Modern Library Revue: #96 Sophie’s Choice

December 30, 2010 | 3 books mentioned 19 4 min read

coverSophie’s Choice is a sensational novel.  I do not mean sensational in the strictly complimentary sense.  Yes, this novel is a barnstormer.  But when I think sensational also think tawdry, exploitative of our baser emotions.

I think the storyline has percolated pretty well through the American cultural consciousness; I hadn’t read the novel until this year, but I knew of the titular choice.  Without giving it all away to the uninitiated, the novel is about a love triangle in Brooklyn in 1947: Stingo the callow Southerner, Nathan the manic Jew, and Sophie the beautiful Pole–a Holocaust survivor (and a Catholic).

I loved the first chapter of Sophie’s Choice, wonderful first-person stuff about a young Virginian trying to make it in the big city.  I had just finished The Moviegoer, and I was thinking this was kind of like The Moviegoer goes to New York.  I do, on occasion, love the self-deprecating, over-educated, over-sexed men of literature.  It would be downright un-American not to–they are the majority of our modern literary output.

I stayed up well past my bedtime to finish Sophie’s Choice.  I read its 500 pages in a day and a half.  I was gripped, to be sure; I laughed, cried, and so forth.  How could I not cry?  It’s about the Holocaust.

But upon completing the novel and reflecting a bit, I felt a little sleazy about the whole thing.  It’s not just about the Holocaust, for starters.  There are two main narratives at work in this sad and sensational story: Sophie’s Auschwitz horrors, and Stingo’s penile travails.  Yes–Sophie’s Choice is a My Dick novel par excellence.  These two narratives trot along side by side until the final chapter, when they converge in a seedy hotel room in Washington.  In this chapter Sophie reveals her horrible choice, and Stingo, hitherto afflicted with virginity, finally gets relief for his long-suffering member.

And what relief!  “The stiff prick slid in and out of that incandescent tunnel…Smothering for minute after minute in her moist mossy cunt’s undulant swamp.”  I’m not a prude; I think there should be sex in novels.  However, while I’m not certain how it is best achieved on the page, I feel quite certain that “mossy cunt” and “undulant swamp” are not the ideal epithets.  I mean, Jesus.  Also, it’s just so cheesy–the release of her secrets, the release of his orgasm.  It reminded me of the supremely ill-advised end of the film Munich, where the scenes of the athletes being shot to death alternate with scenes of Eric Bana in his sexual extremis.

I don’t wish to discount the agonizing reality of youth’s frustrated desire, or of our collective tortured relationship with sex–a vivid demonstration of the expression “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

I also know it’s a trope: young, inexperienced man taken in hand by a foxy, damaged older woman–his life changed forever.  I’ve read about it, notably in A Widow for One Year (which takes a fair number out of pages of Styron‘s book, I think).

It just strikes me as a shame that Sophie has to go to Auschwitz, and then come to America and get raped on the subway, and then get beat up and peed on by her unhinged boyfriend, and all the time her pal Stingo gives her his sympathy and his friendship and his stupendous boner.

Sophie’s walking up the stairs, down the stairs, to the Maple Court bar, carrying this immense sadness, and she’s also this walking amalgam of melons, peaches, hams.  She’s food, for God’s sake.  The “former starveling” with a residual iron deficiency, has got an ass like a “fantastic, prize-winning pear.”  I suspect that there are classier ways to express the ubiquity and complexity of sex in human experience.  Through Stingo’s narrative, we can’t help but see Sophie making her blonde, luscious way through the concentration camp, surrounded by leering lesbians and grabby third-reichers.

I am not insensible to the way that sex is tied up in everything.  I know we can’t put sex things in one box  (ahem) and our horrors and sadness into another.  And it’s on the record that William Styron was not insensible to Sophie’s uncomfortable position as a veritable grocery store of feminine delights.  Maybe he did want to leave us thinking about the razor’s edge that separates good, healthy libidinousness from the cold, rapey world.

Still, in detailing Sophie’s bottom, and Stingo’s youthful urges, and the confused role he played in the tragedy of it all, I’m not entirely sure if the novelist is aware of how grotesque it sometimes comes across. I’m not saying Stingo is implicated in her ruin or anything.  He’s not a Nazi; he’s a kid with a conscience and a boner.  I get it.  It’s not wrong to have a boner.  It’s just that the juxtaposition of elements in this story is such that, sometimes, it serves neither Styron’s art nor the gravity of his subject.

I said  the novel was a barnstormer and I meant it.  It’s an engaging read.  I think the primary reason I’m hung up on all the boner stuff is that stupid ending, which really drove home the fact that half the book was about said boner.  Maybe if Sophie’s big finale hadn’t started with that mossy swampy coitus, I wouldn’t be left musing on her pear-like posterior and how much Stingo wanted to squeeze it.  Maybe then I would be be thinking more about Sophie’s horrible choice, which was probably some real woman’s choice.  But then it wouldn’t have been so sensational, I guess.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. I know what you mean about Sophie’s Choice. But I find I have the same feeling when re-reading a lot of novels written during the period. Sometimes the classics lose their glow. And it causes me to wonder what all the initial fuss was about.

  2. I was in my early 20s when the book came out, and I was wowed by it and by the movie starring Meryl Streep. At the time I identified w/ Stingo, who was about my age. Now, it all seems melodramatic and adolescent and silly. The book might work if Styron wasn’t trying to make the reader identify so closely w/ Stingo, if he made clear what a selfish, childish person his protagonist is.

  3. Dreezer, I agree that more separation would have really helped things along. As it stands you can hardly tell the distance between young Stingo and middle-aged Stingo, which sort of defeats the purpose of having the age frame.

    Elle, I’ve had the same thought about books of that period. From some reason relatively young thirty-year-old novels often creak in a way that older novels don’t. I’m sure there’s an explanation, I just don’t know what it is.

  4. @Lydia Kiesling: I am so glad you mentioned the point about the “thirty-year-old novels” lacking staying power. I have been pondering the reason myself since I read your blog post, and it is driving me crazy. We need a lit crit expert.

  5. Give it a rest, Lydia. This whole My Dick thing of yours is stale. You must have noticed there’s a new generation of us younger feminists coming up who don’t get our panties in such a twist over guys talking about their sexual thoughts, since we’re pretty open about our own sexual thoughts too. Hard to see what’s so wrong with Styron giving us an honest sense of what Stingo would have been thinking. I mean, seriously, how would you feel about a male critic who told us not to take Mary McCarthy seriously because she’s a My Pussy novelist who writes openly about female desire in “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt”? Or that we shouldn’t bother with an older Joyce Carol Oates novel like YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS because Oates combines the novel’s tragic qualities with her obvious sexual attraction to the story’s hard-bodied boxer? It’s disappointing how your generation is still so hung up on male sexuality that you can’t even hear guys being honest about their horniness without turning all moralistic and condescending towards them. You say you’re in favor of honest acknowledgment of sexuality, but when you write about actual examples of male authors doing this you tend to be fairly savage in condemning them for it, the way you did with DELIVERANCE recently. It’s a cheap ploy on your part, and I’m calling you on it. This boner fetish is yours, not the authors’ your criticizing, and the proof of it is your complete lack of any sense of proportion on the issue. You basically chucked all of DELIVERANCE because of some character comments about their dissatisfaction with their aging wives (are wives never similarly dissatisfied with their aging husbands?) and with SOPHIE’S CHOICE you make the factually absurd statement that “half the book” was about Stingo’s boner. (My memory is that Styron puts at least as much time into talking about Stingo’s literary and publishing experiences, and into many other youthful experiences, as he does into the guy’s perfectly understandable obsession with losing his virginity.) And surely it’s an indication of how your bias warps your criticism that you can’t see how one of the main themes in Styron’s novel is the disorienting disjunction between Stingo’s deliberately mundane youthful experiences and the nightmarish experiences of Sophie — a disjunction that not only explains but requires the contrast that you weirdly insist Styron has no idea he is creating.

  6. Emma, I appreciate your youthful perspective. Being an elderly 26, it’s hard for me to keep up with all the new ideas percolating. Female desire!! I don’t believe it.

    I’m a little offended that you prescribe me with a sex problem of my own, but I guess you must be offended too, otherwise you wouldn’t go there. Talking about my purported boner fetish, I’ll say this: there are masterful male writers who write at length, often in rugged language, about sex and sexual desire and hey, outright misogyny, whom I love or admire. Off the top of my head: Amis Sr., Amis Jr., Henry Miller, Bellow, Joyce, Fowles, Flaubert, Roth, Irving, Sharpe, Salter (cf. Sonya Chung on this site), Lawrence. Pynchon. Jonathan effing Franzen.

    Deliverance, in my humblest, is not a good novel, not because it talks frankly about male sexuality and is, like, un-feminist, but because it is written in a style that I find hackneyed. Sophie’s Choice, again in my humblest, is stylistically a much better novel. Still, like Dickey, Styron–despite his obvious structural attempt to create, as you say, a disjunction–is unsuccessful in creating that disjunction. The vision was there, to be sure, but I don’t think it had the intended effect.

    When I was writing this essay, I anticipated I might get a reaction along your lines, and I worried that perhaps my assessment of the novel was, in fact, overblown (although I didn’t realize it was because I had a problem with male sexuality–thanks for clearing that up). At any rate, I was curious about critical/scholarly reaction so I took to J-STOR. Although it’s probable that some of the articles I came across, which made me feel my reaction was legitimate, were also written by repressed ladies with panties a-twist, at least I know I’m not alone. (And to quibble with your quibble, I’m not going to count pages, but I can basically guarantee you that Stingo’s sexual efforts take up a much greater section of this novel than do his literary efforts.)

    Finally, I don’t know whatever wave of feminism this puts me in, but I don’t think female desire, which has ever been a thing to be hidden or cut off or grotesquely manipulated to suit patriarchal needs, can possibly be compared to society’s, generally speaking, untrammeled celebration of male sexuality. It’s a false equivalence to talk of “My Pussy” novels. I am not good enough at this sort of debate to attempt to elucidate my entire feminist cosmology, so I won’t do it. But to speak to the example you give, if a male critic said what I’m saying, he wouldn’t be saying what I’m saying.

    Basically, we should look critically at literature, whatever genitals are involved, which is what I think I do. You don’t think so, and that’s okay. Thanks for reading all the same.

  7. For someone who oddly claims I don’t believe we should look critically at literature, you’re awfully huffy about me being offended by yours. Obviously I have no problem with criticizing bad writing, but I think your response to my post indicates how little perspective you have on this issue. Really, I was no more personal in criticizing your sexual viewpoint than you regularly are in criticizing the viewpoints of the authors you write about, and you still don’t seem to get it.

    Your revised justification of your attack on DELIVERANCE has little in common with the review you actually wrote, and the fact that a few other writers have made the same mistaken interpretation of SOPHIE’S CHOICE as you’ve made doesn’t excuse your own mistake. Actually, I think you’re taking very personally comments that I meant to be directed more generally at your generation of critics. (And, no, it’s not a surprise for me that you’re 26, I would have guessed that you were 27. I’m 18, and I do think there’s a difference in the way many people my age view these things and the way you do.)

    I do to have to point out that you actually concede the correctness of my criticism of your review by the way you attempt to rewrite your original post. You now say that Styron was making “an obvious attempt to create, as you say, a structural disjunction.” In the original post, however, the most you can say on this is that “maybe” he was up to something along these lines, and you doubt that he really knew what the effect of it was. My criticism of your reviews, after all, wasn’t that you’re completely wrong but that you were making very coarse and very broad overstatements on issues where the authors were being a lot more subtle and self-aware in their writing than you were willing to give them credit for being. Nothing in your response to me has given me any reason to change my opinion.

    This, by the way, was the purpose of the “My Pussy / My Prick” comparison, not that the two terms were equivalent but that a male critic writing along these lines would be just as guilty of lack of subtlety as you are. Your attempt to coarsen my own comments and to rewrite yours shows that this is a problem you should really work on in the future. And to quibble with your quibble about my quibble, I didn’t say “Stingo’s literary efforts” but his literary, publishing and many other youthful experiences, which do take up quite a bit more of the book than his sexual thoughts do. I can’t help thinking that your snarky misreading of my sentence is typical of your snarky misreading of Styron generally.

  8. Nowhere do I accuse you of not believing we should look critically at literature.

    Look, we don’t agree. I haven’t convinced you that I’m not a misreader, moralizer, and coarsener, and you haven’t convinced me that my reactions to this book were invalid. You also haven’t convinced me that you’ve read this particular book in the very recent past. All I have learned from this exchange is that you are 18, literate, feisty, and kind of a pain in the ass.

    If you don’t understand why the tone of your first (and subsequent) comment was huff-inducing and thus unlikely to foster constructive dialogue, that’s maybe something you should take your own condescending advice on and “really work on in the future.”

    Taking my ball and going home now.

  9. If you really can’t see how sweepingly condemnatory you become when talking about the “My Penis” topic, you’re not making much of an effort.

  10. What I found most unsatisfactory about Styron’s novel is that the two main characters are so woefully mismatched. Each might have worked with a different partner in a different book, but young guy on the make in the big city yoked with older Holocaust survivor/mother is so out of balance there’s no way I could accept them as equals in fulfilling the author ‘ s purpose. Sophie has mature grief and burdens that Stingo can’t possibly share or understand. He’s a bundle of youthful energy and selfishness that she has long outgrown. On a human level, I just didn’t buy it.

    Thanks for revisiting this novel.

  11. Absolutely amazing work from Emma Barton there… going in guns blazing and accusing a fairly even-handed review from a 26 year-old as being the condemnatory work of an old crone. It’s probably a bit silly of her showing herself to be motivated by some unmotivated, ill-informed and unjustified hostility when responding to a review of a holocaust novel, but then that’s her game.

    Anyhow, I’m all in favour of Kiesling’s reservations about the clunky sex of Sophie’s Choice. The same issue often irks me when dealing with sex in poetry, an idea touched upon briefly in this article:

  12. Kudos to Emma Barton for her spunk and pluck. I wouldn’t trust an 18-year-old who didn’t know how to upset people with the fierceness of her opinions.

    But fierceness is one thing, and intelligence is another, and Barton makes some good points that should be taken seriously. Styron planned the mismatch between Stingo and Sophie deliberately, since he wanted to avoid the trap in writing about the Holocaust of pretending to be closer to the horror than he actually was. He could have easily written a conventionally satisfying novel by making Stingo a Holocaust survivor himself, or through the current favourite trick of making his character a victim of child abuse or some other sympathy-inducing personal tragedy. Styron, however, made the more honest decision to come up with a narrator as blessed with good luck as Sophie was cursed with bad luck; the contrast between them is quite intentional, and is meant to make us uncomfortable, as it forces most readers to admit that most of us hold a similarly fortunate position in relation to the Holocaust.

    Some readers, however, simply don’t want to confess to themselves that their lives are just as frivolous next to Sophie’s life as Stingo’s is. They take the understandable but I feel rather hasty path of rejecting him as immature, as if they had never been naive young people in their own fashion, and as if Stingo’s naivete weren’t an excellent emblem of the relative naivete of the United States as a whole in relation to the Holocaust.

    In one of the book’s most important passages, Stingo talks about his obsession with the way that different people in different places can be going through completely different experiences; he can’t get over the contrast between the lightness of his existence and the darkness of other people’s existence. The theme saturates the novel, and I for one found that the jarring difference between Stingo’s American comedy and Sophie’s European tragedy added much fascination to the story.

    Sophie’s Choice isn’t a great novel, I feel, merely a good one, but Styron’s construction of Stingo is an intriguing attempt to step beyond the typical American young-man-coming-of-age story. We find Stingo’s youthful concerns problematic because Styron has intentionally made them problematic. Barton was smart to bring this up.

  13. I don’t disagree with you, Ranjani. I think it’s clear that Stingo is supposed to inhabit the role you describe and then some; after all, he’s also written as the unwitting inheritor (literally and figuratively) of America’s own terrible event.

    I don’t think my remarks about Stingo’s sexual odyssey preclude the reading that you suggest, but perhaps I should have made it more explicit in my revue that I understand, or think I understand, what Styron was going for.

    Thanks for your comment.

  14. Ah, how nice to be reminded that no-one does self-righteousness quite like an 18-year-old gripped by an idea. Emma, seriously, if you keep going like this you’ll wear yourself right out, love.

    Lydia – The Moviegoer – now there’s an interesting book. I’d be curious about your take on it. Honestly, I was a little disappointed, but I think I need to read it again.

  15. I’m about 50 pages from finishing Sophie’s Choice for the first (and, most likely, last) time. I too read it in bursts – not the 500 page marathon of yours, Lydia; mostly 100+ spurts. And while I agree it’s a fine book, it’s one of those mid-century realist novels I tend to avoid. The main triangle of characters are wonderfully compelling (and Stingo’s father ranks as one of those classic supporting-role characters of witty intelligence, slightly clownish while being somewhat grave). It’s when Styron unravels the details of Sophie’s and Stingo’s lives and the too-obvious parallels and metaphors just bring back memories of my freshman English teacher pedantically pointing out character foils, or the triangular structure of narrative, or what an unreliable narrator is. You’re right, though. It’s a barnstormer. Subtlety isn’t its goal.

    If I were grading this book, I’d give it a B-. It’s well written, compelling elements can carry you along brilliantly (Chapter 12, I believe, when Styron describes Nathan’s coked out bender in fragmented snippets), can get overshadowed in an instant with predictably “literary” conceits.

  16. Sorry to continue on, but thinking about Sophie’s Choice more, I’d say it’s one of those perfect AP-Lit class books for Juniors or Seniors. It’s a Big Issue novel that wears its these-are-the-elements-of-literature style on its sleeve. If it weren’t for its density and its frank four-letter sexuality, it’d be assigned after the Great Gatsby and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

  17. Hi Lydia. I realize I’m a little late to the game, but I’ve just finished the novel and found a lot of what you have to say helpful. I can think of some things that perhaps a creative writing workshop might say, and which I agree, which is that I really think fiction has an obligation in some ways to pave a path for morality (whatever the hell that means). And so when writing about a particular viewpoint or worldview that may be childish, sexist, objectifying, misogynistic, I think the author can find ways to undercut material and offer a sort of “guiding hand” in how the reader is supposed to interpret the material (not to condemn Stingo for being like some young men I know, and in that particular timeframe, or having sexual desires, but his objectification of Sophie and of women in general, his talk about “cock teasers,” his lack of sympathy for some of the women, like the one who tells him about her troubles and he gets bored and just wants to sleep, feel real. Or perhaps accurate. But I think Styron could have taken some measures to find ways to undercut it. And I have to say, like the fact that this is an older narrator looking back made me cringe a little bit, becuase in no way does that narrator provide a steady hand or become a guide in a way which would help me put what I’m reading in a context. Also, I think the retrospect works to shape the totality of an experience in a way which is more comprehensible. The narrator knows the beginning, middle, and end of this passage of his life, as well as who Sophie really is. But in all honesty, it sounds like a 23 year old narrator trying to tell the story of his 22 year old self. Which is where I think some of parts of the story fail.

    I also want to say I respect you as an author engaging with your audience in the comments section. I think it’s really easy to just publish one’s thoughts and opinions, and be rinse one’s hands of it.

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