Summary: Chapter Five

Stingo received another letter from his father. A friend of his father’s, named Frank Hobbs, died, and left his small peanut farm to Stingo’s father. Stingo’s father invited Stingo to move to the farm since he could live there with no financial obligations and still spend most of his time writing. Stingo was briefly tempted but wrote back and declined the offer. He was making progress with his novel based on the tragic events of the life of Maria Hunt and did not want to disrupt his process. Stingo was also enjoying his friendship with Nathan and Sophie and was reluctant to leave them behind to return to Virginia.

Moreover, Stingo was optimistic that he was finally going to begin a sexual relationship. On the day he went to Coney Island with Nathan and Sophie, Stingo met a young woman named Leslie Lapidus. Much to Stingo’s delight, Leslie was very clear about her intention to have sex with him, and the two of them arranged a date for the following week. Stingo was self-conscious about the fact that he was twenty-two and still a virgin, and he thought about sex all the time. On the day of his date with Leslie, Stingo planned to have lunch with Sophie. When he stopped by her room, he caught her without the fake teeth she wore and was momentarily horrified. Sophie lost her own teeth due to the malnutrition she suffered during her time in the concentration camp.

Summary: Chapter Six

Sophie and Stingo went to a local park, where Sophie continued the story of how she and Nathan met. On the day they met, Nathan took her back to her room, undressed her, and put her to bed. He suggested that she most likely had anemia and explained that his brother was a physician who would be able to help her. That night, Nathan returned to her room, where he made her dinner. He also asked her questions about her past, and Sophie explained that between 1940 and 1943, she had lived in Warsaw, having left Cracow after the deaths of her husband and father. In April 1943, Sophie was arrested and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was arrested because she was caught smuggling meat for her sick mother. Sophie explained that Auschwitz and Birkenau were separate locations with separate purposes. Auschwitz was a labor camp, whereas Birkenau was a site reserved solely for mass killings. When Sophie arrived, she was young and healthy enough that she was not immediately killed and was instead sent to Auschwitz to work. She spent twenty months in the camp before it was liberated. Because she was well-educated and fluent in German, she was given slightly easier work than others and was able to survive, but the experience damaged her health gravely. She later learned that her mother had died a few months after she was arrested.

Stingo interjects to tell the reader that what Sophie told him does not represent the entirety of the truth but that he is sympathetic as to why she left out some details. He also understands why Sophie felt comfortable telling him some things she was unwilling to share with Nathan. Stingo then introduces the character Rudolf Franz Hoss, explaining that he plays a role in Sophie’s story. A few days before Stingo moved in at the boarding house, Sophie was reading a magazine and stumbled upon an article featuring an image of Hoss shortly before his execution. Before his execution, Hoss wrote a book about his experiences as the Commandant of Auschwitz. Stingo argues that this book reveals how evil actually functions in the world and how atrocities become possible.

Hoss was raised in a German military family and was an early member of the Nazi party. He eventually became heavily involved in the administration of Nazi concentration camps and developed many of the techniques used for killing vast numbers of people as quickly and efficiently as possible. He wrote about the detachment and focus on obedience that was required for him to carry out the gruesome work he was assigned. Hoss also wrote about how he did find some of the work emotionally disturbing, and he responded by withdrawing from his family and spending much of his time with animals. Stingo alludes to the fact that sometime in the fall of 1943, Sophie worked as part of the Hoss household and was well-treated during her time there. He does not yet go into any detail about these events.

Summary: Chapter Seven

The narrative returns to Stingo and Sophie’s afternoon in the park. Sophie explained that after she met Nathan, he took her to see his brother and then another physician who specialized in dietary deficiencies. She felt comforted and protected by the way he took care of her. Sophie’s health improved rapidly, and she and Nathan fell in love. Sophie and Stingo returned from their outing, and Stingo fantasized about his upcoming date with Leslie. As he got ready for the date and made his way to Leslie’s house, Stingo began to feel slightly uneasy because he had never been to the home of a Jewish person before. He was surprised to find that the house was elegant and luxurious, indicating that Leslie was the daughter of a wealthy family. After Leslie’s parents left, the two of them lingered over drinks and then went out for dinner. When they left the restaurant, Stingo was convinced that they were going to go home and have sex. However, back at the house, Leslie resisted his advances and eventually burst into tears when Stingo became too aggressive. Stingo was surprised and unhappy that Leslie was unwilling to have sex with him.

Analysis: Chapters Five–Seven

Stingo’s subject matter for his novel illuminates more aspects of his personality and his relationship to his past. While Stingo resists the notion of physically returning to the South, his choice of subject matter shows that he has not been able to separate his creative identity from his roots and place of origin. At the start of the novel, Stingo’s creative process was blocked, even though he had believed that moving to New York would invigorate him. He is able to begin to write successfully only because he receives material support from the money he inherits and inspiration from the story of the death of Maria Hunt, and both of these things come from the South. While Stingo imagines that his creative success will be linked to his ability to reinvent himself in New York, he fails to see how he is actually being sustained by ongoing connections to his past.

The incident between Stingo and Leslie Lapidus reveals several unflattering aspects of Stingo’s character. Stingo shows little interest in getting to know Leslie, and in his mind, she exists solely to satisfy his desires. This attitude of disinterest and fixation on sexual satisfaction contrasts with the genuine comradery and emotional intimacy that is gradually being established between Sophie and Stingo. On the very day that Stingo has his failed date with Leslie, he spends the afternoon patiently listening to a woman tell him about her past and her emotions without any expectation of sexual gratification, which shows that he is capable of companionship and being emotionally available. Once he is with Leslie, however, Stingo feels the need to perform an assertive ideal of masculinity that is inauthentic and unflattering. Paradoxically, the more insecure Stingo feels, the more he defaults to clumsy attempts at being dominant. Class, gender, and identity components intersect to explain Stingo’s awkward attempts at seducing Leslie. He feels disoriented because she is Jewish and her family is very wealthy, but he wants to be assertive and active at the same time. The juxtaposition in this section between the story of how Nathan successfully seduced Sophie, and Stingo’s failed attempt at seducing Leslie reveals how the enactment of gender norms relies on a clear delineation between who has power and who doesn’t.

In the early days of Sophie and Nathan’s relationship, her anemia functions as a metaphor for how she is emotionally and psychologically deprived and highlights how relationships rooted in vulnerability can become co-dependent. Sophie’s body has lacked key nutrients, but her heart and soul have lacked love, companionship, and tenderness. When Sophie describes her early days with Nathan to Stingo, she focuses on the food and medical treatment Nathan provided as a way to allude to how essential he became to her. Their relationship now sustains her like a vital nutrient without which she would wither away and die. Sophie’s description of how Nathan essentially brought her back to life reveals how much she feels that she owes him. In this section, Sophie’s description of Nathan reveals a tender and nurturing man, and this contrasts with earlier representations of Nathan lashing out with hateful words. Sophie’s description of feeling utterly alone and then becoming emotionally dependent on the person who saved her mirrors what Stingo feels towards Sophie and Nathan. Although Stingo did not face the financial and health challenges Sophie encountered, he was cripplingly lonely and adrift until he met his two new friends. His attachment to them is now so deep that it influences key decisions about his life, such as whether to move to the farm or remain in New York, and makes him vulnerable to blindly following Sophie and Nathan without assessing whether being around them is actually good for him.

Sophie’s first description of being arrested and sent to Auschwitz appears cold and clinical on the surface but represents only the first step towards articulating the full horrors of what she lived through. Sophie tells Stingo that when she gave a short description of her past to Nathan, she knew that talking about past events would be extremely painful. This comment provides a useful explanation as to why Sophie chooses to disclose her past gradually. Since it is agonizing for Sophie to sit with her memories, she can only tolerate this pain for short periods and cannot simply tell her story in one sitting. Sophie’s willingness to disclose her past is also linked to the trust she feels towards someone. Stingo comments on how Sophie eventually disclosed to him things she had never shared with Nathan, and this comment reveals that Sophie felt more trust and safety with Stingo because he was steadfast, gentle, and patient. Ironically, while Stingo often compares himself unfavorably to Nathan, he is actually better at supporting and listening to Sophie than her own lover is. At the same time, readers should consider Stingo’s own reliability as a narrator, since he is recounting events in which he had a strong personal investment and has the motivation to depict himself in a positive light.

The introduction of the character of Commandant Hoss builds suspense by offering only vague details about his relationship to Sophie and her life. Readers learn that Hoss is somehow implicated in Sophie’s story, but do not yet learn any of the details. This strategy of vagueness achieves two purposes. First, the hints that there is more to the story of what happened between Hoss and Sophie reinforces the portrayal of Sophie as a mysterious figure. As she gradually tells her story to Stingo, Sophie becomes a Scheherazade proxy (a female storyteller who holds a man in her thrall and gradually gains power over him and saves herself by prolonging the recounting of a story). Sophie’s power over Stingo is greatly heightened because she delays giving him all the information he wants and requires him to first earn her trust. Second, the strategy requires readers to learn about Hoss objectively before they can situate him within the plot of Sophie’s story. The information about Hoss’s background and his own meditations on his actions during the war hint at some of the ways in which he might have played a role in Sophie’s fate and create a sense of foreboding. Sophie’s own prior insistence that she is a bad person and has done bad things furthers this impression of dark secrets waiting to be revealed.