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Sophie's choice by William Styron

The book was published 1979. The young American Southerner and aspiring writer, Stingo, moves to a new apartment in Brooklyn, New York, and meets his neighbors Sophie and Nathan, a complex couple. At first, he can’t understand their relationship, but when the story unfolds, Sophie’s past is eventually revealed, and Stingo is beginning to see a bigger picture.

The dysfunctional relationship between Sophie and Nathan can eventually be understood, in a way. What makes Styron’s writing so strong is that he is able to delve into what happens to people after a traumatic experience. Not just any such experience, but that of having being changed forever, having survived a concentration camp. I think Styron portrays very convincingly how Sophie’s soul remained in Auschwitz, and how she is never really free. She is still mentally trapped in Auschwitz and her feelings of guilt and despair never left her. That explains her self-destructive relationship with Nathan. The way she punishes herself for surviving is tragic. It’s as if she needs to remind herself of her past, not being too happy. In a way, Nathan is both her savior and her destroyer. Nathan is as complex as Sophie, not able to accept the fact that he, a jew, was living an normal life in New York and was spared the big suffering of millions. He doesn’t know how to handle that Sophie, not even a jew, was a part of that, and not him.

The theme of sexuality and sexual frustration shows how people are influenced by conventions, religion or some other ideology. During the forties Freud seems to have been very popular, and everyone needed an analyst, which they listened to and obeyed blindly. It’s interesting how people everywhere are objects of indoctrination. In the book it’s the Poles' anti-semitism as well as the American Southerners' former abuse of slaves. People in a society get told what to think and what to do. There’s not much room to think for oneself. The easy way is to buy the concept. The hard way is to widen one's perspective.

The prose is wonderful and flows beautifully. The story feels so convincing and real. The part where Sophie's choice is revealed is very powerful and tremendously tragic.