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The novel begins with Stingo, the narrator, who reflects on his life when he was twenty-two years old. In the summer of 1947, he lived in Brooklyn, New York, and held a job at the McGraw-Hill publishing house. Stingo accepted the job because of his ambition to become a writer, but he quickly became disillusioned with the workings of the publishing business and the quality of the manuscripts he was reviewing. Stingo showed off his intellectual pretensions by ruthlessly mocking most of the manuscripts he reviewed. He spent almost all of his time alone and fantasized about how the lives of other New Yorkers must be more stimulating than his own.
Stingo’s career prospects took a turn for the worse when a new editor-in-chief came to work at McGraw-Hill. Stingo nicknamed the editor the Weasel, and the two men did not get along. Within a short time, the Weasel fired him. As Stingo packed up, a colleague named Farrell came to say goodbye to him. Farrell was a disillusioned alcoholic who shared with Stingo that he also once harbored an ambition of being a writer. Farrell lamented the death of his only son, who was killed while serving in World War II. Stingo revealed that he had also served as a Marine during the war. Farrell urged Stingo to pursue his desire to write, and the chapter ends with foreshadowing that Stingo’s life would soon change.
After losing his job, Stingo was initially worried about money, but he soon received a gift that helped him out. Stingo is from the American South and grew up in Virginia. His grandmother once owned two slaves. However, Stingo learned that there was more to his family story. His grandmother had actually owned a third slave whom her father sold. His great-grandfather hid the money from the sale during the Civil War and passed it on to his daughter. When Stingo’s grandmother died, she left the money to her grandchildren, but her instructions were too vague for anyone to know where to find it. Eventually, Stingo’s father found the money because he spent a lot of time going through family papers.
Shortly after Stingo told his father that he had lost his job, Stingo received a letter in reply. In the letter, Stingo’s father expressed his distaste for capitalism and his hopes that African Americans would eventually gain greater equality. However, the main point of the letter was for Stingo’s father to explain that he had uncovered the location of Stingo’s grandmother’s gold coins.
The letter also provided more information about why the third slave was sold. In the 1850s, Stingo’s great-grandfather purchased three slave children: Lucinda, Drusilla, and a boy named Artiste. When Artiste was older, he was accused of making advances toward a white woman. Stingo’s great-grandfather immediately sold Artiste for $800 and buried the money he received because he knew war was on the horizon. However, it was later discovered that Artiste had done nothing wrong, and Stingo’s great-grandfather was tormented by guilt for the rest of his life. Stingo’s father uncovered the money, which had appreciated in value over the years. Divided amongst Stingo and his cousins, Stingo received $500. Stingo’s father also included a copy of the letter that Stingo’s great-grandfather wrote in which the whole story is explained.
With this money in hand, Stingo did not need to get another job immediately and decided to spend the next few months focusing on his writing. He wanted to live cheaply to make the money last as long as possible, so he went to view a room in a boarding house in Brooklyn. Stingo moved in a short time later, intrigued that both the boarding house and the neighborhood were mainly home to Jewish people. On his first day in the boarding house, Stingo was unsuccessfully trying to write when he heard the loud sounds of two people having sex. This was followed a short time later by the sound of a violent argument between a man and a woman in the same room. Stingo encountered another tenant who introduced himself as Morris Fink. Morris explained that the couple who made the noises were Nathan Landau and Sophie Zawistowska. Nathan was a biologist, and Sophie worked as a receptionist in a chiropractor’s office.
Stingo went back to his room, where he opened another letter from his father and learned of the death of a young woman named Maria Hunt. Stingo was startled by this news because he had been infatuated with Maria as a teenager. Like Stingo, Maria had also moved to New York from Virginia. She had committed suicide. The news left Stingo very melancholy, and when he fell asleep for a nap, he had disturbing and erotic dreams about Maria. He awakened to the sounds of Sophie and Nathan having sex again and fled from the boarding house to avoid having to listen. When Stingo returned, he ran into Nathan and Sophie, who were having another violent argument. Nathan commented on Stingo being from the South and said several insulting things to him before storming away. Stingo, however, quickly became preoccupied with comforting Sophie and noticing how beautiful she was. He also noticed a series of numbers tattooed on her wrist. Stingo tried to assure Sophie that Nathan was wrong to insult her, but she insisted that he was right about the cruel things he had said. She returned to her room, and Stingo spent the night listening to the sound of her weeping.
In the early chapters, Styron establishes Stingo’s character by highlighting how Stingo is displaced and out of his element in New York. Stingo’s choice to move to New York reveals that he is bold, ambitious, and willing to take risks. In many works of fiction, including Sophie’s Choice, New York City is represented as a place where individuals go to reinvent themselves and escape their pasts. In contrast to New York, the American South, for Stingo, represents a place haunted by the ghosts of a tragic history. Throughout the novel, parallels are drawn between the Southern states and Europe as “old world” places that display both a type of chivalric elegance and a sense of being trapped in the past. As a displaced Southerner, Stingo is positioned as a natural friend for Sophie, who is also grappling with the experience of being a foreigner and transitioning to a new life.
The use of retrospective narration establishes the nostalgic tone of the novel. Stingo narrates events while looking back with wry affection on his younger self. It is clear that the older Stingo does not endorse all of young Stingo’s behaviors or beliefs but portrays them as the characteristics of a young man who had led a sheltered life and was not yet as sophisticated as he aspired to be. The episode between Stingo and his colleague Farrell establishes the contrast between someone who is still eager to make his mark on the world and someone who has given up on his hopes and dreams. While Stingo is portrayed as naïve and unrefined, he is also energetic, hopeful, and capable of imagining a bright future for himself, traits an older generation may have lost. The tone of the narrator prompts a nostalgia and a bittersweet longing for a simpler and more innocent time. In these early chapters, it is hinted at but not fully revealed that Stingo will somehow eventually lose this innocence. The foreknowledge that Stingo will mature and learn from his mistakes helps to establish him as an essentially likeable character even when he occasionally behaves in boorish or ignorant ways.
Stingo’s ambition to become a writer creates a metafictional component within the narrative. In large part, Sophie’s Choice is a novel about a man writing a novel. As a result, the plot grapples with ethical questions about how authors arrive at their subject matter, what stories are theirs to tell, and what conditions make it possible to write. Stingo’s inheritance of money that originated directly from the sale of a slave shows that generations of his family have profited off of racism and the exploitation of other human beings. His privileged position of being able to live in New York and pursue his artistic ambitions is directly linked to the suffering of others. Stingo’s refusal to feel guilty about the origins of the money he uses to fund his writing career reveal his valorization of an ethos of creativity as well as his own sense of entitlement. The retrospective narration hints that Stingo’s decision to use this money is only the first step in a series of actions where he will profit from stories and narratives that belong to the Black American community. The introduction of this theme of exploiting suffering as a source of art foreshadows the later complexity of Stingo’s role writing about the Holocaust.
The inclusion of graphic sexual detail brings realism, comedy, and a juxtaposition with the themes of death and suffering. Stingo’s youthful coarseness and sense of entitlement are revealed through his obsession with women and sex. Part of Styron’s project throughout the novel is to grapple with the impact of making the unspeakable and the invisible explicit and central parts of a story. A young man’s sexual curiosity is obviously far less disturbing than the horrors of racially motivated violence, but these two aspects of the plot have parallels in that they are both themes that might often be treated as inappropriate or uncomfortable to encounter. When Stingo is first distracted from his attempts at writing by the graphic sounds of sexual intercourse, the incident creates irony because Stingo, of course, desperately wants to be having sex himself. He displaces his creative and generative energies into writing because he does not have a sexual outlet. The introduction of Sophie and Nathan via the sound of their sexual activity hints at the role they will play in the text: they will expose Stingo to raw realities of human experience that his sheltered life has so far not shown him. Via Stingo’s narration, readers often switch back and forth between his observations of disturbing details and his singular focus on sexual desire. For example, Stingo notices the numbers tattooed on Sophie’s wrist but then immediately gets distracted looking at her buttocks. This contrast provokes a juxtaposition between the implied horrors of concentration camps and the optimistic sexual aspirations of a young man.
Styron uses conventions of Southern Gothic literature to cultivate a dark and foreboding atmosphere in the early portion of the novel. The Southern Gothic genre tends to feature tropes of madness, decay or decline, generational secrets, family trauma, and a sinister or grotesque tone. These tropes are used as devices to grapple with how a dark and traumatic past, particularly the legacy of slavery, continues to haunt this region of the United States and impact individual lives and relationships. While the main action of the plot unfolds in New York, Stingo’s ties to the South are retained through the letters he receives from his father. Every time he receives one of these letters, dark and macabre events are described. The story of the false accusation and sale of Baptiste reveals a fatal mistake that has haunted generations, the sinister threat of sexual violence, and a secret that was literally buried (the lost golden coins) as a symbolic parallel to the psychological repression of past traumas. The story of Maria Hunt and her suicide also features elements of implied family trauma and intermingles erotic and grotesque themes in a way that often makes the Gothic titillating. The intrusion of these stories into the plot hints at Stingo’s inability to fully separate himself from his past, especially on a psychological or subconscious level. Although he seems like a pragmatic young man on the surface, Stingo’s nightmares and sense of foreboding about Sophie create an almost supernatural atmosphere of dread in the early chapters of the novel.