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Sophie’s Choice is narrated retrospectively by a successful novelist named Stingo, who reminisces about events that took place more than twenty years earlier in the summer of 1947. That summer, Stingo was twenty-two. Having grown up in Virginia, he moved to New York City to pursue his ambition of being a writer. After working briefly in the publishing industry, he lost his job and decided to spend the next several months focusing on his writing while living off of a family inheritance. He rented a cheap room in a boarding house in Brooklyn where he made friends with two of the other tenants, Nathan Landau and Sophie Zawistowska. Nathan was a Jewish-American biologist, while Sophie was Polish and Catholic. After being interned in a concentration camp during World War II, Sophie had immigrated to the United States, where she found work and learned English. Nathan and Sophie had a volatile relationship with both intense sexual passion and violent arguments in which Nathan seemed to be both physically and emotionally abusive towards Sophie.
Stingo quickly began to spend most of his time with the couple. His two other preoccupations were the novel he was writing, about the tragic life and death of a beautiful young woman, and his hopes of finding a woman willing to sleep with him. Stingo begrudgingly admired Nathan, although he often felt uneasy due to Nathan’s sudden fits of aggression and strange moods. Stingo also nursed a crush on the beautiful Sophie and began to learn more about her past. Sophie told him aspects of her past in fragmented and non-linear ways, and Stingo explains that Sophie sometimes left out important information that she only revealed later.
Sophie grew up well educated and privileged in Poland. Her father was a professor, and Sophie married another academic at a young age. At first, Sophie claims her father was a liberal man who tried to advocate for Polish Jews, but she later admits that he was a harsh, repressive, and fiercely anti-Semitic man. He forced Sophie to help him prepare and distribute pamphlets advocating for the extermination of Jewish people. When Germany invaded Poland in the autumn of 1939, Sophie’s husband and father were rounded up and imprisoned along with many other Polish teachers and intellectuals. Both men died in a prison camp only months later.
After these deaths, Sophie and her mother moved to Warsaw in 1940 and lived there for three years. During this time, Sophie worked in a factory and became friends with a woman named Wanda, who was active in the Polish Resistance. In March 1943, Sophie was arrested for smuggling a ham and taken to a concentration camp. Wanda was arrested as well, and Sophie’s two children, Jan and Eva, were also seized and jailed. The existence of these two children is only revealed gradually, and Sophie initially did not mention them when she talked about her past with Stingo. The group was sent to Auschwitz, where Sophie, Wanda, and Jan were sent to the work camp. Eva, Sophie’s younger child, was sent to be killed immediately.
Sophie’s skill with languages and typing meant that she became a valuable prisoner at the labor camp and was given slightly privileged treatment. In the autumn of 1943, Sophie was sent to work at the home of Commandant Rudolf Hoss, the Nazi official who was in charge of managing the mass killings taking place at the camp. Her knowledge of multiple languages and ability to type and transcribe meant she could provide useful secretarial services. While doing her work, Sophie was able to get to know Hoss, who admitted that he was attracted to her but was unwilling to engage in a sexual relationship. Sophie tried to endear herself to him by claiming to be anti-Semitic. Her main goal was to be allowed to see Jan or to have him released from the camp. However, Hoss only offered vague promises that he would try to help her son, and Sophie never learned whether Jan was freed or died in the camp.
Stingo learned this information about Sophie’s past gradually over the months of June, July, and August. After months of happy friendship, one day in August, Nathan had a fit of anger toward Sophie and accused her of infidelity. The fight led to the couple separating and moving out of the boarding house, but Stingo accidentally crossed paths with Sophie a few days later. Sophie and Stingo went drinking together, and she told him additional details about her past, particularly about her time at Auschwitz. She also told Stingo some dark details about her relationship with Nathan. There had been previous episodes of erratic violence, and Nathan had a habit of abusing drugs. Months earlier, after suggesting they get married, Nathan had proposed a suicide pact in which he and Sophie would die together.
Sophie, Nathan, and Stingo reconciled after this episode, but later in the autumn, Stingo learned that Nathan was a paranoid schizophrenic who actively lied about his life and career. While Stingo was preoccupied with his own life, Nathan erupted in another violent outburst, and threatened the lives of both Stingo and Sophie. He believed that the two of them were having an affair. Worried for their lives, Stingo and Sophie left New York, planning to move to Virginia. As they travelled, Sophie shared more information about her past and eventually revealed a horrific episode she had never shared with anyone before. When Sophie first arrived at Auschwitz, she was told that one of her children would be killed immediately, and she had to choose which one. Sophie chose Eva and had been haunted by this action ever since.
After Sophie told Stingo about her terrible choice, she and Stingo had sex. The next morning, Stingo awakened to find that Sophie had returned to New York alone. He followed her but arrived back at the boarding house to learn that Sophie and Nathan had committed suicide together. Stingo has been haunted by memories of that summer and his relationship with Sophie ever since.