Tragedy and Oppression:
Sophie Zawistowska as Victim in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice
Then again I fell asleep, only to wake with a start just before dawn, in the dead silence of the hour, with pounding heart and an icy chill staring straight up at my ceiling above which Sophie slept, understanding with a dreamer’s fierce clarity that she was doomed. (Styron 63).
These words uttered by Stingo, the hero of William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice, embody the disastrous and ill-fated Zosia Bieganski Zawistowska. A Polish survivour of Nazi concentration camps, Sophie endeavours to transcend her past but is unable to do so, enduring a life dictated and dominated by men: a tyrannical father, an unappreciative husband, Nazi oppressors, and a psychotic Jewish-American boyfriend. Rarely procuring an understanding, sustaining relationship with any man, her love and life are ultimately doomed, thus enforcing Sophie’s status as a classically tragic figure. The gender constriction and subjugation in Sophie’s Choice, inflicted by a male-dominated society, constitutes my discussion of Styron’s central female protagonist: Sophie is a tragic woman due to her oppression from the narrative’s male patriarchy.
Professor Zbigniew Bieganski, Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence at the Jagiellonian University of Cracow; Doctor of Law at the Universities of Karlova, Bucharest, Heidelberg, and Leipzig, is his daughter’s nemesis. Sophie’s first description of the Professor is a fond one – a seemingly flawless man, he represents the perfect father; Sophie has pleasant memories of him “strolling along beside her, running his fingers though the tangles of her yellow hair”, taking the young girl for pony rides in the gardens of Wawel Castle.
After adolescent passage, Sophie feels a distance growing between herself and her father: love for the Professor eventually turns to hatred. Despite Sophie’s portrayal of an extraordinarily liberal and tolerant upbringing, Professor Bieganski emerges a merciless domestic tyrant: “There was the constant overwhelming reality of her father, a man who had exercised over his household, and especially Sophie, a tyrannical domination so inflexible yet so cunningly subtle that she was a grown woman, fully come of age, before she realized that she loathed him past all telling” (290). The Professor’s true political sanctions are eventually revealed: he did not save Jews from pogroms, and was neither liberal nor socialist; belonging to the reactionary ENDEK (a National Democratic party), he identified Jews with communism, writing copiously on the necessity of eliminating them from all walks of life. By her father’s command, Sophie is forced to learn typing and shorthand, unaware her skills later abet the Professor’s treatise on Jewish extermination: Poland’s Jewish Problem: Does National Socialism Have the Answer?. Coerced to type and edit this manuscript, Sophie harbours an abundance of guilt knowing she participated in vehement anti-Semitism.
Sophie’s hatred of her anti-Semitic father, “the eccentric Slavic philosopher whose vision of the `final solution’ antedated that of Eichmann and his confederates”, is consolidated in a meeting with the Professor, Sophie’s husband, Kazik, and a local publisher. Proofreading his hateful manuscript before its publication in Polish and German, Professor Bieganski discovers Sophie’s prodigious errors, subsequently raging against her:
Your intelligence is pulp, like your mother’s. I don’t know where you got your body, but you did not get your brains from me (299).
Intensifying Sophie’s humiliation, Professor Bieganski insists she and Kazik distribute the pamphlet to university members. This final indignation is more than she can bear. Repressing rage, Sophie denies herself a cup of tea offered by her father during the meeting; unable to assert herself toward him, Sophie’s refusal of the proffered tea is her boldest expression of the emphatic loathing she feels. Realizing sudden, profound animosity for the man, Sophie recalls:
And it happened, this sharp stab of hatred. It went through me with this surprising quick pain and I got dizzy and I thought I might fall to the floor. I was hot all over, in a blaze. I said to myself: I hate him – with a kind of terrible wonder at the hatred which entered into me. It was incredible, the surprise of this hatred, only with awful pain – like a butcher knife in my heart (300).
When her father and husband later die in a fusillade of bullets at Sachsenhausen, Sophie feels no bereavement over their deaths; she grieves, not for the loss of her loved ones, but for Poland’s imminent danger. Reflecting on the Holocaust, Sophie’s disdain for her father and his ideologies are evident:
I sometimes got to think that everything bad on earth, every evil that was ever invented had to do with my father … I could barely live with the idea that my father’s dreams were coming true right in front of my eyes … it was what my father had wanted – and it made me ill (568).
Sophie’s husband, Kazik Zawistowska, constitutes a formidable oppressor. Initially depicting an idyllic union, Sophie claims undying love for Kazik, exalting their relationship. She eventually discloses their problematic marriage: Kazik is a copy of Sophie’s father – domineering, insensitive, and cruel; demeaning and ridiculing Sophie, he declares her “stupid” and “incompetent”. When Professor Bieganski castigates Sophie’s erroneous manuscript typing, Kazik revels in her debasement and denigration: Sophie looks at her husband to find him “giving this little smile, only I was not surprised that this look on his face seemed to share my father’s contempt … I really had no love for Kazik either at that time, I had no more love for my husband than for a stone-faced stranger I had never seen before in my life” (298).
Essentially the Professor’s lackey, Kazik denigrates Sophie’s ambitions and confidence. Enduring a marriage comprised of domestic upheavals, the pair know their love is irreparable; expressing dissatisfaction with Sophie, Kazik callously says to her:
You must get this under your thick skull, which may be thicker even than your father says it is. If I am no longer able to function with you, it is, you understand, due to no lack of virility but because almost everything about you, especially your body, leaves me totally without sensation… I cannot stand even the smell of your bed (471-472).
Professor Bieganski and Kazik Zawistowska collectively establish Sophie’s capacity for subservience, subjugation, and guilt. Crude, insensitive, and above all, detestable, their presence in the novel symbolizes Poland’s inherent political/social oppression, and, in a broader context, the omnipresent force of universal patriarchy. Sophie’s choices have been made out of passivity and fear of the male patriarchy; succumbing to the will of a domineering father and husband in propagation of anti-Semitism, the brave things Sophie does (stealing the ham for her sick mother, attempting to steal the radio at Hoss’s house), have been circumvented, thus enhancing her sense of worthlessness.
An influential force raising Sophie to tragic stature, through total manipulation and oppression, is Nazism. The destruction of Sophie’s esteem, pride, and self-respect is perpetuated by three predominant members of the Nazi party: SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Rudolph Franz Hoss, Commandant of Auschwitz; Professor Walter Durrfeld; and Hauptsturmfuhrer Fritz Jemand von Niemand, Doctor of Medicine. Although the entire Reich is a paradigmatic symbol of oppression, it is these three men most profoundly affecting Sophie’s life.
Sophie’s introduction to the Reich’s deception and power is illustrated by Professor Walter Durrfeld. Visiting the Bieganski household in Cracow during the summer of 1937, Durrfeld discreetly courts Sophie, delineating Germany’s musical pleasures. Enraptured by Durrfeld, Sophie, unaware the man is a powerful anti-Semite, compares him to her contemptible father, concluding Professor Bieganski is “everything that music cannot be”. Sophie’s hatred for her father increases when she contrasts him to Durrfeld; he makes the Professor seem “hopelessly dowdy” and “a sycophant if not a buffoon” (465). As Durrfeld charmingly seduces Sophie during their conversation, she experiences an eroticism comparable to “the sweetly queasy sense of danger she once felt in Vienna years ago as a child at the very peak of the terrifying Prater Ferris wheel – danger both delicious and nearly unendurable”(471). Attempting to liberate herself from father and husband, Sophie transfers her feelings to another father figure, one with the same principles (though she will not admit this to herself), but more power. Understanding the relationship an impossibility, Sophie dismisses Durrfeld from her memory.
Six years later Sophie’s life is once again affected by this man. Meeting Durrfeld briefly at Auschwitz, Sophie despairingly realizes his industrialism helped build the concentration camp; ironically, this man, once offering Sophie romance and excitement, is now responsible for her suffering and misery. Sophie’s terrifying Liebestraum, involving satanic intercourse, may thus symbolically indicate Durrfeld’s transformation from a man bearing love and life, to one representing death; another of Sophie’s oppressors, Durrfeld is indicative of her treatment by the male patriarchy.
Rudolf Franz Hoss, Commandant of Auschwitz, significantly contributes to Sophie’s tragedy and subordination. Sophie profoundly abhors Hoss, knowing she must degrade herself before him to gain freedom. Subverting her principals, Sophie utilizes her father’s malicious pamphlet to convince the Commandant she is an anti-Semitic, Nazi supporter. When producing the smuggled pamphlet to Hoss, Sophie feigns Jewry hatred to maintain self-preservation:
I am only asking that this misdemeanor be weighed against my record not only as a Polish sympathizer with National Socialism but as an active and involved campaigner in the sacred war against Jews and Jewry. That pamphlet in your hand can easily be authenticated and will prove my point. I implore you – you who have the power to give clemency and freedom – to reconsider my imprisonment in the light of my past good works, and to return me to my life in Warsaw (337).
Despite Sophie’s desperate efforts, she fails – Hoss berates her “dirty Pole” status, disavowing the anti-Semitic sentiments. In a final desperate bid for freedom, Sophie offers herself sexually to the Nazi Commandant, the stolid Hoss responding: “I long to have intercourse with you … but I cannot and I will not, it is too much of a risk. It would be doomed to disaster … you must go … I am sending you back to Block Two where you came from. You will go tomorrow”(345). Sophie’s optimistic hope of freedom is totally annihilated by this dispassionate authoritarian. Reducing herself to a groveling, pleading animal, Sophie literally throws herself at Hoss’s feet, begging to see her son. Deceived and manipulated by her oppressors once again, Sophie naively trusts Hoss when he tells her: “Certainly you may see your little boy … Do you think I could deny you that? … Do you think I am some kind of monster?”(350). Hoss’s deceptive, fallacious statement typifies Sophie’s treatment by all men: they are an untrustworthy, harmful force constantly denying her freedom and happiness.
The inexorable power of the Nazi patriarchy is characterized by Fritz Jemand von Niemand, the doctor forcing Sophie to make her ultimate, excruciating choice. During the selection process at Auschwitz, Sophie becomes intrigued by the doctor’s handsome physicality. The attraction is reciprocated by a drunken von Niemand, telling Sophie: “Ich mochte mit dir schlafen” (“I’d like to get you into bed with me”). After he frightens Sophie into lying she is a believer in Christ, von Niemand retorts:
Did He not say, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto Me’ … You may keep one of your children. The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep? (588-589).
Dominating and undermining Sophie with this sexual invitation and ironic use of Christian parable, von Niemand takes submission, infidelity, betrayal, and violation to the extreme.
Paradoxically, Sophie’s use of Nazi and patriarchal philosophy goes awry, deterring efforts to keep her children; Sophie remains a woman doomed and dominated by the patriarchy, her plans consistently operating in an advertent, detrimental manner. Upon arrival at Auschwitz, Sophie significantly surrenders her daughter – not her son, empowered with male supremacy – to the ubiquitous, controlling Nazi patriarchy; transferring her own feelings of female subordination, oppression, and guilt to her daughter, Sophie thus selects Eva for woman’s ultimate punishment.
After enduring unspeakable persecution from her father, husband, and sadistic Nazis, Sophie Zawistowska arrives in America finding her definitive oppressor: Nathan Landau. Essentially, Nathan is present in Sophie’s Choice to elevate Sophie’s tragic proportions. Only after committing herself to Nathan does Sophie disclose her capacity for guilt and attraction to death, thus enhancing her tragic stature. Nathan – whose madness reflects the human condition after the Holocaust – is Sophie’s destiny, her last executioner: Sophie’s destruction began at Auschwitz; Nathan completes it in Brooklyn.
Nathan rules Sophie completely, molding her into his personal creation; she remains heavily dependent on him for survival. Substantiating part of Sophie’s attraction to this unlikely romantic figure is his frightening, abusive, dual personality: “utterly, fatally glamorous” one moment and “a ranting ogre become Prince Charming” the next, Nathan has fleeting moments in which “the attractive and compelling in him seem in absolute equipoise with the subtly and indefinable sinister”(116). Given Sophie’s guilt and self-loathing, her attachment to Nathan is inevitable; her deleterious affair with him parallels her traumas at Auschwitz, fulfilling Sophie’s masochistic desire to be punished.
When the two lovers travel to Connecticut, Sophie tolerates Nathan’s insane torment with few complaints: she exhibits a near- masochistic pleasure from his torment. Remarking on this trip, Sophie expresses her complacency toward Nathan’s ghastly abuse: ” … after all this – I was still ready for Nathan to piss on me, rape me, stab me, beat me, blind me, do anything with me that he desired … and then we made love all afternoon … and I knew Nathan and me would live for a while more together” (422). Throughout the trip to Connecticut, Sophie endures Nathan’s verbal and physical abuse, collecting it into “some cellar or dustbin within her being where she has stored up all his savagery” (433). This cellar or dustbin is reminiscent of her basement quarters in Hoss’s home, symbol of her degradation at the hands of the Nazis. A prior victim of Hoss and his regime, Sophie is now no less a victim of her saviour, Nathan Landau.
Zosia Bieganski Zawistowska’s role as a doomed, ill-fated woman is readily apparent throughout Sophie’s Choice; she suffers a life ruled by an imperious male patriarchy: a despotic father, an abusive husband, totalitarian Nazis, and a destructive, deadly lover. Despite the singularity inherent in the novel’s title, Sophie actually has many choices: to be for or against the Nazis and anti-Semites; whether or not to be a member of the Home Army Resistance; to live or to choose suicide; and, of course, the life or death choice between her offspring. When deciding which of her children are to die at Auschwitz, Sophie cries:
Ich kann nicht wahlen! (I can’t choose! I can’t choose!).
This desperate plea personifies her paradoxical life: Sophie is never afforded an option in anything she does – if a choice is offered, it is one with little freedom. Thus, in Styron’s novel, Sophie’s limited choices, gender constriction, and subjugation, epitomize her as a classically tragic woman oppressed by the forces of male patriarchy.
Styron, William. Sophie’s Choice. New York: Bantam, 1980.