Monday, May 3, 2010

Make this bed with awe

Current book: Sophie's Choice
Pages read: 498 - 559 (end)

Stingo and Sophie stop in Washington, D.C. on their way down to Virginia, and it's there that he tells her that he loves her and he wants her to marry him and live in Virginia with him. She's reticent, but doesn't say no. She does tell him, finally, the rest of her story.

The big revelation of Sophie's guilt is all that's left of that story, really. When she and her children arrived at Auschwitz via train, the official who processed them was both drunk and cruel. Instead of simply routing the children to the places they'd normally go, he told Sophie that she could have one of them spared, and the other would be sent to the gas chambers. She was required to choose, or they'd both die. She refused at first, of course, but faced with saving one of them or neither of them, she eventually buckled and told them to save Jan. (It's an horrific moment, it's true, but I knew it was coming and that significantly lessened the impact of it for me.)

After she tells Stingo this story, they end up sleeping together, and in the morning, he wakes to find that Sophie has left him to go back to Nathan in New York. Stingo chases after her, but arrives at the boardinghouse too late - Nathan and Sophie are both dead. They took cyanide pills, finally carrying out the suicidal plan Nathan had first conceived of in Connecticut. Stingo stays for the funeral, and even reads at it, overcome as he is with grief for both of them. Afterward he gets drunk and falls asleep on the beach he used to visit with them, musing on the cruelty of humanity and all that is dark in the world. When he wakes up, though, he is refreshed by the promise of the new day and the future that it symbolizes.

Well, it was very good, but I find myself confused by exactly what the deeper meaning of it is. I mean, there's the obvious lesson of the depth of cruelty and inhumanity to which mankind can sink, but the fact that it's intertwined with Nathan and Sophie's relationship changes things. It took me a while to figure this out, but I've finally decided that it is, as I hinted at a few posts ago, a message about the way guilt can eat someone alive. Sophie was with Nathan not really because she loved him, but because her guilt made her feel that she deserved, somehow, to be treated inhumanely. You would think that after the abuse of Auschwitz she would desire only that which was good and comforting, but I think she felt that, because the world had so poisoned her soul with the experiences she had had, there was nothing for her but more darkness. Accordingly, she found another source of the derangement that humanity is capable of, this time in actual mental illness, and inflicted it upon herself, not even as an atonement, but simply as her due in life.

Styron examines this tendency of humanity pretty didactically, it's true, but the characters are real enough and the lens of Stingo's struggle to comprehend it delicate enough that the examination is moving rather than preachy. It's mitigated, too, by Stingo's ability to see that what he has learned is important and horrible and agonizing, but still to look at the future with the hope that it will be better. It speaks to the fact that Styron believes in humanity's ability to improve the world by learning from the mistakes of the past, but also that it can only be realized by facing the bleak truths of those mistakes. I'd have to agree.

I believe this one is worthy of the list. But I will be glad to stop having Holocaust nightmares.

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