NOTE: THIS WRITEUP CONTAINS WHAT I SUPPOSE WOULD BE SPOILERS ABOUT THE BOOK. IF YOU HAVE NOT READ SOPHIE'S CHOICE AND WOULD LIKE TO, I WOULD SUGGEST NOT READING THIS WRITEUP NOW, AS IT IS INTENDED FOR AN AUDIENCE THAT KNOWS THE STORY ALREADY.

Bruce Seaton
Prof. J. Delfattore
Quiz: Sophie’s Choice
04.03.06

Use of the Frame Tale in Sophie's Choice

Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron, is in some ways a classic frame tale, moving between two times and places, a past in Nazi-controlled Europe during World War II, and a present (actually a less-distant past) in Brooklyn, New York. There are several important scenes that take place in other locations and at other times, including New England, Viginia, and New Jersey, but the main drama of the book is tied to these two points in space and time. The simplest reason for any frame tale (or story within a story) is to give the story a sense of reality, as if it is being told directly to the reader, and because of this it is often used in stories meant to fascinate and frighten the reader, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Styron, like Shelley, also uses the frame tale to create a tension between what has happened in the past and what is happening to the narrator in the present.

By flashing from one series of events and another, Styron is able to hook the reader. By bringing his reader to the very point of a climax and then shifting scenes, he is able to drag the eager reader elegantly through what might otherwise be—due in part to the sheer volume of the work—a rather tedious read. Styron leaves his characters (and the reader) in such discomforting situations many times, and in both the ‘past’ and ‘present’ timelines. Each time Nathan and Sophia disappear from Stingo’s life, Styron inserts a passage, comment, or scene from another timeline, often a scene from the war, occasionally from the true present—that is, the time in which Styron is actually writing this story. He sometimes interrupts a scene to insert commentary about others who wrote about the Holocaust, or certain political figures, particularly those involved with the SS.

It is also important to the telling of the tale that the reader begin to understand Sophie slowly, only discovering her final soul-crushing choice at the story’s close. Throughout the story, the reader is faced repeatedly—almost constantly—with the crushing guilt which consumes Sophia, and each time a piece of her horrible past is revealed, the reader can see her a little more clearly. If Styron were to tell the story chronologically, the reader would arrive at the scene in which Sophie is forced to doom Eva very early on in the story, and would spend the rest of the book waiting for Sophie to kill herself. It is crucial to the telling of the tale that this monstrous situation be one of the last moments of the story. After the reader is faced with Sophia’s darkest secret, her death is almost a relief, and can be easily seen as a mercy-killing. By slowly removing the shroud of lies Sophia has constructed, we are able to see how she could become so desperately involved with an unstable and terrifying man like Nathan.

Her motivations and eventual self-destruction also suggest that in some traumatic situations, perhaps in many situations, trauma and guilt are inseparably linked. In the cases of Sophia and Stingo this certainly seems to be the case, and this parallel between guilt and trauma becomes a major theme of the story. Sophia is consumed by her guilt, despite her knowledge that she was helpless to control her environment (and in certain, terrible cases, even her own actions) during her years in Warsaw and Auschwitz. Stingo (due in part to Styron’s use of the frame tale) becomes a mirror for Sophia, often feeling helpless or without agency, allowing unspeakable acts of cruelty to be committed against a woman he is frantically in love with. This impotence on Stingo’s part is suggested in his floundering love-life, and his guilt and trauma climax upon his realization that in part due to his inaction, Sophia and Nathan are going to die.

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