Sophie’s Choice

ISBN: 0553209671
ISBN 13: 9780553209679
By: William Styron

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About this book

In this ambitious bestseller (made into a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep), Styron tells of a young Southerner who wants to become a writer; of the turbulent love-hate affair between a brilliant Jew and a beautiful Polish woman; and of an awful wound in the woman's past, one that impels Sophie toward destruction.

Reader's Thoughts


I read the last pages of this book in a bowling alley, humanity in its finest clinging to the ending of this book as surely as the overpowering cigarette smoke did.I can't help but think that this may be one of the best ways to finish this particular book, so fraught with the question of humanity as it is. A terrible sense of aloneness pervades this book, and I can't help but think that being surrounded by drinking, cursing men and women in bowling shoes really concentrated that lonelinesss for me.This book is a great one. Sure, if you are easily offended by sex or profanity, you want to pass this one by. If you are looking for a quick pick me up, then you should probably wait until next weekend to start turning the pages in this one. But, if you are at all interested in what it means to be confronted by the uttermost despair and the aftermath (dear god, the aftermath), then do yourself a favor and read this book.Styron's writing, humor, and gentle Southerness are all up to par in this one, folks. Read it and enjoy it.


This book is the most well-written and most beautifully written that I have ever read. It's worth reading just for the prose and for the flawless vocabulary. Every word that Styron uses is the PERFECT word - nothing express his meaning better than the word he selects. I had to look up a word I didn't know just about every page, and I'd like to think that my vocabulary isn't too shabby!While it's worth reading just for the writing, the story takes the book to the next level (I hate myself a little for using a cliche when reviewing Styron, but it's all I can come up with right now). It's gripping. It's moving. It's also the saddest books I've ever read.Read it, but come armed with the biggest dictionary you can find and a Costco-sized supply of Kleenex. Don't say I didn't warn you. But seriously, go read it.


Read in the early eighties, this was a book that affected me in a profound, deeply personal way. Styron, along with so many authors of his generation, were the guides of the map that charted the course of a winding, long path. I found myself to be one of the willing seekers to their grail, inhaling all as I followed along. There I was, traipsing, skipping, meandering, flying, all the while, reading words into song, and these were from the Masters, these Mozart's and Beethoven's and Liszt's of STORY, they being ones I thought Immortal, crafting words into song that began with premise, then hit that high note, thus fulfilling their promise of a story sung to it's ultimate completion. Note: This is me making reflections as I am now, at fifty, looking back at the me I was then, at twenty: To me, these sung words of story were not only akin to but actually WERE *better* than opera—Uris, Mailer, Heller, Roth, Oates, Irving, Hemingway—I could go on, naming, forever and a day.William Styron was a part of this group. Giants, all of them. This is one book *not the movie* the book, all readers should read.If you find yourself sitting on the fence regarding THIS MASTERPIECE or this is one that you have been considering; yet still, there you sit atop that fence, holding back for whatever inconceivable reason, here's my attempt to tempt with a slight curve into coercion, call it a shade of persuasion when I say please —consider this:SOPHIE'S CHOICEWas Awarded The Pulitzer PrizeWas Awarded The National Book Award Is On The Guardian's 1,000 Novels Everyone Must Read (Annotated List)Is 82 On Le Monde's 100 Books Of The Century (Annotated List)Is 56 in Best English Language Fiction Of The 20th Century (Annotated List)Is 92 In Modern Library's 100 Best Novels: The Boards List (Annotated List)A Must Read imho


So, here's a snippet of the book."Call me Stingo, which was the nickname I was known by in those days, if I was called anything at all. The name derives from my prep-school days down in my native state of Virginia. This school was a pleasant institution to which I was sent at fourteen by my distraught father, who found me difficult to handle after my mother died. Among my other disheveled qualities was apparently an inattention to personal hygiene, hence I soon became known as Stinky. But the years passed. The abrasive labor of time, together with a radical change of habits (I was in fact shamed into becoming almost obsessively clean), gradually wore down the harsh syllabic brusqueness of the name, slurring off into the more attractive, or less unattractive, certainly sportier Stingo. Sometime during my thirties the nickname and I mysteriously parted company, Stingo merely evaporating like a wan ghost out of my existence, leaving me indifferent to the loss. But Stingo I still was during this time about which I write. If, however, it is perplexing that the name is absent from the earlier part of this narrative, it may be understood that I am describing a morbid and solitary period in my life when, like the crazy hermit in the cave on the hill, I was rarely called by any name at all."The writing's just appalling. I don't care if it's supposed to be ironic or intended to echo Great Expectations, but I can't keep slogging through this. Stopped on page 15.


"The most profound statement about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response. The query: 'At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?' And the answer: 'Where was man?'"This has been one of the richest reading experiences of my life. Sophie's Choice is an ambitious book - it tells at least three stories, all interwoven so that you get a bit of each at the appropriate time and to greatest effect. It's philosophical - it's about the depths of evil, it's about love and death, it's about sex, great literature, sanity, etc. It's intensely sad, but not melodramatically. It's a Holocaust book, but better than Schindler's List or Elie Weisel, because Styron doesn't ask how man could be so evil or how God could let it happen. Because Styron knows that God was not there. And neither was man.


When I finally finished reading this book, I gave it two stars. I am amending that to three. I liked it more than I thought that it was just okay. My initial two stars was mostly because I was just worn out from reading it, having to continually stop and look up all of the words that I did not know. That is not a bad thing for me, most of the time, but let me tell you, there were lots of words in this book to look up. LOTS! I could figure out the meaning, from the contents what most of them meant, but some were just so unknown for me. There were books and authors and music pieces and places mentioned throughout the story that I stopped and looked up too. The great thing about reading today is the access to the internet for all of it. There are You Tube videos of people singing and orchestras playing the music. Photos and encyclopedia entries are available to view all of the places and books and people mentioned. And then there was the story. It is an emotional story. There were parts that I was not sure I wanted to know about. There were events and people that were not nice. There were words that were uncomfortable to read. There were several very un-expected topics that I had never seen mentioned in any of the brief summaries that I had read. There were a few things even, that were funny – to me, at least. It was sad and shocking and I was glad it was over at the end.I did not do a lot of research into the story before I sat down to read it. I like to find things out for myself. This is what I enjoy about reading. I do not want to know everything about what is going to happen before I get there. I was not disappointed. I was annoyed with the author at times. There were things I felt that he could have left out, and much of it that I thought that he could have told differently. It was not my story to tell though – only mine to read. I did and I am glad.


Even if Styron had written nothing else, Sophie’s Choice would assure him a competitive head-start as the true inheritor of Faulkner’s mad, moral explorations. Not as ambitious or explosive as The Confessions of Nat Turner, in Sophie’s Choice Styron spins outward from his central moral dilemma to painfully and artfully explore the legacy of slavery on the southern white soul, the hilarity and tragedy of lust and longing, and a great, fearful, and hopeful wondering on the healing power of time and the possible unforgiving tattoo of memory. Powerfully moral, never moralizing, often mercifully funny, this is one of American literature’s great books.


** spoiler alert ** Honestly? I hated this book. Good story, horrible book. If your thing is that you're going to be gross about sex because it's relevant to the time period, or characters, or story, then fine, go ahead and do it. But to be gross and include sexually explicit content just because you can, that's just stupid. If this book had been just about Sophie, and even included some of her sex experiences, that would have been fine. But the book should have really been called: I'm a perv, and here's some stuff about a girl in WWII. The author wasn't gross about sex because that's how it was in the concentration camps, he was just gross about sex for the hell of it. I don't need to know about the narrator's sex life and/or every impure thought, most of which are not relevant to the story. Oh, and almost most of the Nazi's sexual histories/fantasies. Because who they want to sleep with is relevant to why they're being assholes I guess (not). Why in the world do you have something about peeing in someone's mouth?? It's absolutely disgusting and absolutely irrelevant! And another thing: How weak do you think women really are? Sophie was supposedly raped or almost raped, what, 3 or 4 times? One by a finger in a subway? You think we just stand there with our legs open? Another by a maid, who supposedly eats out Sophie in a hall closet. You don't think she could have done one thing to prevent that from happening? Like, I don't know, keep your legs closed and push her away??? All that, and she still just sleeps with the narrator, despite how in love she is with her psycho boyfriend. Oh my God, this book was just so inappropriate. And it's a pretty convenient trick to create a character that just lies all the time. You can change your entire history of events by just saying "Oh, I lied about that." You can change just about anything halfway through the book, for that matter. "Oh, I forgot to tell you..." I'm not sure if I've ever said this, but the movie was way better, and much MUCH more tastefully done. I watched it when I was halfway through the book because I wanted to see what happened to Sophie, but really didn't feel like reading the rest of it. I will never recommend this book to anyone. He tries to use a lot of pretty, big words, but you can't use them to disguise horrible writing.

Monty Merrick

It seems a lot of people have a problem with the prose being pretentious and overwritten. However, I had a big problem with the unfolding of the plot. This was a strange book for me because I really wanted to like it and even thought I liked it after I was finished. It took me about a week to think back and realize, Wait! That was a crappy book. Problem number 1: I personally found Sophie to be an unbeleivable character. I just thought she was not-fascinating and contradictory, like, not in the way people are in real life. I'll spare you the tedium of elaborating. You can take my word for it or not but the worst is yet to come.Personally, I found Nathan to be a very realistic, frightening character. I know people like him in real life. But, Problem number 2: Styron tells this story from the first-person perspective of someone who has already gathered all the information, heard everyone's side of the story and studied World War Two. In other words, he seems to be telling the story in the wrong form. There are a lot of flashbacks and "Sophie's Choice" isn't revealed to us until the rest of the present-time turmoil is underway as well. As a reader, I've never felt more manipulated. The narrator, Stingo, reveals stuff little by little but only in a way that is sure to make everything more meladramatic and painful. It seems done not to prove a point but to give the book some tragic affect though it comes off beyond contrived. Not only did I feel manipulated, but I just didn't seem realistic how much information Stingo knew about Sophie, no matter how close they were. I'm not just talking about personal information, because we all have friends who tell us personal things but he tells parts of Sophie's story as though he were inside her head. It just felt like a huge narrative mistake ... more something to be expected of a book with an unreliable narrator, though we're supposed to put our full trust and faith in this narrator.Problem 3: It feels like Styron was trying to make a book that studied too many subjects at once. It's okay to tackle multiple subjects, but he doesn't handle any of them. He's trying to study psychosis and addiction, death, life, war, peace, prison camps, nazi mentality, anti-semitism, growing up, sexuality, sexuality, more sexuality wrapped into every other subject until it doesn't make any coherent sense anymore. I only decided to read this after Lie Down in Darkness which is infinitely better. I'm surprised that this is considered a great American novel and would never recommend it.

Moses Kilolo

First, I liked everything about this book: Stingo, Nathan, & Sophie.And the way everything that went down in Auschwitz is narrated here is very heartbreaking, just as is the relationship between Nathan and Sophie. But the question that resounds, as Styron asks, is: At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God. Well, we may blame God as much as we wish, or even do as Sophie did and say 'FUCK God and all his Hande Werk.' Or resolve to the thought that stuff like Auschwitz makes us lose faith in humanity, and hate life and Him... as Sophie did. But again comes Styron's response; At Auschwitz, where was man?This is a book that provides a heartfelt account of one of histories darkest era, as well as what such happening do to people, even after so many years. Such Damage, I think, at times, if not most, or always, may as well be permanent. Possibly, if Sophie survived it, she did not survive the damage caused, the loss suffered, the pain in the memory, of Jan, of Eva, of what could have been and never will...

Russell Bittner

When I read and reviewed Set This House on Fire at the end of last March, I suggested I wouldn’t abandon Styron until I’d given Sophie’s Choice a fair chance.I just have.In spite of the obvious appeal of this novel — not to mention the brilliant choice of Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol to play the principal characters in its cinematic interpretation — I found some of the same flaws in it that I’d found in Set This House on Fire. To quote from my previous review: “there are certainly moments and entire passages that let a reader understand why Styron has the reputation he has. But these are too few and far between.”Styron is a stylist — and a consummate one. He’s also a consummate story-teller. But where is his editor? There are moments when Sophie sounds authentically like the non-native English speaker she is. But then, there are others when Styron would seem to have forgotten whose mouth he’s in.But let’s give the man his due. The scene from which this novel takes its title is even more gut-wrenching than Meryl Streep’s portrayal of it on the silver screen. And the prose leading up to it had already put me in a distinctly apocalyptic mood — this, although I was reading it on a quiet grassy knoll on the second day of a resplendent summer.William Styron can write; make no mistake about it. He just needs to rein in a bit when he’s on a roll. He (or a good editor) could’ve done away with a hundred pages of this novel — and it would’ve been perfect.Why, then, only four stars when I might give five to a far less well-known, far less practiced writer? Because I hold writers like William Styron to a higher standard.RRB6/23/13Brooklyn, NY

David Hughes

Nathan is brilliant, quite mad, and deeply in love with Sophie, the tortured Polish survivor of Auschwitz. Stingo, the young narrator and aspiring novelist from the South, travels to Brooklyn where he immediately falls under the couple's spell. The development of the story is the unraveling and sorting out among the lies and the truth of these two enigmatic people. Nathan loves Sophie but cannot control his need to punish her for the Gentile sins against the Jewish race. Sophie, consumed with guilt, accepts both Nathan's intense love and hatred because she needs and deserves it. Stingo falls in love with them both and struggles to save them from themselves and each other. The first time I read this book, I kept a dictionary nearby and referred to it frequently. The power of the prose matches the power of the story where we meet two unforgettable characters in Nathan and Sophie.An interesting anecdote about this great novel is that Gabriel Garcia Marquez recommended it to Fidel Castro who enjoyed it so much that he invited Styron to visit Cuba, an invitation Styron declined. Although it is impossible to say, pin me down, and I might declare this the finest novel I have ever read.

Nathan Oates

I read this book at Amy's prompting and found it one of the most complex reading experiences of my life. At times, I hated this book: the elaborate, excessive prose style, the occasional and hideous homophobia (not excusable by it's placement in the consciousness of the character, in my opinion), the adolescent attitude toward women and sex (again, not excusable) and yet, despite all these moments of frustration, this is an immense and beautiful and even great novel. The writing about the holocaust is riveting, horrifying and heartbreaking (I felt like vomitting from horror once or twice, felt my stomach clenching many times). It is extremely rare to find a book that manages to evoke such a complex of emotions and responses over the course of 550 pages, and this is the book's triumph: even as it is about violence, despair, terror, madness and death, it contains more life, more beauty, more love and emotion than almost any book I have ever read. All it's flaws (and there are many) merely add to the complexity of the characters, the style, the subject. Contemporary writers should look to this book for evidence of the capacities of the novel to engage with life in all its muddled, vicious evil and find a way to make beauty from it.

Klint Kratzer

Sophie's Choice is such a rich novel, tying together three scenes and stories. From the bucolic Virginia countryside, through the streets of 1940s NYC and the journey of the protagonist into and out of the perdition of Auschwitz, Styron re-enters the defining moment of the century in the nascent epi-center of Western culture (NYC). This novel will make you cry with laughter and sorrow.It is, overall, the journey of one woman on her final sojourn towards life- it is a tale of things that are worse than death. And yet it left me hopeful, respectful of the horrors I have not had to witness. It is an excellent entry into the canon of the Southern Gothic, while reminiscent of Styron's first novel's (Lie Down in Darkness) depiction of New York City. The images of political struggles in Poland under Nazi occupation are unique and inspiring.As someone who has lived in both the South and Poland, I found Styron's writing, simply put, precise. The fluidity to traverse the polemics of the world (antisemitism in Europe, slavery in America) make Styron one of the greats. Having finished reading all of Styon's major works, Sophie's Choice stands out, unparalleled. I would definitely recommend reading Lie Down in Darkness first!


It is difficult to describe, in these few lines, the emotions felt when reading such a work. The scope and the grandeur are beyond limit. However, at times, the book does seem a little bloated, especially in its pseudo-erotic scenes.However, when touching upon the Holocaust, it is difficult to argue or consider any passages as overreaching or unnecessary. In this, "Sophie's Choice" remains a document to be cherished and admired.It is the character of Nathan Landau that remains a little contentious. While Mr. Styron tries to make him somewhat grotesque there is an underlying sympathy. Perhaps Styron's sympathy is with the mentally ill and not this character per se.As for Sophie, I cannot argue with Styron's depiction as I have never met a survivior and, while I find the character somewhat unbelievable, who am I to argue? How a human being put under such stress (in this, she is wholly believable) would turn out is difficult to answer.Stingo is the fulcrum of the story and if we remember 22, his is the most identifiable character -- the most universal.All in all, "Sophie's Choice" remains a text to be read and kept as a record of a period in American history (World history, for that matter) that should be preserved for its optimism and horror at the same time. I imagine that the period post-WWII was one of optimism in that the Nazi regime had been defeated, but one of horror for what was allowed to happen. This dual feeling must have left all feeling a little frenetic and hoping to distance themselves from those very recent events. Styron's novel evokes this frenzy perfectly.

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