96. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

Spoiler alert: This is quite possibly the most depressing book imaginable. Oedipus Rex has more laughs than this book. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, then you should turn back now.

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron was published in 1979. It is narrated by Stingo, a Southerner working in publishing in new York City, who befriends an extremely screwed up couple. It takes place in 1947.

The Sophie in question is Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish-Catholic survivor of Auschwitz. Throughout the book, she tells Stingo about her past — both of her parents were professors, and Sophie was married at a young age to a mathematics scholar. One day, the Germans came and took Sophie’s father and husband away to a concentration camp and shot them on New Year’s Day. Sophie was taken to Auschwitz when she smuggled ham to her dying mother. While at Auschwitz, she worked as the stenographer to Rudolf Höss and tried to convince him that her son, Jan, should be taken from the camp and put into the Lebensborn program and be raised as a German orphan because he has blonde hair and blue eyes and speaks fluent German, but Höss refuses.

Sophie (Meryl Streep) living with her Choice.

The final piece of Sophie’s story from Auschwitz is about when she and her two children first arrived at the camp. She has two children, her son Jan and her daughter Eva. On the night they arrived, a doctor makes her choose which of her children will be sent to the gas chamber that night and which one will live.When she is unable to choose, a Nazi officer said both would be sent to die so Sophie chooses Eva to die that night, because she figures that Jan would have a better chance of surviving the camp. However, after she and Jan are separated between the adult and children camps, Sophie never finds out what happened to her son; she gets a letter saying that he’s been moved from the Children’s Camp and she assumes that he was killed. She has been living with overwhelming guilt and mourning ever since the day she arrived at Auschwitz.

You can start crying now. It’s okay. I’ll wait.

Sophie moved to America immediately after the war and met Nathan, who took care of her when she was sick when she first arrived. Nathan is crazy (he’s an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic) and is abusive to Sophie when he has one of his outbreaks; it doesn’t help that he’s self-medicating with cocaine and prescription drugs that he gets from his job at Pfizer.

Unfortunately, Nathan sets his crazy on Stingo and Sophie, who he accuses of having an affair together and he attacks Sophie and tries to kill her. Stingo takes Sophie away to Virginia, where Sophie tells him the story of her children. Stingo tells her that he’s in love with her and Sophie takes Stingo’s virginity. The next morning, Stingo wakes up to find a note from Sophie; she has gone back to Nathan. Telling the story of her children has overwhelmed her with grief and she has gone back to commit suicide with Nathan, who is on his own suicidal crazy-train. Stingo returns to Brooklyn and discovers that Sophie and Nathan have poisoned themselves with cyanide.


There are a lot of nuances to the book — the way that the narration is told in both third and first person, the jumps in time, the comparisons of the Holocaust to the American South, the focus of a Holocaust survivor who isn’t Jewish — but who cares? Not when you compare it to the heart-wrenching choice of knowing that you are responsible for the death of your child. I don’t have, much less want, children and I felt like my heart was being torn out of my chest. I didn’t think anyone could find a way to make the horrors of the Holocaust even worse, but congratulations, William Styron, you did it.

The apocryphal story of the film version of Sophie’s Choice has Meryl Streep as Sophie only being able to do one take of the “choice” scene, as she found it too emotionally draining and painful. Preach, Queen Meryl.

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4 Responses to “96. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron”

  1. Charles

    The ‘choice’ that it at the heart of this novel is an artificial one. Sophie had several other choices at the juncture where she was asked which of her children should be killed that night. As an example, she could have tried to strangle the doctor who asked to make that choice. She could have tried to run back out the gate of the concentration camp. And perhaps such an act would have emboldened other prisoners to attack guards.

    Framing the ‘choice’ in the conveniently narrow terms that it was framed goes right to the heart of why it was possible to perpetrate the holocaust in the first place; because within Germany, the Jews (and most of the population) refused to recognize the depravity of the Nazis.

    After the second world war was over, the German people who tacitly collaborated with the Nazis hid from guilt behind the excuse that they were just obeying orders in doing so. And if they hadn’t obeyed orders, they would have been shot. ANOTHER choice that any German had was to do his best to shoot any handy SS officers before they were themselves shot. If the Nazis had been busy quelling revolts within Germany, they wouldn’t have had time to destroy the rest of Europe.

    And one might draw vivid parallels between the Germans of the 1930’s to the wanton naevete of the American people in current times, with respect to the war crimes that the American govenment perpetrates around the world in the name of its citizens.


  2. Rachael

    I agree that those are choices that she had, but I feel like those aren’t really realistic choices. I’ve been lucky enough to have never had a gun pointed at me, but I’m pretty sure that my first thought would not be to try to get the gun and shoot them, it would be to do whatever they asked me to do to insure my survival.

    Whenever I teach WWII or Holocaust literature, my students always ask that same question or bring up that same point: “Why didn’t the Jews grab the guns and smoke them?” I just think that to many people, compliance, especially in the face of an authority figure with a gun, is the more obvious choice.

  3. Jason

    It was a pretty easy choice, you pick the boy.

  4. Mathew

    Charles, your comment is not only overly simplistic, but it would be better suited to an action movie, rather than this story.

    The only way to ensure the survival of at least one of her children, is to make the impossible choice. Your alternatives would have seen the demise of the entire family.

    I literally feel sick every time I remember the choice that had to be made in this story and the fact that, given the reputation of Hitler’s men, this would have actually occurred many times during the holocaust.


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