In 1979, author William Styron wrote his sixth and perhaps most well-known novel, Sophie’s Choice. This dark and philosophical work centers around three people in a Brooklyn boarding house and their tangled relationship with each other. Stingo is a Southern aspiring novelist who becomes obsessed with his fellow boarders: Nathan Landau, a genius Jewish-American scientist, and his lover Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish Catholic survivor of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp.
Related: William Styron: A Life in Books
The characters in this novel are viscerally intense, carrying emotional damage that spurs them on to devastating action. The brilliant Nathan suffers from paranoid schizophrenia in secret, causing him to occasionally lash out in violent and delusional ways.
Sophie’s tragedy during the Holocaust is centered around the fact that—spoiler alert—she was forced to choose which of her children would be immediately put to death upon arrival at Auschwitz, a haunting decision that has dragged her into depression and alcoholism. As Stingo has recently been let go from his low-level job at a publishing house, he hopes only to get work in on his first novel—until he begins to fall in love with mysterious and tragic Sophie, who upends his world as he falls into her and Nathan’s twisted orbit.
Sophie’s Choice quickly became a bestselling novel. In 1980, the book won the US National Book Award for Fiction. The acclaim and attention around this epic Styron drama would only continue to skyrocket—until eventually the phrase “Sophie’s choice” would be a common reference in pop culture used for any difficult choice. This is due in part to the feature film of the same name adapted just three years after the novel’s publication in 1982.
The Sophie’s Choice film boasts a stellar cast with Meryl Streep in the role of Sophie, Kevin Kline making his feature film debut as Nathan, and Peter MacNicol rounding out the talent pool as Stingo. While the film was nominated for a slew of awards, it was Streep that left awards season with the most acclaim, winning Best Actress at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes. However, regardless of the lack of awards for the film, this adaptation made its mark on cinema, and in 2006 was named by the American Film Institute as one of best 100 films ever made.
Despite the multi-media success of Sophie’s Choice, William Styron’s striking drama did not come without controversy. Styron was no stranger to his books being banned, and this affecting read—much like his 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner—has been kept out of libraries and curriculum in high schools across the United States. But while American high schools turned their noses up at the work because of its sexual content, the novel was banned in whole countries like South Africa and Poland for the way it framed Styron’s personal views on the Holocaust.
At the time of publication, Communist Poland took issue with the book because of Styron’s brutal portrait of Polish anti-semitism. But critics worldwide have heavily criticized the way Sophie’s Choice pulls focus from the intense and targeted suffering of the Jewish population during the Holocaust.
Historically, the four-year genocidal period of World War II culminated in the deaths of an estimated 6 million European Jews. And while it’s true that the Jewish population weren’t the only ones to fall victim to the atrocities of the Nazi agenda, Styron’s assertion in his novel that the Holocaust was a broader evil intent on the suffering of all people fairly ruffled some feathers.
That Sophie is a Catholic that braved the horrors of Auschwitz isn’t a misstep in and of itself, but Styron uses her barbaric suffering to put forth several troubling claims. Among them is the argument that Christian suffering during the Holocaust should be cause to alleviate all Christian guilt in regards to the event.
In tandem with this, the implications of the novel ignores a long and dark history of worldwide anti-semitism that acted as a catalyst for the horrific events of the Holocaust. Additionally, Styron attempts to equate the suffering of the Holocaust with the suffering of slavery in America—two atrocities in their own right which many believe cannot and should not be compared.
Clearly, Sophie’s Choice is in no way a perfect novel—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have continued value for readers. Despite its flaws, Styron’s drama effectively explores the corrosive effects of suffering, taking readers down the twisted internal paths of desperation, isolation, and depression—themes which Styron’s works are famous for.
Through Stingo’s obsession with Sophie and Sophie’s resignation—or perhaps determination—to implode alongside Nathan, this novel shows the ways in which grief and pain can be a contagious and destructive condition. What’s more, it exemplifies the fact that suffering rarely ends once the physical act of oppression stops, living on in the mental and emotional scars of victims.
Beyond the themes which Styron handles well, there’s also something to be learned from the ways in which Sophie’s Choice has sparked its decades-long controversy. Many refer to Styron’s approach to writing about the suffering of Auschwitz as a revisionist history—a tactic in media which should not be ignored or forgotten. Regardless of Styron’s personal intentions in doing so, he shifted the focus off the group of people the acts of genocide were deliberately aimed at, and it’s important for readers and creators of the future to see the methods and ease with which someone outside of a suffering community can re-frame a traumatic event.
Sophie’s Choice sparks important conversations about the nuance of suffering and the ways in which tragedy should be framed. These are vital conversations to have, and frankly, Sophie’s Choice is an excellent novel for readers to flex their muscles in separating the important and affecting themes in a novel from the sometimes troubling process of the author. Criticism and acclaim can go hand in hand to better a reader’s understanding of the world around them.