Places: Sophie’s Choice

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1979

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1947

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New York City

*New Sophie’s ChoiceYork City. Great cosmopolitan city in which Stingo meets Sophie. The city has long drawn young people from the hinterland, and Stingo is no exception. Certain that the bright lights of the big city will make New York the perfect place for his writing career to develop, he takes a job with a major publishing firm, only to discover that he does not fit into the corporate culture there. Unwilling to return to his southern home, he uses a tainted legacy of money from a slave-owning ancestor to support himself while he writes his first book. Thus he meets Sophie and becomes entangled in her tormented relationship with Nathan Landau, the mentally ill scion of a wealthy Jewish family.

The city’s cosmopolitan and democratic setting functions as a powerful contrast to the story of bigotry and tyranny from her past that Sophie reveals to young Stingo. At first Stingo knows only that Sophie is a European refugee, a survivor of the horrors of the Holocaust who suffered terribly and nearly died in a Nazi concentration camp. Gradually–as though peeling an onion–Sophie reveals more and more of the specific horrors she endured, as well as her own ambiguous role in those horrors–a role that has left her with strong feelings of guilt. At the same time, the disturbing nature of Nathan’s mental illness is revealed. At length the pressure in their tormented relationship drives them apart, and Stingo tries to save Sophie, but at the end the story returns full circle and Sophie goes back to New York, to Nathan and her destruction.

*Auschwitz

*Auschwitz. Infamous Nazi concentration camp in southern Poland in which Sophie was a prisoner during World War II. The name of Auschwitz has become almost synonymous with the Holocaust, a symbol of the enormity of Adolf Hitler’s obsession with exterminating Europe’s Jewish population. However, for Sophie, a Polish Roman Catholic, Auschwitz is a more personal horror of death and deprivation, combined with the ambiguity of having had special skills that afforded her a privileged position as a secretary to the camp commandant, Rudolf Höss. Although she was still a prisoner, she was not subjected to the brutalities that worked her fellow prisoners to death and had sufficient food to support life. After the war, however, she carries the constant burden of thinking that she purchased her survival with her complicity in Nazi atrocities. Worst of all, she bears the crushing guilt of knowing that she purchased her own survival and that of her son with the death of her daughter–the choice to which the novel’s title alludes.

After Höss was replaced as camp commandant, Sophie returned to the general secretarial pool of the camp, which still provided some protection from the worst brutalities of the camp. However, as the extermination program progressed, Sophie was moved to another part of the prison complex, Birkenau, where she was subjected to destructive labor and contracted diseases that permanently damaged her health. She lay within days of death by starvation when the camp was liberated by the Soviet army.

*Cracow

*Cracow (KRAH-kow). Polish town in which Sophie grew up as the daughter of a respected professor and wife of her father’s protégé. When the Germans invaded Poland, her father and husband were among the educated men rounded up and ultimately executed. However, Sophie’s family life was not so genteel as she later tries to portray it, for her father was a virulent anti-Semite who actually praised the Nazis as having a “solution” to Poland’s Jewish “problem.”

*Warsaw

*Warsaw. Poland’s capital, where Sophie found refuge after the German invasion. Although she associated with a number of members of the Polish resistance, she remained unable to commit herself to their cause. At the time she claimed that she could not endanger her children; afterward, however, she wondered if it was not simple cowardice that held her back. When she attempted to smuggle food to her dying mother, she was captured and sent to Auschwitz.

*Washington, D.C

*Washington, D.C. U.S. capital city, where Sophie makes her final revelation to Stingo. After the last violent breakup with Nathan, Stingo takes Sophie on a train south, intending to set her up as his wife on a farm he inherited in Virginia. Along the way they stop over in the nation’s capital, intending to visit national landmarks. Amid the monuments to democracy, Sophie reveals the horrible “choice” she was forced make at Auschwitz: to save one of her children by condemning the other to death.

*Virginia Tidewater

*Virginia Tidewater. Coastal region of Virginia from which Stingo comes. At first Stingo is only vaguely uncomfortable about the American South’s history of slavery. Although he finds such crude supporters of racism as lynch mobs and Mississippi’s Senator Bilbo disgusting, he has no qualms about accepting an inheritance from an ancestor who made his money by selling a slave before the Civil War. However, as Stingo’s acquaintance with Sophie progresses, he comes to see the common threads of contempt for the fundamental humanity of the other which binds American southern slavery and the slave labor of the concentration camps, and he resolves to write a book about Nat Turner, a famous leader of a Virginia slave rebellion.

Sources for Further StudyCasciato, Arthur D., and James L. W. West III, eds. Critical Essays on William Styron. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. A cross-section of reviews of Styron’s fiction, with essays on Sophie’s Choice and other works.Coale, Samuel. William Styron Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Chapter seven provides an insightful analysis of characters.Hadaller, David. Gynicide: Women in the Novels of William Styron. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.Heath, William. “I, Stingo: The Problem of Egotism in Sophie’s Choice.” Southern Review 20 (Summer, 1984): 528-540. Discusses the novel as competitive storytelling.Kreyling, Michael. “Speakable and Unspeakable in Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.” Southern Review 20 (Summer, 1984): 546-561. Explores thematic relations between language and sexuality.Mandel, Naomi. Against the Unspeakable: Complicity, the Holocaust, and Slavery in America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.Sirlin, Rhoda. William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice”: Crime and Self-Punishment. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1990.Styron, William. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. New York: Random House, 1990.Vice, Sue. Holocaust Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2000.West, James L. W., III. William Styron: A Life. New York: Random House, 1998.
Categories: Places