Sophie began to talk about the early months of her relationship with Nathan, in the summer and autumn of 1946. At first, she was infatuated with him and grateful for how he had helped to restore her to health and bought her expensive gifts. Nathan and Sophie had planned a weekend trip to go and observe the autumn foliage in Connecticut. The night before they were to leave, Nathan came home in a manic state and took her to a party where he made the abrupt announcement that the two of them were going to be married. However, as the conversation at the party turned to the Nuremberg trials and retribution against Nazi Germany, Sophie became disturbed and filled with a sense of foreboding.

The narrative skips ahead to a scene of Nathan showing Sophie a capsule of sodium cyanide and instructing her how to use it. It then returns to the morning of their departure for Connecticut when Nathan awakened Sophie in Brooklyn and told her to get ready to leave for their trip. He was already high and continued to consume substances throughout the day. During their drive, Nathan abruptly became extremely angry and lashed out at Sophie, accusing her of being unfaithful. As he became more agitated, he began to drive recklessly. A passing police car pulled them over for speeding, and Sophie charmed the officer into letting them off with a warning. As they continued to drive, Nathan began to rant about the fact that Sophie survived the Holocaust while so many others perished and accused her of colluding with the Nazis. He even taunted her by calling her Irma, in reference to Irma Grese, a notorious female Nazi prison guard.

Nathan eventually pulled over and dragged Sophie into the woods where he demanded that she perform oral sex on him. Afterward, he beat and kicked her while she lay passively. Nathan finally stopped as he began to panic that he was coming down from his high, and Sophie helped him to get back to the car and take more pills to settle himself. They went on to the inn where they would be staying, and once they were in their room, Nathan showed her the lethal pills he had prepared and explained his plan. Sophie experienced a strange sense of calm and did not argue. They spent a few hours in the room, periodically being interrupted by the innkeeper asking if they wanted to come down for dinner or drinks. Eventually, Nathan fell asleep from all the drugs he had consumed, and Sophie flushed the cyanide capsules down the toilet. When Nathan woke up calmly, Sophie told him that she had a son named Jan and that the boy was lost at Auschwitz. She made Nathan promise to never ask her to talk about her son again.

Analysis: Chapters Ten and Eleven

Although Sophie blames herself for the way she behaved during her time at Auschwitz, this section of the novel provides compelling evidence that she was a victim who did the best that she could in an unimaginable situation. In her narration, Sophie emphasizes how she was better off than many prisoners in the camp, and this deflects attention from how much she still suffered. Sophie’s position as a Christian, Polish woman renders her account of Auschwitz complex and has sometimes led to criticism of Styron’s novel for representing the Holocaust through the story of someone who was not Jewish. Still, there is no doubt that Sophie suffered immense hardship, and her insistence on minimizing her trauma reflects an inability to fully cope with it. This tendency to minimize and repress her suffering is highlighted by the way she brushes aside the sexual assault she suffered on the day she tried to seduce Hoss. Sophie’s insistence on focusing on the ways she failed and violated her principles, rather than on the many ways she was violated and wronged, show that she is blaming and tormenting herself for the wrongdoings of others.

Sophie’s revelation that she had a child reveals the depth of the trauma she is grappling with and how disassociated she has become from her past. Sophie’s insistence that neither Nathan nor Stingo ever speak to her about her son reveals that Sophie is trying to live her life as though her child simply never existed. Sophie has a misguided belief that this approach will minimize her pain and allow her to move forward, but her refusal to acknowledge her trauma forestalls any attempt at healing from it. Sophie’s insistence on remaining in an abusive relationship and defining herself as a bad and shameful person also show that she is not coping with her losses. Sophie also displays self-loathing and disgust when describing trying to ingratiate herself to Hoss and beg him to have mercy on her son. Sophie does not seem to realize that she was powerless in this moment and that strategies such as seducing Hoss were the only recourse she had. Her actions inspire sympathy, especially once it becomes clear that Sophie was trying to protect her child.

The portrayal of Commandant Hoss in this section represents a complex character who can encompass evil and ordinary human qualities. Stingo’s earlier discussion of Hoss’s autobiography introduced the Commandant as a man who utterly absolved himself of moral responsibility in deference to a rhetoric of duty and loyalty. In his interactions with Sophie, Hoss shows a similar pattern of grotesquely treating his task of slaughtering thousands of human beings as though it is merely a complicated administrative responsibility. His lack of irony when he complains to Sophie about feeling overburdened and overstretched by the demands placed upon him reveals that he has completely dehumanized the people who are being slaughtered in the camp. Through his portrayal of Hoss, Styron illuminates the mindset required for mass atrocities to be carried out. Hoss has cut himself off from any ability to reflect on his moral agency within the system he propagates, and he depicts himself as merely a cog in a machine. Hoss’s chilling displacement of agency hints at why Sophie clings so strongly to the notion that she is “bad.” If she can see herself as bad, then she at least continues to exist within a moral universe where individual decisions carry weight. If Sophie rationalizes her actions, she would be participating in the pattern of Nazi officials and conspirators abdicating responsibility.