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.