Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.
Though Sophie experienced many losses throughout her life, her greatest loss of innocence happened when she was faced with making the impossible choice between her two children in Auschwitz. Previously, she lost her connection with her father and husband due to their anti-Semitic beliefs. She also lost her next lover to the Nazis before being captured herself. After leaving the concentration camp, she experiences more losses of innocence at the hands of an abusive lover, and is never able to fully recover from the losses she experienced throughout her life. Because Sophie is unable to deal with her losses of innocence, she ultimately takes her own life.
The novel Sophie’s Choice is told from the perspective of Stingo, a novelist living in a boarding house where he meets a woman named Sophie and her lover, Nathan. As Stingo gets to know the couple, Sophie slowly begins to reveal things about her past, giving Stingo glimpses of her tragic life and slowly revealing how experiences of loss of innocence lead her to where she is now. She is slow to reveal the painful parts of her past, but eventually reveals everything to him as the novel progresses. At first, Sophie is “forced to fictionalize both her past and her present, her very self, to survive. (Cologne-Brookes).” She holds on to the secrets of her life that she has kept hidden for as long as she can before revealing everything to Stingo. What happened to her is too painful for her to relive by speaking of her experiences and she continues to carry around shame and guilt. “She cannot face the truth because the truth seems too awful for self-contemplation, too inhumane to win absolution from anyone, God or man (Wyatt-Brown).” She eventually opens up about her past, but the cumulation of her losses of innocence become too much for her to bear.
An Impossible Choice
Sophie’s greatest loss of innocence came from being forced to choose which of her two children would be sent to die and which would live. If she didn’t make a choice, she would lose them both. Ultimately, Sophie chose to sacrifice her daughter to save her son. Sophie never told anyone about the choice she had to make until she finally told Stingo. At first, she only told him that her daughter was taken to be killed and her son was allowed to stay with her, until he was taken away to the children’s camp.
Sophie’s choice to sacrifice her daughter in hopes of saving her son haunted her for many years. After telling this story to Stingo, she said “All these years I have never been able to bear those words. Or bear to speak them, in any language (Styron, 530).” She felt guilty about choosing one of her children over the other, and felt as though it was her fault that her daughter was killed. According to an analysis by Lisa Carstens, Styron may have meant to imply that it was, in fact, Sophie’s own fault that she was forced to make this choice because she spoke up to the doctor instead of remaining silent (Carstens, 293). Regardless of where the reader places the blame, Sophie does feel responsible for her daughter’s death and feels guilty throughout the rest of the novel. This event represented Sophie’s major loss of innocence in the novel and pushes her further into the downward spiral that would lead to her eventual suicide.
A Loss of Faith
After losing her children, and because of everything else she endured in Auschwitz, Sophie lost her religious belief. She was once a devout Catholic, but her experiences caused her to lose her faith in God. Sophie describes her childhood self as “very religious.” As a child, she would play a game called “shape of God” in which she would try to discover God’s form in various shapes in her environment. When she played this game, she felt as though she could actually feel’s God’s presence. Later on in her life, she tried to play this game again, but she was reminded that God had left her. She felt as though God had turned his back on her after everything she had gone through (Styron, 375).
This experience of losing her relationship with God was directly affected by her experience of losing her children. When she arrived at the concentration camp, she told the doctor that she and her children were racially pure, speak German, and are devout Catholics in an effort to convince him to let her leave. The doctor responded “So you believe in Christ the Redeemer? […] Did he not say, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto Me’? (Styron, 528)” just before forcing Sophie to choose which of her children would be sent away to die in the crematorium. This is a reference to Matthew 19:14, “But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew).” The doctor uses this quote from the Bible to imply that God is complicit in the suffering of Sophie, her children, and the rest of the people in the concentration camp. He does this to emotionally torture the devout Christian Sophie. Even though she was told her son would be spared, he was taken from her and she never found out what happened to him or if he survived. Sophie’s loss of faith possibly made it even more difficult for her to deal with the tragic events that had already taken place in her life and the future stresses she would face after leaving Auschwitz.
Loss of Innocence Before Auschwitz
Though the loss of innocence she experienced at the hands of the Nazi doctor had the greatest impact on her life, she had already faced many losses of innocence before her time in Auschwitz. Her father was an anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer. Though Sophie loved her father, his views about the Jews lead her to hate him. Sophie described her childhood years as “idyllic.” Her father was a lawyer and a law professor who was highly respected. He was also “a practicing Catholic, though hardly a zealot (Styron, 259).” During her childhood, Sophie looked up to him. As Sophie grew older, she found that her father supported anti-Semitic movements. He often wrote about the Jewish problem is both German and Polish. Sophie helped her father by transcribing his anti-Semitic speeches for years. Eventually, she finally understood what her father’s ideas really meant and began to despise him and everything he stood for (Styron, 261). Once she learned of her father’s plans for extermination of the Jews, she became “emotionally ripe for the blinding revulsion she suddenly felt for her father (Styron, 264).” This realization about her father represents one of Sophie’s early experiences of a loss of innocence.
Sophie’s distain for her father was cemented after she made too many mistakes in transcribing one of his speeches. He told her that her “intelligence is pulp, just like [her] mother’s” in front of her husband, who was also a supporter of his ideas (Styron, 266). At this moment, she realized that she hated him, and she described the pain as feeling “like a butcher knife in [her] heart (Styron, 268).” This moment marks an important loss of innocence in Sophie’s life. She is no longer a child who is bound by her father. She is free to have her own feelings and opinions, and to disagree with her father. She no longer feels like she has to help her father to spread his hateful messages.
At the same time she realizes she hates her father, she also comes to hate her husband, who is one of her father’s “lackeys (Styron, 271).” When her father insulted her intelligence, her husband, Kazik, just stood there with the same look of contempt that her father had. Sophie said of her husband: “I really had no love for Kazik either at that time, I had no more love for my husband than for a stone-faced stranger I had never seen before in my life (Styron, 266).” The Nazis took Sophie’s father and husband soon after she grew to hate them both, simply because they were Polish. Sophie “felt no real bereavement over the seizure of her father and husband (Styron, 272),” but she was still afraid of what her future would hold as a Pole. She also “grieved for her mother’s grief (Styron, 273)” after her father was taken. Though she claimed that she did not feel grief for the loss of her father and husband, this event did cause her to experience a loss of innocence. She saw just how the Nazi Germans saw Poland and feared for her life. She was no longer safe because of her Polish identity.
Before Sophie was taken to the concentration camp, she had a lover named Jozef. He was an anarchist who fought against the Nazis. Sophie experienced several losses of innocence because of Jozef. Sophie was still a devout Catholic during her relationship with Jozef, but he didn’t believe in God. This may have been one of her first close experiences with someone who didn’t have religious faith, and may have planted the seeds for her future loss of faith. Jozef was also a murderer. He killed people who betrayed the Jews in Poland. One of the people Jozef killed was Sophie’s friend, Irena. Irena was an American literature teacher who specialized in Hart Crane. She turned out to be a double agent. Knowing that her lover had killed people, even though he did it to save innocent people’s lives, was difficult for Sophie and resulted in a loss of innocence. Eventually the Nazi’s found out about Jozef and killed him. Sophie experienced a further loss of innocence because of his death (Styron, 387-88).
As Sophie reveals the details of Jozef’s murder of Irena to Stingo, Stingo is reminded of Hart Crane’s “The Harbor Dawn.” According to Brigitte McCray, “In ‘The Harbor Dawn,’ Pocahontas epitomizes for Crane a pure America that has yet to be plundered and westernized, an America that is untouched by war and destruction…” She goes on say that, in Sophie’s Choice, “Sophie, too, is associated with a pure land that has been lost (McCray).” Sophie experienced so many major losses of innocence at the hand of the Nazi’s that she will never recover from her guilt and depression. Nancy Chinn offer’s additional insight into this reference to “The Harbor Dawn” as it is used in this passage in Sophie’s Choice: “Though as an adult Pocahontas became a Christian, Sophie, formerly a devout Catholic, become like the young pagan Pocahontas (Chinn, 57).” This reinforces the idea that Sophie’s losses of innocence pushed her further and further away from God. The loss of Jozef caused her to begin questioning the existence of God, and the loss of her children caused her to experience a complete loss of faith.
While in the concentration camp, Sophie was given a job as a stenographer in the home of the commander of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoss. Sophie flirted with Hoss and he was attracted to her. She was able to get him to promise her that she could see her son, Jan, who had been taken away and put in the children’s camp. Hoss told Sophie “certainly you may see your little boy. Do you think I could deny you that? […] Do you think I am some kind of monster? (Styron, 312).” He didn’t keep his promise, but promised Sophie that he would try to get him in the Lebensborn program to get him out of the camp. He didn’t keep his promise this time either. Sophie never saw Jan again and never found out what happened to him after she got out of the camp. Though she had no real reason to trust Hoss to begin with, this broken promise caused her to experience a further loss of innocence. She had so much hope that she would see her son again, and then that he would be taken away from the camp, but she never got to see him again and never found out what happened to him.
Self-Punishment Through an Abusive Relationship
Though Sophie survived Auschwitz, her inability to cope with her losses of innocence lead her down the destructive path of pursuing a relationship with an abusive and mentally unstable man, Nathan. Nathan was schizophrenic, violent, and addicted to drugs. Though sometimes he did seem to care for Sophie, he was also violent and abusive. He was also very jealous. Sophie never even mentioned Jozef to him because she knew that he would be upset that she had a lover in the past, even though he was dead now (Styron, 385). She knew he was abusive. She said of Nathan “Okay, so he helped me a lot, make me well, but so what? Do you think he done that out of love, out of kindness? No, Stingo, he done such a thing only so he could use me, have me, fuck me, beat me, have some object to possess! That’s all, some object (Styron, 383).” She was willing to put herself through the abuse because she still felt guilty about her children. Right after Sophie told Stingo about her son Jan – at this point she never even mentioned Eva, because she still couldn’t bear to speak of her – she told him “I was still ready for Nathan to piss on me, rape me, stab me, beat me, blind me, do anything with me that he desired (Styron, 376).” She felt so worthless and guilty that she was willing to take any punishment that Nathan would give her. The physical abuse numbed the emotional pain she was going through. She went on to tell Stingo that “we made love all afternoon which made me forget the pain but forget God too, and Jan, and all the other things I had lost (Styron, 276).” She was hurting herself by being with Nathan to help her cope with her loss of innocence from losing Jan and Eva, her family, and her faith in God. She tried to replace the loving relationships she lost with an abusive one that she thinks she deserves.
Sophie allowed herself to be victimized by Nathan because she felt guilty about everything that happened. Bertram Wyatt-Brown claims that “despite Nathan’s emotional and even physical abuse of Sophie, he genuinely loves her beyond all measure (Wyatt-Brown, 66),” though this claim can easily be debated. According to Lisa Carstens, the author implies that “Sophie does not merely feel guilty, she is guilty (Carstens, 298).” Carstens goes on to state that Styron meant that, because Sophie did not stay silent, as she should have when the doctor approached upon her arrival at the camp, her children would both still be alive. She likened this to the phenomenon of victim-blaming in cases of rape, where the clothing choices and actions of the victim are called into question (Carstens). Sophie felt like she deserved to be victimized by her current lover because of her guilt over what happened to Eva. Regardless of what Sophie did to call attention to herself when she arrived in the camp or how guilty she felt about what happened, the doctor and everyone else involved should be the ones held accountable, just as Nathan should be held accountable for his abuse. It doesn’t matter if Sophie felt that she deserved the abuse, Nathan is the one responsible for his actions.
Michael Lackey, on the other hand, goes as far as to justify Nathan’s abuse of Sophie. Sophie, a Polish Catholic, survived the holocaust when millions of his people, the Jews, did not. “He is not an insane perpetrator who resembles the Nazis. Rather, he is an outraged Jew (Lackey, 97).” Lackey criticizes Carsten’s analysis because her “interpretation is limited, because it too narrowly focuses on sexual politics, and it is flawed, because it presumes that Sophie is an innocent victim rather than a guilty perpetrator (Lackey, 88).” He goes on to accuse Sophie of being a perpetrator in the anti-Semitic attitudes that lead to the extermination of Jews by the Nazis. Lackey states that, because Sophie has benefited in certain ways throughout her life from not being a Jew, that Nathan is justified in his abuse of her in his mind. Regardless of whether or not Nathan was able to justify his abuse of Sophie to himself, Sophie felt that she did deserve everything he did to her and the physical pain gave her an escape from the emotional anguish she experienced constantly.
In the end, Sophie didn’t know how to cope with everything she had experienced. She went through so many losses of innocence throughout her life that she couldn’t tolerate living anymore. She stayed with her abusive, schizophrenic boyfriend until the end of their lives, when they both committed suicide by ingesting sodium cyanide (Styron, 553). This was the same chemical used by the Nazis to kill people in the concentration camps. Sophie may have seen this a fitting way for her to die after her daughter (and possibly her son) was killed by the Nazis. She felt too much guilt and too much despair to continue living after everything she had endured. She was drawn to Nathan, and the abuse he inflicted upon her, as a way of escaping the emotional pain she felt because of her losses of innocence. Sophie couldn’t bear the burden of her losses and ended her own life to stop the feelings of pain and guilt.
Carstens, Lisa. “Sexual Politics and Confessional Testimony in ‘Sophie's Choice.’” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 47, no. 3, 2001, pp. 293–324. www.jstor.org/stable/3176020.
Chinn, Nancy. "Games And Tragedy: Unidentified Quotations In William Styron's Sophie's Choice." English Language Notes 33.3 (1996): 51. Humanities International Complete. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
Cologne-Brookes, Gavin. “Reflections: Terror and Tenderness in Sophie’s Choice.” Rereading William Styron. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2014. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
McCray, Brigitte. "William Styron's SOPHIE's CHOICE And Hart Crane's THE HARBOR DAWN." Explicator 67.4 (2009): 246. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
Lackey, Michael. "The Scandal Of Jewish Rage In William Styron's Sophie's Choice." Journal Of Modern Literature 39.4 (2016): 85-103. Humanities International Complete. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
Matthew. King James Version. N.p.: n.p., n.d. BibleGateway. Web. 4 Dec. 2016.
Styron, William. Sophie's Choice. New York: Vintage, 1992. Print.
Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. "William Styron's Sophie's Choice : Poland, The South, And The Tragedy Of Suicide." The Southern Literary Journal 1 (2001): 56. Project MUSE. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
Questions & Answers
Question: Why did Sophie choose her son and not her daughter? Did she do it because she thought that he will be carrying the family's name?
Answer: The most popular theory for why Sophie chose to save her son over her daughter is that she may have thought that her son would have a better chance of surviving the concentration camp than her daughter would have had. He was older and boys were considered to be stronger and more resilient than girls.
Sophie had to quickly choose one of the children to die, or they would both be killed. She likely didn't have time to think about the choice, so she had to pick one or the other. Her choice haunted her for the rest of her life because there was no good choice. How can a mother choose between either of her children?
© 2017 Jennifer Wilber