Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sophie's Choice, William Styron (1979)


Film: Universal Pictures, directed by Alan J. Pakula
Sophie's Choice by William Styron is a fictional, but historically based work that describes the unique relationship that ensues after aspiring Southern writer Stingo meets the beautiful Sophie, a Polish Catholic Holocaust survivor and her all-consuming Jewish lover Nathan after settling into Yetta Zimmerman's pink-painted rooming house in Brooklyn. At first, Stingo feels like a fish out of water in his far from home environment, but he finds comfort and inspiration in the company of his two new captivating friends. But as the trio grows tighter, secrets unfold and the painful truth in each of their lives is finally revealed.  Sophie's Choice, as previously stated, is fictional, but all the events that take place are highly plausible, especially because it deals with Sophie's memories of her time at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

In all honesty, I've had this book for over a month and I'm just finishing it up now. I was very reluctant to actually get into this novel from the start, not because I was wary of Styron's writing style, but because I had an idea of what it would contain and obviously, of the subject matter. I understood that the novel would be utterly infused with tragedy as well as truth because the Holocaust did in fact occur. Despite how easy it is to look the other way, the Holocaust is an event that needs to be examined from all sides, and Sophie's Choice is a powerful examination of the profound impact that the Holocaust had on those who survived. Sophie's Choice also speaks to how lies can only carry one so far in life and in the world. Eventually, the truth must be revealed because there really is nothing but the truth.

There is one section of this novel that particularly illuminates the deep emotional impact that the Holocaust had on its victims. As Sophie remembers her time in Europe, she notes that she was one of the "lucky ones" or those who were "more privileged" because they had more "desirable" qualities. Initially, Sophie works as a secretary and a translator to Frau Höss. She lives and works as a prisoner in his lodgings, instead of in the main camp (where she is later sent). While working as a secretary, she is nearly raped by the female housekeeper Wilhemine. After the horrible episode, she is naturally shocked and appalled at what has just taken place. But even in all her shock and horror, she must also figure out how this attack will impact her fragile chances of survival. Instead of worrying about herself in terms of she feels, she must worry if others will judge her and blame her for being assaulted. "Was she better off now, after the episode with Wilhemine, or was she in greater peril?" (265).

Typically, after being physically violated, I assume, one does not even consider that it would be to their benefit, but Sophie's world revolves around on the perceptions of others. Her life depends on the whim of another because of course, if her actions align with those more powerful, she can live another stressful day, but if those in control do not approve, she is in real danger. In other words, Sophie is a victim of the assault and a victim of those who dictate her future. She is a victim in a victim's world.

Throughout the novel, more of Sophie's story is revealed as she replaces her lies with pieces of the truth until the audience finally learns her entire history before and after the Holocaust. Readers learn that her family was not perfect and that her father was anti-Semitic. The audience also learns that Sophie is not a hero. She has her imperfections, her flaws and her shortcomings. She does not step out or fight bravely, despite the fact that she had lived with members of the Resistance.

 She is an ordinary woman and yet her complex story is something that needs to be read, just as the Holocaust is something that desperately needs to be remembered for the horror that it was. In this world, so many times, one says "Never again", but when history repeats itself, one must continue their education. One must read and experience these intimate and personal stories. Sophie's story, although fictional, is very real because it is an account of the impact of others' choices on her life. Yes, granted, Sophie made her "Choice", which is noted in the title, but others also made a choice. In the case of the Holocaust, a very poor choice was made, and now one must remember the choices that were made that resulted in the Holocaust and it's prolonging. One can look at statistics and be appalled, but one should also see the emotions that followed the deaths that build up in number when something as horrific as the Holocaust occurs.

Anyway, to wrap this up: I can't say that I loved reading Sophie's Choice, because I really didn't love reading it. It wasn't a joyous, fun experience (obviously), but it was really well-written and it covered important subject matter. Sophie's Choice was also very fascinating because Sophie, the title character, suffered through the Holocaust despite the fact that she wasn't Jewish. Sophie's Choice gave readers a different perspective because I think that so often one focuses on the anti-Semitic aspect of the Holocaust. It is also important to look at the Holocaust from all sides because so many people were impacted and gravely harmed. William Styron's Sophie's Choice is tragic, powerful and touching. It speaks to life and the world as it was and as it still is today. Raging passions and violence still exist, and memories still have the power to haunt for all eternity. One still cries at the death of a loved one. The world is still imperfect. But one still has the power to make change. By reading Sophie's Choice, one truly realizes the impact of a single choice, the time in the world that is left, the tragedy that ensues following immense hatred and the power of compassion.

So as William Styron himself has put it: "A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted. You live many lives while reading." Highly recommended.

*As for the film version of Sophie's Choice, I will create another post on the comparisons because there is too much to say for right now.

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