Chapter 5

Melodrama

William Styron, Sophie's Choice

William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice was published in 1979, just after the broadcast of the television series Holocaust in the United States at a time when the ethics of representing the subject were making headlines. Sophie's Choice was greeted by a mixture of acclaim and outrage. Styron repeatedly notes in interviews that at least the critical controversy was never as fierce as that which greeted the publication of his earlier novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1966), typified by the appearance of a volume called William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. 1 On the publication of Sophie's Choice Styron breezily observed that had he got the facts wrong about Auschwitz, 'Rabbis, Poles, exNazis-they'll all be after my hide', and added that at least he never had to 'dodge the assault' of a book called 'Ten Rabbis Respond' to Sophie's Choice. The novel stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for over forty weeks and won the American Book Award for fiction in 1980. 2 However, Styron did have to 'dodge the assault' by critics incensed that he had written a novel purportedly about the Holocaust, an event with which he was not only unconnected but which focuses on a Polish Catholic and not a Jewish victim. It was pointed out that his narrator (and therefore, in several minds, Styron) inaccurately likens plantation to Nazi slavery; that all the Jewish and female characters in the novel are either sexually dysfunctional or mad; and that the novel was allegedly motivated by a literary rivalry between Southern and Jewish-American writers in which Styron was trying to prove he could engage with the subjects usually considered the province of the latter. 3

Sophie's Choice is narrated by a nameless, middle-aged author recalling his 22-year-old self, then nicknamed Stingo. In the summer of 1947 the struggling writer Stingo meets the Polish Sophie and her lover Nathan in Brooklyn, and becomes attached to them both: he reveres Nathan and falls in love with Sophie. Sophie's relationship with Nathan is unstable and during their intermittent separations she tells her wartime tale to Stingo: she was arrested in Cracow in 1943 for smuggling and spent the next twenty months in Auschwitz. Her story emerges fitfully and painfully with retellings of salient points. When things go badly between Sophie and Nathan, after Stingo learns that Nathan is mentally ill and has lied about his job as a scientific researcher, he persuades Sophie to flee

-117-

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Holocaust Fiction
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter 1 - Formal Matters 11
  • Chapter 2 - Documentary Fiction 38
  • Chapter 3 - Autobiographical Fiction 67
  • Chapter 4 - Faction 90
  • Chapter 5 - Melodrama 117
  • Chapter 6 - Historical Polemic 141
  • Conclusion 161
  • Notes 168
  • Bibliography 229
  • Index 233
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