William Styron's Sophie's Choice is the second of Styron's novels to make it big. Styron enjoyed a small amount of popularity when he published Lie Down in Darkness (1951), The Long March (1953), and Set this House on Fire (1960). These novels won awards including the Academy of Arts and Letters' Prix de Rome for Lie Down in Darkness. Even better than the awards, however, these novels successfully earned the attention of literary critics. When Styron's novel The Confessions of Nat Turner was published in 1967, the critics were waiting. Nat Turner was a controversial novel concerning the revolt of Nat Turner. This novel had great impact and left the United States pondering the state of race relations in the country. Nat Turner enjoyed almost a year on the bestseller list and also won a Pulitzer Prize. This novel made William Styron popular and set a precedence for his novels to come. Contributing to Styron's popularity is the fact that he follows in the footsteps of William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, two of the greatest Southern novelists. Both Faulkner and Warren used the historical novel not only to make a statement about the era, but also to make a statement about history and about the processes of history. Styron also attempted to make a statement about history both with Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice. He is trying to transmit through his own understanding of history, the conciousness of the time. He wanted to transmit a sense of history for our time. As George Core states in his Southern Review, ?.novels of the highest order can still be written in the South."
Sophie's Choice concerns a young man, the narrator, Stingo who moves into a Brookly boarding house. Stingo meets his upstairs neighbor, Sophie, a Polish survivor of Auschwitz, and her lover, Nathan, an American Jew. Stingo becomes a confidant for Sophie who eventually tells him of the tragedies she endured during her stay at Auschwitz. The reader learns that Sophie had to make many difficult choices during her stay but the most difficult concerned her children. The Nazi leader in charge of her allowed her to keep one of her children but told her that the one she did not choose would go to the gas chamber then the incinerator. Sophie was forced to decide which of her children to kill. The Nazi, in effect, made Sophie the murderer of her own child. In Sophie's Choice, Styron has "taken on the most dangerous and vast subject among his works: Auschwitz" says interviewer Michel Bradeau.
Sophie's Choice was popular from its first appearance in 1979. The novel debuted on the bestseller list in Publisher's Weekly at number three and only climbed the charts from there. Sophie's Choice remained on the bestseller list for an amazing forty weeks, holding the number one spot for much of that time. Sophie's Choice, like Nat Turner, is a historically based novel. Unlike Nat Turner that stood alone in this classification during its time, Sophie's Choice was one of many historically based novels on the bestsellers list during 1979. During the late 1970s, the United States was finally coming to grips with what happened in Germany during World War II. Facts were finally coming out into the open and people were ready to hear about them. Authors used their novels to convey these facts and to create an understanding and empathy towards what happened during this time.
The theme of Sophie's Choice contributed to its popularity. Styron, during an interview with Stephen Lewis, states that the popularity of Sophie's Choice had a lot to do with its date of publication. The "book seems to coincide with the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the time. Sophie's Choice coincided with a deep and troubled interest in the Nazi period and the Holocaust. Ever since World War Two, we have been thinking about the Nazis and the camps and the Holocaust in general, but I think it came to a crescendo in the late 1970s, when my book was published. The book appeared only a year after that sensational and not terribly good television program, Holocaust. In the years preceding the late 1970s, there just was not enough general consciousness of what had gone on. Finally the accretion of fact and the sense of horror grew and grew."
The popularity of themes relating to World War II is evident when one inspects the other bestsellers of the time. The Martarese Circle, by Rover Ludlum concerns two mortal enemies who are the only two people in the world cunning and knowledgeable enough to stop an evil plot that threatens the entire planet. This theme, although not explicitly about World War II alludes to the fact that the United States and other countries involved had to stop Hitler's evil plan before he destroyed an entire race of people. War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk also appeared on the bestseller list along side of Sophie's Choice. This novel writes the story of America's involvement in World War II. The novel follows the Henry family from the Middle East, to Moscow, to Hitler's death camps and tells of the grave danger the family faces as the fight in the Second World War. Joseph Heller's Good as Gold "takes the reader into the heart of the Jewish experience in contemporary America." The themes of the bestsellers of this time reinforce the notion that during this time (the late 1970s), the United States is just beginning to come to grips with the realities of World War II. The facts of the War are finally being divulged and writers use the War theme to try to help themselves and their fellow Americans to fully digest and understand what happened in Germany during World War II.
Another possible explanation for Sophie's popularity is the fact that the book is based on truth, which makes the characters and situations all the more sympathetic. His ideas stemmed from two true stories. One was from the book Five Chimneys, by Olga Lengyel, a Hungarian doctor who survived Auschwitz. She tells how, through ignorance, she let her children be led to the gas chamber. Had she said they were older they might have been kept alive for work. The second true story occurred when Styron moved into a boarding house in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, exactly where the novel takes place. He met a young blonde woman. Her English was hesitant and there was a number tattooed on her arm. She confided in Styron and told him she was in love with a man who lived above him. This is the man and woman from which Styron derived the characters of Nathan and Sophie.
Sophie's Choice was also popular because of the novelty of the ideas presented in the book. Many people believed, during this time, that one, only survivors should attempt to recreate the Holocaust in literature or film, and two, that any attempt to recreate the Holocaust diminishes the event. Styron rejected both of these ideals. He did not think that the Holocaust was some "sacrosanct" area that could not be treated, nor did he think that someone who was not there was incapable of dealing with it. He also boldly presented his victim of the Holocaust as a blonde Polish woman rather than Jewish. This is a new point of view for people during this time. Styron was "troubled nonetheless by a certain ungenerousity that does not allow the understanding that there were, indeed, not just thousands, not hundreds of thousands, but millions of non-Jews who died just as horribly as the Jews, although perhaps not as methodically."
A movie version of Sophie's Choice starring Meryl Streep as Sophie, came out in 1982. William Styron comments on the movie in his interview with Stephen Lewis. "I thought the film was a remarkably faithful adaptation of the book. I thought it did a splendid job, in a linear way, of representing the book. At the same time, the film necessarily had to commit rather enormous sins of omission, and much of the book was not in the film. I regretted that but that is implicit in the making of movies. It would have been a ten or twelve hour movie if it had tried to reproduce the complexity of the book." Styron also thought that the films great virtue was "that it extracted the essence of the book, the central story. The message of the book was retained. It could not contain any of the purely philosophical points that were made, but it did a good job capturing the basic outline of the story." Styron felt that Streep extraordinarily portrayed the essence of Sophie's horror and her agony. Styron also speaks of the television program Holocaust in comparison to the movie Sophie's Choice. He says that the movie of Sophie's is a far more honest attempt to capture the essence of the Holocaust than the television series was. It is unclear if the movie affected the sales of the novel at all but it did increase Styron's popularity and the popularity of the subject matter. "There have been a lot of people who probably would not read the book but who leave the movie feeling that they learned something or were moved in some way."
Sophie's Choice probably remained popular for as long as it did because of the impact it made on society. People began to realize the enormity of the Holocaust and the tragedies it caused the families involved. They also felt more empathy towards the War since they could now "get to know" a survivor of Auschwitz and follow her through her stay and hardships. According to Styron, "part of the message was that the Nazis actually got everyone. They got the Jews first and foremost and most specifically, but anything so deadly, anything so utterly consummately filled with evil ahs to have at least a residual effect on everyone else. Just the magnitude of the venture had to cause suffering that was universal." There are certain works that touch some kind of nerve universally, that gather together all the anxieties that people feel. The Nazi period was a world cataclysm from which we're still recovering. This novel helped people realize the extent of the damage the Nazis caused and helped them relate to the people involved.
In conclusion, many aspects of William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice contributed to its success and popularity. Around the late 1970s, the United States was just beginning to come to grips with what happened in Nazi Germany. Facts finally dispersed and real stories were coming out. Many novels during this time dealt with the issues of World War II. The bestsellers during the time when Sophie's Choice was on the list included: The Martarese Circle by Robert Ludlam, War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk, and Good as Gold by Joseph Heller. Each one of these novels dealt in some way, with World War II and the mass destruction that occured. Sophie's Choice is no exception. Styron tells a truth based historical tale about the life of one survivor of Auschwitz. Styron tells his tale in a sympathetic manner in order to evoke the readers feelings. The topic of the book itself was enough to create popularity. Styron's previous success with the Confessions of Nat Turner got him attention with critics so they were eagerly prepared to receive Sophie's Choice. The movie, although it did not significantly impact book sales, heightened awareness on the subject and helped popularize it. Sophie's Choice also had a huge impact on society by presenting the facts of World War II through the eyes of a woman who survived a stay at Auschwitz. This made her character more sympathetic and made readers feel more emphatic towards her. The novelty of the book gripped readers attention and enticed many people to read it. Styron deals with subjects previously off limit: the Holocaust, and especially the fact that many of the people in Auschwitz were not Jewish.