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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Guilt is a major force in the novel, and not all characters respond to it in the same manner. Some characters have the ability to reconcile with the tragedies of the past while others are consumed by it. As a white man who has grown up with wealth and privilege in the American South, Stingo knows that he has benefitted from the suffering and disenfranchisement of Black people. Although he sometimes feels guilt about the violence and suffering associated with slavery and racism in the South, Stingo does not feel personally responsible for this history, and he does not feel that he has to atone for it. Stingo acknowledges what happened in the past and thinks about ways to commemorate it, such as by writing about Nat Turner. Sophie, on the other hand, has a much more personal and direct experience of the horrors of the Holocaust. Her history makes it impossible for her to move forward with her life. Sophie believes that she failed to live up to moral obligations of resisting the Nazi regime and instead became complicit with it in order to try to ensure her safety and the safety of her children. As a result, her guilt is much more torturous and destructive.
Liberation through Sexual Experience
The desire for sexual experience reveals characters’ aspirations to become more liberated and fully realized versions of themselves. Throughout the novel, Stingo is obsessed with his quest to lose his virginity. This desire stems partially from a goal of physical gratification but also from a belief that he will become more confident, worldly, and self-actualized once he has had sex. Stingo sees sex as a gateway to maturity and the self-assurance that he desperately craves. While Sophie has had sex prior to beginning her relationship with Nathan, she becomes much more sexually liberated once she starts sleeping with him. This transition reflects Sophie’s desire to abandon the past version of herself, when she was religious, conservative, and repressed in her sexuality. Sophie’s newfound enthusiasm for sexual self-expression reflects a desire to free herself from her past and become a new version of herself.
Throughout the novel, horrifying events become even more tragic when they rob individuals of the comfort that faith can provide. Sophie talks repeatedly about how her experiences during the Holocaust left her unable to have faith in God or religion, even though she was initially a devout Catholic. The novel also considers the religious faith of individuals who played an active role in carrying out atrocities, such as Commandant Hoss and the physician who forced Sophie to choose which of her children would live and which would die. These men also had to grapple with what faith means in the face of the evil they are carrying out, and neither of them were able to fully reconcile the two. Because of what she lived through and her experience of watching supposedly religious people commit unspeakable atrocities, Sophie comes to believe that religion is a sham and that life is meaningless. These beliefs send her further into despair because her religious faith had once been such a strong part of her identity.