie. An excellent film- but as is usually the case- the book was far better.
Rated 5 Stars.
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I think this is one of the best, most poignant reviews that you have ever written, Lois. How is one to behave when they have been to hell and back. Pure literary poetry in itself. Thank you for a wonderful review and I’ll look forward to the time when I can read ‘Sophies Choice..