In Sophie’s Choice, William Styron does as masterful job of telling a horrific tale in bearable way. Sophie is a Polish Christian who survived 18 months in Auschwitz before the camp was liberated by the Allies. Of course her story is heartbreaking. But Styron unfolds the tale in a way that allows the reader to take it all in without being crushed by the sadness of it.
First, instead of marching out the story of Sophie’s capture and imprisonment in chronological order, Styron layers it on, each layer building on the next. When the 22-year-old narrator, Stingo (a Southerner moved to Brooklyn to write novels), first meets Sophie in the summer of 1947, she gives him only the briefest version of her experience in the war. It is only as they grow closer as friends that Sophie, through a series of drunken encounters, provides more details to Stingo, each time admitting that she had lied to him before in earlier versions of her tale.
By presenting the horrifying particulars bit by bit, Styron seems mindful of the warning, and even quotes Stalin as saying, that a “single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” The reader sees the tragedy of Sophie’s experience because, by offering just a little at a time, Styron allows the reader to digest her story, along with a great deal of information about the Holocaust in general. If Styron had presented her story in full from the beginning, the awfulness would be numbing.
Also, Styron balances Sophie’s tragic past with her tragic present in Brooklyn. In love with Nathan, a brilliant drug addict subject to violent fits of jealousy, Sophie has no chance of building a “normal” life in America. But, given her experiences in the concentration camp, it is impossible to imagine how she could. Rather than present an unbelievable fairy tale of survival, Styron uses the tortured relationship between Nathan and Sophie as the catalyst for her revelations to Stingo, as well as the vehicle of her ultimate, and well-foreshadowed, undoing.
Finally, for all its sadness, there is plenty of humor in the book. Some of Stingo’s failed romantic adventures are downright funny, as are his self-deprecating descriptions of his writing efforts. Again, without these side stories offering a respite from the main narrative, Sophie’s story would be unbearable.
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Sophie’s Choice is one of my Top 10 favorite novels of all times. It won the National Book Award in 1980. It is on Anthony Burgess's list of his favorite 99 novels. It is on the Modern Library list of Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century and Radcliffe's rival list.