Monday, April 26, 2010


Current book: Sophie's Choice
Pages read: 253 - 326

You know, it's very difficult, when relating the plot of books that have more than one temporal setting, to decide when to use the literary present and when to use the past tense. I have a moral obligation, as an English major and an English teacher, to try to use the literary present whenever possible, but when I'm talking about events that happened in a character's life previous to the time of the narrative, I don't see that I have much of a choice. This is just my inner grammarian trying to apologize for what might seem to be an impropriety of tense usage.

Well, as it turns out, Sophie has been lying to Stingo when relating her story previously. When she tells him about seducing Höss, she makes it clear that her father was not an innocent Polish professor, but rather some kind of insane anti-Semite. He wasn't technically a Nazi, since he was a member of a different political party, but he espoused the "Final Solution" in a pamphlet that he wrote before the idea of the "Final Solution" had even been widely disseminated. Sophie was his stenographer and secretary (also his virtual slave) during her youth, and so it was she who typed the manuscripts for this pamphlet. Sophie's husband, it turns out, was more of a toady for her father than anything else, and she loved neither of them, nor was particularly upset when they got taken away.

At Auschwitz, Sophie tries to use her work on the pamphlet, though, (as well as a copy that she's managed to hold onto) to convince Höss that she is innocent and he ought to save her. For a moment, it seems to be working, and he admits to being sexually attracted to her and kisses her, but then he changes his mind. She is not worthy of saving or even fucking, since she is, after all, a Pole, and therefore genetically unsuitable. Anyway, she makes one final appeal to him, down on her knees, kissing his boots, to at least let her see her son. (Her son? Yes, that's correct. She has a heretofore unmentioned child, also in the camps, whom she has been separated from.) There's also an episode in which Höss's female housekeeper, also a prisoner, takes sexual advantage of Sophie in an upstairs hallway, which is, of course, another source of trauma for Sophie, but also gives Sophie a hint of power over the housekeeper, due to the fact that Höss loathes homosexuality.

Stingo, all upset at the fact that Sophie and Nathan have split up and left, meets his father, who's come to visit him in the city, and basically decides to go back to Virginia with him. The two gallivant about the town and drink and things, but nothing of import really occurs. Having decided to leave, however, Stingo changes his mind when he finds Sophie at one of their former haunts, where she relates to him the above revelations. Stingo lets his father know he won't be going back to Virginia - at least not yet. He's still infatuated with Sophie, though, at this point, it's as much her story as the girl herself that holds his interest.

The psychological discussion of the decisions people make in survival situations is as nuanced and sensitive as anyone could ask. Sophie says, in reference to her groveling and begging and seduction, as well as to the actions of any prisoner, be they noble or despicable, in Auschwitz, that no one can be really be judged for what they did there. One is under such stress, such reduced circumstances, as to be unable to determine the course of one's own actions. I would agree, I have to say, though I'm inexperienced in things like this. But I can't see that it's any different than extreme coercion. Statements and decisions made under threat of death and torture are not attributable to logic or even emotion, but rather to an animal will that drives survival beyond the capacity of the mind and body to refuse. When do morals enter a situation like that? I would posit only afterward, when they provide guilt and shame for actions that were taken in circumstances beyond their purview.

I suspect I'll be seeing this theme illustrated further.

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