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A Vast Dehumanization

ISSUE:  Autumn 1979

Sophie’s Choice
. By William Styron. Random House. $12.95.

When William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) appeared, most of the critical reception was highly favorable, the publication of that book assuming the proportions of an event. But, in the feverish climate of the late sixties, some black writers, professors, and college students mounted a strident protest against Styron and his work, claiming that his fictional treatment of Nat Turner robbed them of one of their folk heroes. A book, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, was issued, charging Styron with the deepest racism, likening Nat to Uncle Tom. Styron came under fire from many quarters, and though the controversy engendered several books and dozens of articles dealing with Styron’s historical inaccuracies, he also sold many copies of the novel as a result of the debates.

Sadly, the black critics who disparaged The Confessions of Nat Turner denied the writer his creative act of selecting or ignoring facts about his characters. That Styron chose to create a Nat Turner who engages in homosexual activity and who lusts after the beautiful Margaret Whitehead indicates the creative process. Whitehead’s name, incidentally, provides Styron with what Mary McCarthy calls a “natural symbol.” To argue, as many did, that, in actual fact, Nat Turner was married, says little about the worth of Styron’s fiction. To resent a white writer’s attempt to enter the consciousness of a Negro slave severely restricts the creative impulse. Who, for example, would argue that James Baldwin can write only about blacks since it would be impossible for him to understand the white consciousness? Despite the controversy, most critics agree that The Confessions of Nat Turner is a major work of fiction and that it fully deserved the Pulitzer Prize it received in 1968.

Now that a decade has passed, Styron brings forth Sophie’s Choice, his long-awaited novel about a survivor of a Nazi death camp; this book could possibly bring from the Jewish community a similarly indignant outcry, charging that Styron has trespassed on Jewish suffering and death at the hands of Hitler’s executioners. Styron seems to have anticipated charges of historical inaccuracy, having conducted extensive background research before committing himself to paper. He said in the New York Times Book Review in January 1979, “I’ve been scrupulous about the facts and used the historical record. It [the novel] has a lot about the workings of the camp. But it is a novel, a novelist is not a scholar, and the book is not buried in footnotes.” In the novel itself Styron refers to Richard L. Rubenstein’s The Cunning of History (1975) and its thesis that the death camps were “a new form of human society.” Styron’s creative mix of fact and fiction becomes clear when one discovers that Styron also published a review of Rubenstein’s book in The New York Review of Books, June 29, 1978. He has also read the opinions of George Steiner and Bruno Bettelheim on life in the camps.

If the historicity of Sophie’s Choice proves acceptable, Styron could still receive criticism on two other points. First, Styron never experienced the agony of a Nazi death camp. Second, Sophie is not Jewish. Both arguments diminish after consideration. Styron’s narrator says in his novel, “I have been haunted, I must confess, by an element of presumption in the sense of being an intruder upon the terrain of an experience so bestial, so inexplicable, so undetachably and rightfully the possession alone of those who suffered and died, or survived it. A survivor, Elie Wiesel, has written: “Novelists made free use of [the Holocaust] in their work. . . . In so doing they cheapened [it], drained it of its substance. The Holocaust was now a hot topic, fashionable, guaranteed to gain attention and to achieve instant success. . . .” I do not know how ultimately valid any of this is, but I am aware of the risk. “Clearly, Styron did not set out simply to write any novel, settling on the Holocaust as a”hot topic “for convenience and to sell books. I saw parts of Sophie’s Choice in manuscript when I interviewed Styron at his home in 1973, and he outlined the entire novel in another interview in 1975 at Duke University. Styron’s slow, meticulous pace of writing precludes any motive such as mere topicality. Sophie’s Choice fits into the established pattern of Styron’s other novels, which show the struggle of individuals as representative of our collective struggle to survive.

The second objection, the fact that Sophie is not Jewish, could cause the louder protest because it seems to intrude on the proprietorship Jews feel for the deaths at Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belsen, Dachau, and the other infamous camps. Little research is required to establish that millions of non-Jews also died in the camps. Poles, Russians, Gypsies, and Serbs perished by gas and were cremated along with their Jewish cellmates. The first victims of Cyclon B gas at Auschwitz were almost one thousand Russian prisoners of war, not Jews. Sophie is not a German Jew—the stereotypical victim of the camps—but a Polish Catholic, sent to Auschwitz for the crime of smuggling meat. The Nazis appropriated all such luxuries for German soldiers, just as they indiscriminately appropriated human beings to work at the I. G. Farben plants manufacturing goods for the war effort. When these conscripted human beings had exhausted themselves in a short time as slave laborers, they were then efficiently gassed and cremated or buried in mass graves. Most of the victims, of course, were Jews, but not all. To protest that Styron has no right as a novelist to create a non-Jewish character who suffers in a death camp is as hollow as saying only blacks can feel degradation and suffering from being owned.

I am certain that in Styron’s mind there is a correspondence between coffles of Negro slaves being “sold down the river” as we see in The Confessions of Nat Turner and boxcars of prisoners being shipped like cattle to the death camps such as Auschwitz in Sophie’s Choice. At one point in the novel the narrator compares the American South with Poland. After describing several similarities, he says, “In Poland and the South the abiding presence of race has created at the same instant cruelty and compassion, bigotry and understanding, enmity and fellowship, exploitation and sacrifice, searing hatred and hopeless love. While it may be said that the darker and uglier of these opposing conditions has usually carried the day, there must also be recorded in the name of truth a long chronicle in which decency and honor were at moments able to controvert the absolute dominion of the reigning evil, more often than not against rather large odds, whether in Poznan or Yazoo City.” Because the sincerity of Styron’s portrait of Nat Turner was misunderstood, perhaps his artistic creation of Sophie will similarly be viewed as an encroachment by an outsider, but let us hope that thinking readers will grant to Styron his use of a terrible period in history to express his faith in the ultimate goodness in man.

We read of Sophie’s Auschwitz experience through the narration of Stingo, a Styron-like 22-year-old Virginian who lives in the same rooming house, in Brooklyn as Sophie and her Jewish lover, Nathan. The picaresque Stingo falls in love with Sophie, a beautiful and compassionate girl whose attachment to Nathan arises from the fact that he single-handedly undertakes to feed and clothe her, provides her with medical care, and gives her love shortly after her arrival in America. Their energetic and vocal lovemaking in the room above Stingo fills him with envy and later bewilderment when Nathan becomes unpredictably vicious and treats Sophie with abuse. Later we learn that Nathan has had a lifelong history of mental imbalance, his instability now compounded by his use of drugs. Stingo’s naivete that a seemingly respectable, well-dressed person could indulge in marijuana, cocaine, and amphetimines rings true when we remember that the time of the novel is 1947.

Stingo’s sexual inexperience provides a contrapuntal humor to the very serious business of Sophie’s Auschwitz imprisonment. One of Stingo’s attempts at sexual discovery was excerpted from the novel in progress and published in Esquire, September 1976, as “The Seduction of Leslie.” Styron’s only play, In the Clap Shack (1973), shows his talent for writing humor, mixing laughter with suffering in a venereal disease ward of a Navy Hospital during World War II. There are no humorous scenes when Sophie relates her life at Auschwitz; there is no intrusion or ridicule on that subject. As Sophie’s life flows out to the reader, Stingo’s insouciance ebbs. Styron’s technique of affixing humor to Stingo but not to Sophie and Nathan shows how Stingo’s life has been uncomplicatedly pleasant and predictable in relation to Sophie’s unspeakable misery. Stingo’s only problem is in finding the money, dependably supplied by his father, to write his first novel. Thus Stingo’s most challenging episode in his life, having the financial freedom to perform a creative act, pales compared to Sophie’s efforts merely to survive.

Stingo becomes Sophie’s confidant, hearing not only her problems with Nathan but eventually hearing her life story. Whether or not the novel succeeds could well rest on how readers view Styron’s use of Stingo as narrator to tell us Sophie’s story. Styron’s narrative technique has long endeared him to the French whose nouveau roman, as espoused by such writers as Michel Butor and Roger Asselineau, thrives on episodic, backward and forward shifts in time to achieve some final stasis. Styron’s novels all reflect his interest in the narrative structure. Lie Down in Darkness (which is mentioned from time to time as Stingo’s first novel in Sophie’s Choice) uses the points of view of several characters to reveal to us the causes of Peyton Loftis’s suicide, a plunge to her death from a tenement building in New York City after a luckless marriage and love affair. In The Long March (1953) Lieutenant Culver appears to be the central figure, but Captain Mannix emerges as the hero who rebels against the Marine Corps. In his third novel, Set This House on Fire (1960), Styron uses Peter Leverett to tell us the story of Cass Kinsolving. As the novel progresses, Cass dominates to the extent that we lose all awareness that we should be hearing of Peter’s search for meaning and existence. Nat Turner’s confessions, as represented by Styron, are set down by a white lawyer serving as amanuensis “with little or no variation, from [Nat’s] own words.”

A similar but much smoother narration is at work in Sophie’s Choice. We learn of Sophie’s most agonizing choice through Stingo, who functions as a sort of priest for Sophie’s confessions. In order to make clear her relationship with Nathan in time present, Sophie must make Stingo understand her life in Poland during the war and especially in Auschwitz, where she nearly dies. Stingo says, “I began to see seeping out of Nathan, almost like some visible poisonous exudate, his latent capacity for rage and disorder. And I also began gradually to understand how the turmoil that was grinding them to pieces had double origins, deriving perhaps equally from the black and tormented underside of Nathan’s nature and from the unrelinquished reality of Sophie’s immediate past, trailing its horrible smoke—as if from the very chimneys of Auschwitz—of anguish, confusion, self-deception and, above all, guilt. . . .”

What, then, is Sophie’s “choice”? Of course, there are several, just as we all make moral or ethical decisions several times each day. But Sophie must choose which one of her two children will survive and which one will be gassed and cremated at Birkenau. When she arrives at Auschwitz, having been erroneously incarcerated with a group of captured resistance fighters, she faces a Nazi doctor who must select only the most fit prisoners for temporary survival as slave laborers. He scourges himself of his guilt by making himself suffer all the more, like a religious ascetic who does physical penance to cleanse himself of former physical indulgences. The doctor allows Sophie to pass on to the Auschwitz camp but tells her she must choose one of her children to go to nearby Birkenau for certain death. Both or one will die; the choice is hers.

Styron is not using a cheap emotional trick in structuring this choice for Sophie. His intent is to show the labyrinthine, inexplicable nightmare that engulfed both captive and captor. The Nazi doctor will doubtless survive the war while victims will not; but the doctor must continue to live with the knowledge of the perverse horror and suffering he helped inflict on innocent people. The full impact of Sophie’s choice is withheld until near the end of the novel, and in this regard Styron shows his mastery of his craft. By carefully plotted degrees we learn that Sophie was married, that her father and her husband were both executed by the Germans, that she had a son and later a daughter, until finally we learn of her agonizingly irreversible choice. Living with her decision imposes a burden of guilt that neither Nathan nor Stingo nor the vast opportunities of America can relieve.

To escape Nathan’s homicidal intentions, Stingo and Sophie set out for Southampton County, Virginia, the site of Nat Turner’s rebellion, where Stingo’s father owns property. Along the way Stingo learns of the ineluctable memories which drive Sophie to Nathan who, though deranged, still offers her love in her otherwise loveless existence. When it becomes clear that she cannot live without Nathan, she leaves Stingo and returns to Brooklyn. Of course, she cannot live with Nathan either, and they commit suicide. Stingo, crushed by their deaths—he had loved them both—wants to weep for “the beaten and butchered and betrayed and martyred children of the earth. I did not weep for the six million Jews or the two million Poles or the one million Serbs or the five million Russians—I was unprepared to weep for all humanity— but I did weep for these others who in one way or another had become dear to me.” Stingo confronts his grief when he can no longer avoid it, and, having expended it, wakes the next day to a new morning, “excellent and fair.”

Styron seems to be urging a universal confrontation of the reality of the unutterable dehumanization which took place in our very recent history, because only through such confrontation and examination can the truth be made clear. Styron wanted to say essentially the same thing about slavery, but that vision became clouded with extrinsic criticism. Sophie’s Choice reveals the truth of Auschwitz indirectly. There are no detailed descriptions of beatings, tortures, medical experiments, and the like. There are no cinematographic ploys in the battle of wits between Sophie and Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of Ausehwitz for whom she works. The truth which Stingo confronts frees him of grief when he realizes that Sophie could never, except in death, be free from her guilt. While eschewing exploitative descriptions of death camp horror, Styron stuns the reader in a convincing revelation that mere physical survival does not preclude emotional destruction.


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