Music appears as a motif that creates a juxtaposition between how humanity can be capable of creating beauty while simultaneously committing mass atrocities. Music has always been a passion and an integral part of Sophie’s life, and she references music often when talking about her past in Europe. In New York, the music that Sophie plays in her room continues this motif and represents one of the few forms of continuity between her past and her new life in America. Even at her darkest moments, such as when Sophie is living in the Hoss household or as she prepares to commit suicide with Nathan, she is surrounded by music either by chance or by choice. Her love of music reveals that even after everything she has lived through, she has not entirely lost her capacity to admire beauty and creativity. Still, the motif of music suggests that art is insufficient to fully save anyone, even if it can provide some small comfort.


Suicide is a motif that highlights the impossibility of escaping the past and the futility of love when someone is tormented. Stingo loses three characters he loves to suicide over the course of the novel: Maria Hunt, Sophie, and Nathan. In some way, Stingo has fantasized about saving each of these individuals, and wanted to believe he could offer them a happy future. However, each of these characters was tormented by events of the past, and none of them was ultimately able to move forward. Their various tragedies (an abusive family, the horrors of the Holocaust, and mental illness) were far beyond what Stingo could help with. Even for someone like Sophie who had survived against all odds, the prospect of having to live with feelings resulting from past pain proved to be too much. Nothing Stingo could offer her for the future could take away the pain and suffering of her past, and only the oblivion of death seemed to promise relief.


Alcohol is a significant motif, reflecting how many characters have a desire for escapism and need a way to cope with their pain. When they are together, Nathan, Sophie, and Stingo all drink heavily. They use alcohol to lighten the mood and help them feel like they are having a good time, but in reality, all of them are using alcohol to hide from truths they don’t want to admit to themselves or to others. Stingo drinks to cope with his insecurity and his unrequited love for Sophie; Nathan drinks to cope with his rage and suppress symptoms of mental illness; and Sophie drinks to try to forget her painful past. Later in the novel, Sophie switches to openly using alcohol as a coping mechanism when she begins to share some of the more horrifying details of her past with Stingo. Before she begins to tell him the story of how she was forced to choose between her children, she insists that she have a drink. Stingo also drinks copiously on the day he attends the funeral of Nathan and Sophie. In a novel where many characters are keeping secrets and trying to outrun their past, alcohol functions as a crutch that they use in their desperate attempts to drown out the suffering they are experiencing.