The Effects of Guilt
“Sophie’s Choice highlights the choices that all individuals make and the guilt that they bear in consequence” (Ruderman 579). William Styron demonstrates this in his fiction novel published in 1979. Styron’s characters have made choices that cause them to feel guilt. Sophie’s Choice focuses on an aspiring Southern writer Stingo. He moves to Brooklyn and develops a friendship with a Polish Holocaust survivor, Sophie and her lover, a paranoid schizophrenic, Nathan Landau. Upon meeting them, Stingo learns that both Sophie and Nathan carry guilt from their past. Sophie’s guilt stems from her time in Auschwitz and Nathan’s guilt comes from being Jewish and not having to be a part of the Holocaust. Learning about the other’s past makes Stingo feel guilty as well. While Stingo gets to know Sophie, he develops strong feelings or love for her, but refuses to act on them in respect to Nathan. Sophie, Stingo and Nathan go on a journey together. They all learn about the others past and their hardships. In the end the guilt becomes too much for Sophie and Nathan to handle. They both commit suicide leaving Stingo to mourn their deaths. In his novel Sophie’s Choice, William Styron uses character development to show how guilt affects a person.
Guilt causes Sophie and Stingo to feel the need to suffer and be punished. Sophie has so much guilt that she feels the need to be punished. One of the ways she allows herself to be punished is to be abused by Nathan. A neighbor overheard Nathan and explains to Stingo, “’Nathan says “ I’m goin’ to count to three, whore, and if you’re not up and out of here and out of my sight I’m goin’ to kick your ass into the middle of next year.” And then he counts to three and she doesn’t move and then he gets down on his knees and begins to slap the livin’ shit out of her’” (64). While Nathan is abusing her, Sophie just sits there and allows him to do it. This shows how Sophie is overcome with the effects of guilt; she actually believes that she deserves to be mistreated. Nathan does not just physically abuse Sophie, he also verbally abuses Sophie. This is seen when she tells Stingo “’Oh, he’s right about so much . . . When he said I didn’t dress right. Or when he said I was a sloppy Pole and didn’t clean up. Then he called me a dirty Polack, and I knew that I . . . yes, deserved it.’” (54). Sophie feels she should be punished by being constantly reminded that she is not good enough. Sophie is not the only one who feels they need to be punished. Stingo also feels that he needs to suffer. He “feels he has not ‘paid his dues,’ suffered as others had suffered, and he learns of Sophie’s anguished life with a guilty voyeurism” (Cobbs 325). This shows that Stingo has a need to feel punished because of the guilt he holds. Stingo has been sheltered his whole life never knowing what guilt and pain are. This realization finally hits him when he learns that, while Sophie was trying to pick which child should be allowed to live at the concentration camp, he was “gorging on bananas in North Carolina in a last ditch effort to make weight for the marines” (Ruderman 578). Stingo’s prime concerns in life have been his weight and where he should work. After learning about the hardships of others, Stingo cannot help but feel guilty because of how little he has suffered. He feels it is his turn to feel pain. Sophie and Stingo are both so overwhelmed with guilt that they need to suffer to feel better.
The guilt about what Sophie had to endure in her past causes her to feel the need to confess. Sophie has bottled everything inside of her and she needs to tell someone. Stingo is a “safe place” for Sophie: “Stingo provides the vehicle through which Sophie can gradually divulge her darkest secrets” (Ruderman 579). Sophie feels she can reveal her past to him, and she does. Sophie can finally satisfy her need to confess: “In dealing with the evil and guilt Sophie reveals...
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