Summary: Chapter Eight

Nathan, Stingo, and Sophie began to frequent a bar close to the boarding house. Nathan also read a portion of Stingo’s novel and praised it, which delighted Stingo. The summer weeks passed by happily until one evening when Stingo went to meet Sophie and Nathan at the bar. Sophie arrived first, explaining that Nathan was going to share news of a scientific breakthrough with them. Stingo wholeheartedly believed in Nathan’s brilliance and speculated that Nathan might have developed a drug to cure cancer. However, Sophie confided that when she saw Nathan earlier in the day, he had been in a strange mood and was possibly suffering from symptoms of an illness. Stingo did not have much time to spend with his friends because he had to go to the train station to meet his father, who was arriving in New York that evening to visit him. While Sophie and Stingo waited for Nathan, Sophie mused on how much she detested religion now that she had seen how cruel the world could be. Stingo went to the washroom, and when he returned, Nathan had arrived and was yelling angrily at Sophie. Nathan was accusing Sophie of having an affair with a chiropractor. Stingo was overwhelmed and unsure how to act.

Stingo tried to change the topic to something happier and praised Nathan’s successful discovery. Nathan, however, remained angry and embittered and began to rage again about the racism of the American South. Stingo eventually tried to come to the South’s defense, which only made Nathan angrier, and he lashed out against both Sophie and Stingo. Eventually, Nathan accused Sophie of having colluded in some way with the Nazi powers since that seemed to him to be the only way she could have survived the war. Stingo fled to the washroom, and when he returned, Sophie and Nathan were gone. Stingo was totally overwhelmed and sent his father a message telling him to go straight to the hotel. He returned to the boarding house, where he was alarmed to see that Sophie’s room was in total disarray and that most of the items had been removed from Nathan’s room. Morris Fink explained that Sophie and Nathan had come back to the house while Nathan had continued to rage at her. They had packed all their things and then gotten in two separate cabs and departed. Nathan was heard yelling that he would be happy to never see her again.

Summary: Chapter Nine

Stingo narrates some of the events that have happened since that summer of 1947. He went on to publish the novel he was writing at the time, and the book was successful. He followed up this effort with more fiction and some journalism, and in 1967, he published another acclaimed novel. After this success, Stingo was at a loss as to what to do next and began to spend a lot of time reminiscing about his friendship with Nathan and Sophie twenty years earlier. Although he did not yet begin to write about the events of 1947, his reflections led him to read a book about the Holocaust called Language and Silence by George Steiner. Steiner comments on how impossible it is to conceptualize how, at the very same moment that atrocities were being committed, other people were living totally normal lives. This insight was striking to Stingo because he has often reflected how, on April 1, 1943, Sophie arrived at Auschwitz, and simultaneously, he was trying to get himself enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. At that time, he viewed the war as primarily a conflict with the Japanese.

Stingo explains that there were two events Sophie told him about that she never shared with Nathan. One was something that she only told him on the last day they spent together, and Stingo does not yet reveal this information to the reader. However, one day in August 1947, Sophie abruptly told Stingo about some events that took place in the autumn of 1943. By that time, Sophie’s skill with language and her ability to type, transcribe, and conduct other secretarial tasks had led to her being assigned to work as a kind of private secretary to Commandant Hoss. One day, as she was transcribing letters for Hoss, he paused to admire a beautiful horse outside his office window and then asked Sophie about her religious faith, revealing that he no longer believed in Christianity. These glimpses of something more than professional interest led Sophie to the idea of trying to seduce Hoss. She knew she must act quickly because she had heard rumors that Hoss was going to be transferred away from the camp.

When Sophie first arrived at Auschwitz, she was not immediately sent to the gas chambers to die. Although most people had all their possessions taken away immediately, Sophie managed to hang on to a pair of boots in which she had hidden a pamphlet written by her father years earlier. This pamphlet was a piece of anti-Semitic writing that implied that the Nazi approach to exterminating the Jewish population was a good strategy. When Sophie told Stingo this information, it contradicted what she had told him weeks earlier when she had presented her father as a liberal man who advocated for the rights of Jews. Sophie now admitted that her father was a harsh and intolerant person, and that she had had a difficult relationship with him. However, Sophie was compelled to be obedient, and she typed up pieces of racist propaganda for him, including the pamphlet.

Sophie was disturbed by her experience preparing her father’s pamphlet because it made it clear that her father was advocating for the extermination of Jewish people. Moreover, when Sophie made a mistake in preparing the pamphlet, her father mocked her cruelly. He also insisted that both Sophie and her husband help to distribute the pamphlet, and while Sophie hated him for making her do this, she did not know how to refuse. She and her husband distributed the pamphlet, but it failed to make an impression because everyone in Cracow was too preoccupied with worrying about the impending war. Although she hated her father and felt indifferent to her husband, Sophie still grieved their deaths.

Analysis: Chapters Eight and Nine

This section of the novel is defined by the emergence of secrets that have been implied but not yet discussed explicitly in the text. Over the course of his developing friendship with Nathan and Sophie, Stingo chose to overlook the violence in their relationship because he wanted to enjoy the pleasure of their companionship. Stingo was naïve enough to believe the best about people, and he also had his own motivations for continuing the friendship. Both Sophie and Nathan feed Stingo’s ego in different ways. Stingo has two key points of insecurity: his talent as a writer and his appeal to women. Although she doesn’t seem to show sexual interest in him, Sophie’s affection for Stingo helps him believe that he could be desirable to other women and allows him to occupy a kind of surrogate position as her partner. Nathan, meanwhile, feeds Stingo’s ego when he praises Stingo’s writing. Stingo is so enthralled by these gratifications that he ignores his misgivings and become extremely close to the two lovers, which leaves him vulnerable when Nathan’s inner darkness abruptly emerges.

The particular nature of the way Nathan attacks Sophie reflects both his insecurities and her vulnerability. Because Nathan and Sophie are so close and she trusts him completely, he knows that she carries a lot of guilt and shame. By attacking the fact that she survived the Holocaust when so many others died, Nathan uses the trust and vulnerability Sophie has shown him to cause her as much pain as possible by exploiting her deepest source of grief and shame. Nathan also uses a more conventional strategy to shame Sophie by accusing her of being unfaithful and sexually promiscuous, revealing that in spite of his apparently liberal values, he is haunted by a traditional masculine insecurity. Part of why Stingo is so disturbed by Nathan’s outburst is that he has idolized the older man as someone who is confident, in control, and free of the self-doubt that perpetually torments Stingo. When Nathan reveals his paranoid and outlandish suspicions that Sophie is being unfaithful, Stingo effectively loses a hero and role model whom he had admired.

This section shows both a moment when Stingo failed to live up to his aspirations and a glimpse of the man he becomes years later. Stingo’s youth, inexperience, and affection for Nathan leave him paralyzed and unable to act when Sophie is being verbally attacked. Stingo’s inability to stand up for his principles and defend someone vulnerable in a moment of crisis reflects the novel’s close examination of the gap between how people hope they will behave under adverse circumstances and how they actually do. Sophie’s memories also feature a motif of moments when she found herself unable or unwilling to stand up against evil forces and instead remained either complicit or passive. In a small way, Stingo’s inability to stand up to Nathan during this altercation shows that many people fail to display integrity at the very moments when it matters the most. Nonetheless, the start of Chapter Nine implies that Stingo grows up to be not only successful but a man who thinks seriously about integrity and using his talents as a force for good in the world. In this section, Stingo reveals his ability to think about ethical questions from multiple angles by grappling with questions about creative responsibility when writing about the Holocaust. In contrast to the passivity young Stingo displayed during the confrontation with Nathan, as a mature man, he commits himself to trying to share difficult stories so that atrocities will never be forgotten or repeated.

Stingo’s reflections on how hearing Sophie’s story changed his understanding of the Holocaust shed light on the novel’s central goal and moral project. For many people, by the time Styron’s novel was published in 1979, events from World War II seemed remote and as though they belonged to another generation. Stingo’s key insight is that he was alive and moving ignorantly and innocently through his day-to-day activities at the precise moment when Sophie was experiencing the atrocities she described. This connection of vastly different experiences unfolding at the same moment in time creates a sense of interconnected morality that contrasts with Stingo’s earlier insistence on individualistic ethics. Although it was not Stingo’s fault that Sophie was being arrested and taken to Auschwitz at the same time that he was preoccupied with his own fairly normal concerns, this dichotomy of experience is not something he could comfortably ignore. Stingo achieves a moral revelation when he realizes that what happens to one person must matter to everyone else, but he can only achieve this insight by learning from an individual story of someone he cares about.

Sophie’s revelation of the truth about her father provides the first explicit evidence of prior hints that she is an unreliable narrator. Sophie’s decision to confide to Stingo that her father was actually an anti-Semite reveals key aspects of her character and sheds light on some of her motivations. Sophie is willing to tolerate Nathan’s accusations that she is a liar and a bad person because she feels these claims are true and align with her own view of herself, based on her past actions. Nathan’s sense that Sophie is withholding and lying leads him to believe that she is being unfaithful, but the information that Sophie withholds actually relates to her past, not her sexual behavior. Sophie is motivated to lie to Nathan because of concerns for her physical safety and the stability of their relationship, and these concerns echo her motivations when she complied with Hoss during her time in the concentration camp and with her father in creating the pamphlet.

Sophie has a pattern of surrendering her agency to men and focusing her efforts on pleasing them even if this requires her to act in ways that undermine her own sense of moral rectitude. First with her father, then with Hoss, and finally with Nathan, Sophie positions herself as passive, accepting, and willing to lie and deny her own values. This pattern is self-perpetuating because every time Sophie betrays herself in order to achieve the protection of a man, she becomes more self-loathing and more vulnerable to accepting whatever way she will be treated in the future. Sophie is compelled to tell the truth about her father before she can explain what happened between her and Hoss because she sees these two incidents as interconnected and as damning evidence of herself failing to live up to her beliefs.