Many plot elements from Sophie’s Choice reflect incidents in the life of author William Styron. Like the main character, Stingo, Styron grew up in Virginia and lost his mother to cancer at a young age. After studying at Duke University (also Stingo’s alma mater), Styron held a position at McGraw-Hill publishers in New York City. Styron began writing his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, after leaving his job at McGraw-Hill and published it in 1951, when he was only twenty-six years old. Lie Down in Darkness tells the story of a dysfunctional Southern family and includes the suicide of a young female character. All of these details align with how Stingo spends the summer of 1947 writing his first novel, after being inspired by the suicide of Maria Hunt, and eventually publishes this novel to great acclaim. Throughout Sophie’s Choice, Stingo muses about his hope of eventually writing about Nat Turner, the leader of an 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia, and he refers to publishing a significant novel in 1967. Styron published The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967, and the novel was both controversial and successful.
Sophie’s Choice describes atrocities that took place in Auschwitz under Nazi authority during World War II. Auschwitz refers to a network of concentration and extermination camps located in Nazi-occupied Poland. As Sophie explains in the novel, some camps were primarily dedicated to slave labor while others focused on the so-called “Final Solution”: the extermination of individuals deemed inferior and undesirable according to Nazi ideology. Auschwitz was originally built as a Polish prison barracks, and after Nazi forces invaded Poland in 1939, the camp was converted into a prison for Polish prisoners. The first mass executions took place in 1941 and involved the deaths of Soviet and Polish prisoners, but by 1942, Jews from across Nazi-occupied Europe were being sent to Auschwitz to die. Estimates suggest that 1.1 million people, primarily Jews, died at Auschwitz. The camp was seized by Soviet troops acting on behalf of Allied forces in January 1945. The surviving prisoners were sent to centers for displaced persons, and many of the Nazi officials involved in running the camp were imprisoned and subsequently executed.
Styron completed years of research and philosophical inquiry in order to write Sophie’s Choice. During his time in New York in 1947, Styron met a Polish woman who had survived the Holocaust. He later visited Auschwitz and spent years reading about the Holocaust as part of his preparation to write. Throughout the novel, Styron references many other books, including KL Auschwitz Seen by the SS (Hoss’s autobiography), George Steiner’s Language and Silence, and Richard Rubenstein’s The Cunning of History. This extensive and detailed research is commonly seen in works of scholarship and historical writing and is less often employed in fiction writing. However, in the context of Styron’s novel, it would make sense for Stingo to have actively researched the Holocaust before beginning to write Sophie’s story. The inclusion of these intertextual references also honors the fact that as a non-Jewish American who did not experience the Holocaust, Styron relies on the voices of others to document what happened during this time.
In addition to Sophie’s Choice, Styron has written about the Holocaust in texts including his essay collection This Quiet Dust and a 1997 article called “A Wheel of Evil Come Full Circle: The Making of Sophie’s Choice.” There is no single recorded historical incident that reflects Sophie’s agonizing decision over which of her children will live. In Olga Lengyel’s Five Chimneys, a memoir of her time at Auschwitz, Lengyel describes how she inadvertently contributed to her parents and children being sent to the gas chambers because she did not immediately understand the purpose of the camp or the sorting procedures for new arrivals. Styron drew on this incident as part of the inspiration for his plot. Other texts about the Holocaust reference cases where a mother was forced to condemn one or more children to death as examples of the senseless cruelty that took place during this time.
Styron’s plot combines fictional characters (Nathan, Sophie, Stingo, and more) with references to historical figures. The character of Commandant Hoss (sometimes spelt Hoess) is based on a Nazi official who was in charge of Auschwitz and responsible for measures to increase the capacity for killing as many people as possible. Hoss was executed in 1947 and wrote his memoir in the weeks leading up to his execution, just as Styron describes in his novel. Styron also references the death of Hermann Göring, an important Nazi official who committed suicide in October 1946 while imprisoned and awaiting execution. When Nathan taunts Sophie during their trip to Connecticut, he calls her “Irma,” which is a reference to Irma Grese. Grese was a female prison guard at Auschwitz who was executed for war crimes after the war ended.