Summary: Chapter Three

The next morning, Stingo was awakened by Nathan and Sophie knocking on his door and inviting him to go to Coney Island with them. Stingo was initially angry with Nathan but gradually accepted Nathan’s apologies and Sophie’s insistence that all three of them should be friends. While he got ready for the day out, Stingo ran into Morris again, who expressed his distrust of Nathan. Morris explained that the previous night, he had witnessed Nathan violently slapping Sophie while she passively laid still. Today, however, the couple was extremely affectionate with one another. Nathan revealed that Sophie was not Jewish. Nathan explained that when he first met Sophie, she was malnourished and ill due to having spent time in a concentration camp. Nathan also told Stingo that he was a cellular biologist with a degree from Harvard who worked for a large pharmaceutical company. Because of his medical knowledge, Nathan had been working to help Sophie become healthier.

As he spent more time with Nathan and Sophie, Stingo was drawn to the possibility of having friends, but he detected tension under their seemingly jovial attitudes. After only a short time, Nathan returned the conversation to Stingo’s Southern roots and brought up Bobby Weed, a Black man who had recently been gruesomely killed by white Southerners. Nathan bluntly stated that he believed that the way Bobby Weed was murdered was as bad as the acts committed by the Nazi regime. Stingo became angry, asserting that all white Southerners were not necessarily racist, but Nathan insisted that Stingo was simply avoiding responsibility for actions in which he was complicit. Stingo was frustrated with Nathan even though he had been sickened and horrified when he learned about the fate of Bobby Weed. Eventually, Sophie put a stop to the argument and urged both men to enjoy the day.

Summary: Chapter Four

Sophie began to tell Stingo about her childhood. She grew up in Poland, in the city of Cracow. Both of her parents were professors, and valued art, music, and languages. Her parents were politically liberal and devout Catholics. Sophie grew up speaking Polish, German, and French fluently and dreamed of someday becoming a music teacher. Sophie confided that while Nathan often accused all Polish people of being anti-Semitic, her father had always tried to help Jewish people when they were being persecuted. When Sophie was quite young, she married a man named Casimir, who also taught at the university, and the two of them lived together with her parents. Sophie and Casimir had dreams of going to Vienna to advance their studies, but these dreams were put on hold when Germany invaded Austria.

Even when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Sophie hoped that her family might not be affected too badly. One day in November, Sophie was praying in church while her husband and father attended a meeting that had been called for all professors. She had a sudden premonition that something awful was going to happen and hurried to the location where the meeting was taking place. Sophie saw that all the professors had been rounded up and taken away. She learned that both her husband and father had been taken to a concentration camp and were killed a short time later. Sophie lost her faith in God after all the suffering and tragedy she witnessed. In particular, Sophie was tormented by having been unable to say goodbye to her husband and father and because she and Casimir had a fight right before he was taken away.

Stingo provides some additional details that he learned about Sophie as he got to know her during that summer. In the summer of 1947, Sophie had been in America for about a year and a half and worked as a receptionist in the office of a Jewish chiropractor named Dr. Blackstock. She had been living at the Zimmerman rooming house the entire time while also taking English classes. Although she had little money, Sophie immersed herself in books, music, and the bustle of New York City. She was generally happy with her new life but experienced a traumatic event in June 1946 (about a year before she met Stingo and also before she met Nathan). One day, while she was riding the crowded subway, a man squeezed behind her, reached under her skirt, and penetrated her with his fingers. Sophie froze and only managed to get off the car at the next stop, never knowing who it was who violated her.

This traumatic event sent Sophie spiraling into shock and depression. She confided in Dr. Blackstock, who suggested Sophie begin undergoing chiropractic treatments. Stingo notes that while he will include information according to what Sophie told him at the time, there were a number of cases where she lied or left out important facts. He alludes to the story she told about her childhood in Poland as an example of a case where some information was omitted but does not yet specify what that information was.

After a few weeks of treatment, Sophie was not feeling any better and began to question whether she should see a medical doctor. She became fearful that she was suffering from some terrible disease. On a hot summer day, Sophie went to the college where she took English classes and decided to stop by the library to look for a book. The librarian was extremely rude to her and upset Sophie, which led to her fainting. Nathan happened to be walking by and came to her rescue.

Analysis: Chapters Three and Four

This section of the novel further establishes Stingo’s character, defining him as a keen observer but passive actor. Stingo functions as a natural confidante to characters who reveal information to him, and he also has a strong intuitive sense of the psychological dynamics at play in social situations. Throughout the novel, information about characters, their interactions, and their past histories is revealed gradually, often in fragmented and non-linear form. Part of Stingo’s role in the novel is to absorb and piece together this information while also transmitting it to the reader. Stingo’s passivity can be explained by the fact that he is often unsure of the full details of a situation and hesitates to act because he is waiting for more information. For example, Stingo senses that Nathan and Sophie’s relationship has a dark side, and he sees clear evidence of possible abuse, but he also gets conflicting information when the couple seem to behave in a tender and loving way with one another. Stingo’s confusion about the contradictory evidence as well as his own lack of experience in romantic relationships leaves him without the confidence to question or intervene in what he sees unfolding around him.

The nature of Nathan and Sophie’s relationship is defined by a sharp contrast between erotic fulfilment and psychological debasement, revealing how themes of pleasure and suffering will be intertwined throughout the novel. After his simultaneously erotic and grotesque dream about Maria Hunt, Stingo muses that “the most memorable of my dreams . . . have dealt with either sex or death,” thereby positioning these two aspects of the human experience as central to what the novel will explore. While other characters, such as Morris Fink, express distrust and distaste for the violent and volatile nature of Sophie and Nathan’s relationship, Stingo responds with fascination because he understands that disgust and desire can be two sides of the same coin. Stingo’s eagerness to probe into every aspect of the human experience positions him in the role of a voyeur who obtains his own satisfaction via observing the dynamics of Sophie and Nathan’s relationship.

The origins of Sophie and Nathan’s relationship are portrayed within traditional generic and gendered conventions of a damsel in distress being rescued by a confident and competent man. Sophie’s description of how the two of them met contains fairy-tale elements. She portrays herself as fragile, vulnerable, and literally unconscious when Nathan swoops in to rescue her, thus establishing a dynamic within their relationship in which he is active and she is passive. Significantly, a story about Sophie losing two key male figures in her life (her husband and father) is juxtaposed with the account of her meeting Nathan for the first time. Part of Sophie’s attachment to Nathan is rooted in her having been alone and unprotected since these other men were snatched away from her. Sophie’s command of the English language also reveals dynamics of power at play in her relationship with Nathan and in her position in the narrative more generally. Nathan sometimes corrects Sophie’s grammar and pronunciation, and this type of linguistic dominance hints at why Sophie finds it difficult to tell her own story or articulate the truth about her past. Throughout the novel, Sophie’s story is conveyed only through Stingo’s account of what she said to him, and so Sophie’s thoughts and feelings are always mediated by a male interpreter.

As Sophie’s story begins to emerge, she is explicitly positioned as an unreliable narrator, which creates suspense and intrigue around the information that is conveyed. The retrospective narration means that there is a gap between what Stingo knows at the time he is writing the narrative (some time post-1967, at least twenty years after these events took place) and what he knew at the moment when Sophie actually told him about incidents from her past. Stingo presents the information in the same way it was initially presented to him but builds a reader’s anticipation by alluding to later revelations that will contradict or undermine the initial facts Sophie shares. Sophie’s unreliable narration is not presented as malicious or threatening; in fact, Stingo seems to find it seductive because it creates a sense of increasing intimacy as Sophie gradually reveals more and more of herself to him. Although Stingo is explicit about his desire to possess Sophie’s body, what he actually ends up having access to is the inner world of her past. Stingo will only gradually come to understand that when Sophie shares her inner self with him, she is creating a connection that might be even more profound than the sexual relationship she has with Nathan.

This section of the novel moves from broad consideration of historical atrocities, such as slavery and the Holocaust, to an examination of the personal emotional responses triggered by specific events. The debate over the lynching of Bobby Weed creates a conflict that reveals the competing ethical priorities of Stingo and Nathan. Stingo is capable of responding with horror to this violent incident, but his rejection of any notion of personal complicity mirrors his earlier refusal to feel guilty over living off of money earned through the sale of a slave. Stingo’s ethical worldview focuses on individual responsibility, while Nathan believes in collective culpability. In contrast to Stingo’s emphasis on good manners and politeness, Nathan shamelessly provokes confrontation in a manner that mirrors how he and Sophie shamelessly conduct their sexual relationship with no effort to conceal it. For Nathan, violence is just as much of a reality as sex is, and he craves openness about both. Stingo, on the other hand, finds the new presence of explicit conflict and explicit sexuality shocking and disorienting.

Sophie’s story about the loss of her husband and father likewise uses a specific and personal incident to make the consequences of the Holocaust more visible and concrete in the minds of both Stingo and the reader. The inclusion of details such as Sophie having a flash of premonition and living with the regret of knowing she argued with her husband serve to humanize an incident that otherwise might simply be a detail in a textbook account of the history of the rise of the Nazi empire. The power of Sophie’s narrative throughout the novel lies in the way in which she makes history become vivid and alive. By speaking about the personal consequences of her suffering, the scope of the suffering endured by millions like her becomes marginally more possible to understand. Styron’s choice to include little information here about Stingo’s reaction allows Sophie’s narrative to occupy a central place in the novel and be interpreted individually by the reader. Later, Stingo will comment more actively on the feelings that arise in him when Sophie shares details about her past, but for this first key incident, Sophie’s feelings shine through.