Mary Rickert writes: “Gothic literature reaches for transcendence by pushing against the architecture of language. Language is, after all, the dark heart of this story, not simply the structure from which it is hung, but the gallows and the god…” I wish I had written that. Mary is an old friend; she used to live in Saratoga Springs, New York, and once took a class from me at the University at Albany during which she showed me some amazing early stories in which blended myth and fantasy in startling ways. She went off and established herself as an award-winning speculative fiction writer (with two story collections Map of Dreams and Holiday to her credit — she publishes under the name M. Rickert); later she attended Vermont College of Fine Arts — this essay was her critical thesis.
“Angel on Fire: The Gothic World of Sophie’s Choice” is Mary’s summa, her analysis of the Gothic in contemporary literature, the cultural tensions that inform it, and the linguistic (craft) habits that define it. It’s a masterful analysis of an aesthetic that informs much of American literature from the South, but it’s also Mary’s aesthetic, the thing that drives her compositions and tastes.
The sticky matter of Gothic literature’s standing, the sense that it cannot rise above a certain lowly state, resides in part in the fact that the very word used to define it carries a barbarous connotation.
The Goths were a German tribe who invaded Eastern and Western Europe between the third and fifth centuries. All that remains of this once conquering people is a fourth-century Bible translation, and their poor reputation. The first time the word Gothic was used to describe the architectural form, it was meant as an insult, a way to convey the horror of flying buttresses and turrets so offensive to the notions of good taste that in Oxford, undergraduates and young dons used to stop on their afternoon walks in order to laugh at Keble College, with its Gothic proportions, considered the “ugliest building in the world.” (Clark 2)
Beauty, in all its forms, is not, in fact, a permanent state but a reflection of the society that defines it. In the eighteenth century, critics classified any deviation from conventional proportion and symmetry as “deformities exhibited by the absence of taste of a barbaric age.” (Botting 20)
Yet a building described as Gothic today is not automatically, or universally, considered an eyesore. In the realm of architecture Gothic has risen above the status of insult. What remains is a form appreciated or derided based on its own particular success.
Opera, obviously reliant upon language in a manner architecture is not, turned to classical myth as early inspiration, believing that music was the natural language of the gods. Yet opera, with its stage suicides, man-to-swan metamorphoses, spousal murders and spurned lovers, arguably populated by the same wide expanse of emotions as the Gothic, is held up as high art, a territory of those with refined or sensitive taste, while Gothic literature is routinely deemed a cheap, sentimental expression of the work of the lower classes. Even the terms associated with Gothic fiction – the “dime novel,” or “penny dreadful” – express this class element: inexpensively produced fiction with the “consequent implication that it is merely a literature of surfaces and sensations.” (Thompson 1)
Gothic literature is, by definition, a “writing of excess,” (Botting 2) “attacked throughout the second half of the eighteenth century for encouraging emotions.”(Botting 4)
While it can be argued that all literature is an art of emotion, consideration must be given to the relative value placed on its expression by the gate-keepers of artistic and social acceptance.
The values that gave shape and direction to the Enlightenment, dominated as it was by writings from Greek and Roman culture, privileged forms of cultural or artistic production that attended to the classical rules. Buildings, works of art, gardens, landscapes and written texts had to conform to precepts of uniformity, proportion and order. (Botting 22)
Distressing as this state of affairs is in a society still largely reliant on an order that has produced wars, genocide and a population which seeks meaning in things, it is particularly disappointing to see in the literary community. After all, who is better suited to break the illusion of “reality” than the artisans of the words by which it is defined?
And yet so febrile is the need to maintain accepted standards of what it means to be good that, as G. R. Thompson writes in the introduction to The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism,
classic works of fiction which employ Gothic conventions and subjects… tend not to be critically examined in the tradition of a Gothic mode but in some other, more acceptable tradition of the novel. (1-2)
In other words, if it’s Gothic, how can it be good?
While an exploration of this class divide and its lingering effect on the literary conversation is certainly worthy of attention and inquiry, what I’d like to focus on at this time is an example of the ultimate excellence the Gothic form can achieve. After all, Gothic literature, like all genres (and there are those who consider “literary” another genre) is defined by its content, but that content’s expression has as much opportunity for excellence as any other.
William Stryon’s novel, Sophie’s Choice is narrated by Stingo, remembering the summer when he was twenty-two and rented a Brooklyn apartment in a house painted an “overwhelming pinkness.” (Styron 35) Stingo, a young writer, finds there the source of inspiration for the novel in which we find him: Sophie, a beautiful, intelligent and tragic concentration camp survivor, her charismatic, controlling and dangerous boyfriend, Nathan, and an inheritance of evil that cannot be escaped. This is set, not in some distant era of darkly fantastic origin, but in the twentieth century with its prized rationality. However, Stingo clearly states that his interests and the interests of this novel rest in the Gothic realm:
In my career as a writer I have always been attracted to morbid themes – suicide, rape, murder, military life, marriage, slavery. Even at that early time I knew my first work would be flavored by a certain morbidity – I had the feeling in my bones, it may be called the “tragic sense” (118-119)
Stingo doesn’t stop with this general allusion to the now famously dark matter of Sophie’s Choice to incite a Gothic reading, but offers several descriptions of characters and material as explicitly Gothic. When he writes of the Cracow of Sophie’s childhood, Stingo describes it as in “Gothic repose.” (95) Elsewhere, he alludes to his own childhood as being bound up “less with the crazy Gothic side of a Southern upbringing.” (220) The reader is introduced to the character Rudolf Franz Hoss as “a leading villain from Central Casting… a modern Gothic freak” (159) whose speech is described as bearing “clotted Gothic ratiocination.” (242) Near the end of the book, when Stingo reads a letter from Sophie, he notes how the influence of German language has permeated her writing style like “Gothic stone.” (545)
The language of the Gothic tends to be reflective of the excess which defines the form. Gothic language is not tamed into docile sentences that bear little trace of their progenitor. Gothic language, by definition, bares teeth and claws, or as Foucault says in Language to Infinity, “The language of terror is dedicated to an endless expanse…It drives itself out of any possible resting place.” (Botting 1)
The language of Sophie’s Choice moves with liquid grace between the brutal (the first time Stingo meets Nathan he is calling Sophie a cunt) and the beautiful.
Later in the night’s starry hours, chill now with the breath of fall and damp with Atlantic wind, I stood on the beach alone. It was silent here, and save for the blazing stars, enfolding dark; bizarre spires and minarets, Gothic roofs, baroque towers loomed in spidery silhouettes against the city’s afterglow. (Styron 561)
Styron’s use of the poetic resonance created between the words “hours,” “stars,” “spires,” “towers” in conjunction with the flat tonal sounds of “chill,” “fall,” “damp,” “stood,” “dark,” “roofs” energizes this short passage so the reader feels that Gothic reach – grounded by gravity, seeking transcendence.
Styron also uses rhyme with its whimsical notes, for instance, as he does when listing Sophie’s relationship to food. “Bratwurst. Braunschweiger. Some sardines. Hot pastrami. Lox. A bagel, please.” (97) Rhyme is employed as well to direct the reader’s correct pronunciation of two different women’s names while highlighting an attribute of Stingo’s emotional connection with each. “…Maria (rhyming, in Southern fashion with pariah.)” (46) and “Leslie Lapides (rhyming, please, with ‘Ah feed us.’)” (129)
Nathan, Sophie’s troubled boyfriend, has a talent for mimicry used to both charm Stingo and mock his Southern upbringing. “His voice took on the syrupy synthetic tones of deepest Dixieland.” (58) Nathan’s talent is an opportunity to broaden the landscape of the novel, and to engage with the story of Gothic America, the experience of Southern Slavery, a reflective theme throughout. Every time Nathan uses his Southern accent the reader is reminded that Stingo is supporting his modest, yet privileged, lifestyle with old family money acquired from the sale of a slave. In this way Styron uses Nathan’s mimicry to direct the reader to consider that no single nation owns brutality.
Nathan isn’t the only one with a talent for language. Sophie speaks Polish, French, German, Russian, English and Yiddish. Her linguistic skill provides her with the temporary shelter of her own bed at Auschwitz. She keeps the anti-Semitic pamphlet she helped her father produce close to her body in hopes that it can be used as barter of some kind. Later, when she comes to America, Sophie finds a job working in the office of a Chiropractor, where she communicates to his patients in Yiddish. Sophie may have once had dreams of teaching music, but she is relegated to using her talent for sound to provide her with the rudimentary skills that allow her employment as a receptionist. From the work Sophie is able to acquire because of her talent for language, she is paid and from that money she is able to buy food, the rhapsodic source of that earlier cited list. Sophie, essentially, is fed through words; her survival as well as her guilt resides in them.
Sophie meets Nathan, the man whose character acts as both death and life force when he rescues her at the library where she’s come looking for Emily Dickenson and, confronted by the rude Shalom Weiss, faints. “Shalom Weiss may easily have thought that he had slain her with language.” (112) In the midst of this humorous connotation, Styron invokes the bedevilment that lurks on every page of this Holocaust novel; words shape the world, and their power for rejuvenation is measured against their destructive force.
When a Gothic novel fails in its use of language it is often through pushing the boundaries at sentence level alone, words as embroidery, nothing more. What Styron does so well here is make language visible in such a manner that it becomes almost unbound. The word is the stuff of the sentence, the paragraph, the story, but it is also the soundtrack, the landscape, the evil, and the good. Stingo, who bears witness to this tale of suffering, seeks its meaning within the very mechanics of that which induced the suffering – the word.
Why does the Gothic writer seek to make language visible when current fashion insists that to be visible is to be gauche? Well, first it must be said that by definition, to be gauche is not to care about it. More important, though, the Gothic writer believes that the way to move beyond language is not by hiding behind it but by moving through it to the sublime.
Gothic architecture pushed flying buttresses against notions of ideal form, not as an exercise in excess, but in order that, as Abbot Suger said about the intention of his design of St. Denis, “Man may rise to the contemplation of the divine, through the senses.” (melissae.lmes.blogspot.com)
Gothic literature reaches for transcendence by pushing against the architecture of language. Language is, after all, the dark heart of this story, not simply the structure from which it is hung, but the gallows and the god: “…for even then I was compelled to search, however inadequately, for the right word and suffered over the rhythms and subtleties of our glorious but unbenevolent tongue.” (Styron 120)
Styron burrows into language by miming its force for generation as well as decimation. He uses language to reveal its beautiful potential as well as its foul. Through Sophie’s talent for languages he explores the mobile foundation of meaning. Through Nathan’s talent for mimicry, Stryon explores the susceptibility of language to corruption. Through his consideration of the Southern dialect, Stryon explores the landscape of evil.
Gothic writers know that no word is as flat as it appears. Every word is a geode. Break it open and there exists inside a small shining gem, like a star. What Styron does is break open language by burrowing into it, moving beyond its limitations to reveal its expansion, finally producing a galaxy of light.
What is now universally understood about the Gothic elements in architecture – that the introduction of flying buttresses, pointed arches, and stained glass windows was meant to introduce height and light in an effort to create a medium between Heaven and earth – is frequently forgotten in consideration of Gothic literature.
In Gothic, Fred Botting sums up Edmund Burke’s APhilosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime by explaining that “while beauty could be contained within the individual’s gaze or comprehension, sublimity presented an excess that could not be processed by a rational mind.” (39) In Gothic literature, where the reach is for the sublime, much depends on the emotions.
While the Gothic form is fungible, responsive to the environment of the time that produces it, its source is rooted in the expansive emotions of Romanticism.
The marvelous incidents and chivalric customs of Romances, the descriptions of wild and elemental natural settings, the gloom of the graveyard and ruin, the scale and permanence of the architecture, the terror and wonder of the sublime, all become important features of the eighteenth century Gothic novel. (Botting 30)
The modern fairy tale is arguably the extreme romance of our time, generally founded on impossible beauty, perfect affection and happy endings. “Fairy tale” is not the term that comes to most readers’ minds when considering Sophie’s Choice. Yet Styron frequently employs fairy-tale imagery, as when Sophie tells Stingo how Nathan saved her life, calling him her “Prince Charming.” (168) Stingo and Sophie are sitting in the park when “clouds like creamy blobs, iridescent Disneyesque confections” float overhead. (169) Later, with much evidence to the contrary, Stingo, too, refers to Nathan as Sophie’s Prince Charming and her “redemptive knight.” (339)
Nathan is drawn as a figure of love and its explosive opposite. The first time Stingo meets Nathan he behaves abysmally to Sophie before abandoning her. While Stingo comforts Sophie, Nathan returns, not as the Prince or the Knight, but in the “phantasmal silence” (53) of a ghost, or at least a creature not entirely of the living. A neighbor tells Stingo that Nathan is a golem. (63) Eventually, Stingo observes that Sophie’s love for Nathan was “like dementia” (159) and Stingo wishes Sophie would choose him instead of Nathan. “The death force is gone,” thinks Stingo. “Love me!” (379)
In the dramatic pushing-the-boundaries fashion of Gothic fiction, Sophie loves Nathan and Stingo loves Sophie in the lusting, yearning, tortured manner of the virgin poet. The first time Stingo meets Sophie he falls “if not instantaneously, then swiftly and fathomlessly in love with her.” (49)
One would expect then that in the language of romance, Stingo would see Sophie cast in the same Disneyesque light in which Sophie has seen Nathan, but this is Gothic romance, after all, and Stingo’s first vision of Sophie is that of “someone hurtling toward death.” (49) Sophie, it turns out, looks very much like a girl Stingo once had a crush on, a young woman who, Stingo has just learned, killed herself.
Stingo’s love for Sophie is realized, not as the idealized vision of a woman made more beautiful than can be possibly true, but as the ghost of a woman who no longer exists. Later, when Stingo enters Sophie’s room as she stands before the mirror, he is shocked when she turns to face him as “an old hag whose entire lower face had crumpled in upon itself.” (142) Stingo has come upon Sophie with her false teeth removed, giving her the appearance of wearing a mask. While Styron does not cite the connection, the reader remembers Sophie, the way Stingo first saw her, as the “simulacrum” (49) of the dead Maria. Now, with Sophie’s face collapsed from its usual beautiful proportions to this frightening one, the effect produces a shudder. Surely this is a death mask, though in the manner of doubling so often a theme in Gothic fiction, it is difficult for the reader to shake the feeling that the mask is the revelation of what is “real” and not its concealment.
Throughout the novel, Sophie reveals herself to be a character who has suffered a cleaving so thorough she will never recover from it. The famous choice she is asked to make, to pick one of her children for death at Auschwitz, remains one of the most terrifying fictional horrors ever written, set against a backdrop of millions of true horrors, the scope of which, while achieved by humans, remains almost unimaginable by them. In this way, Styron’s story enters the dark depths of the Gothic, formed as it is by the monster that most people prefer not to consider, as if, by some mirror alchemy, to look at the monster is to become one. Styron seems aware of this reluctance to go to the mirror when Stingo writes, “the embodiment of evil which Auschwitz has become remains impenetrable so long as we shrink from trying to penetrate it.” (237)
David R. Saliba, Ph.D., the author of A Psychology of Fear, a book of literary criticism about structural developments in Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, maintains a website, ScepticThomas.com, where he cites five characteristics that distinguish Gothic literature from other genres.
- 1. There is a victim who is helpless against his torturer.
Certainly no one doubts that Sophie, in the concentration
camp, is helpless against the Nazis. What serves the Gothic nature of this story is that even when she is out of the camp, all the way in America, she is still prisoner. Sophie is tormented by brutal, inescapable guilt for having lived.
Sophie has been so thoroughly assaulted by evil that she comes to think of herself as the bearer of it. Near the end of the book, Sophie, in anguish, calls herself the Nazis’ collaborator. Stingo insists she was just a victim.
In Gothic fiction the distinction between opposites becomes uncertain. Just as language is broken open to reveal its reach, boundaries of good and evil are breached to reveal their permeability.
When Sophie first talks about her childhood, she describes storks that looked liked the storks in a book of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, as well as the crooked chimneys and church clock tower with the trumpet-playing men. Stingo tells the reader of his earlier accommodations at the University club, overlooking the “enchanted garden” below. (15) But when Sophie enters Auschwitz and becomes a member of the household staff of Rudolf Hoss, Stingo describes the family garden there as an “enchanted bower” (167) and the reader remembers that fairy tales, before they were co-opted by a cartoon world, were Gothic fictions most of all.
Were it only so easy that the very bad is always bad and the very good only that. Had Styron told the story of Sophie in the concentration camp, then brought her to America to live the wounded life of one who has been victimized and brutalized by the terrible other, it would not be the Gothic story it is. Or, as Stingo muses, “if Sophie had been just a victim, she would have seemed ‘merely pathetic.’” (237)
In Gothic, Botting cites the “loss of the human identity and the alienation of self” (157) as defining elements of the genre. Sophie is the victim who cannot escape the torturer because she is the torturer too. Sophie not only types her father’s anti-Semitic pamphlet in which he calls for the extinction of Jews, but distributes it as well. She doesn’t want to distribute it, and the memory of her father’s assumption that she will arrives with the realization of her hate of him, but she does distribute it. Later, while at Auschwitz, she keeps the pamphlet, hoping she might use it to secure some measure of safety.
The choice Sophie is required to make, where there is no redeeming alternative, creates a literal and mental severing that it is doubtful anyone could survive whole. To refuse to choose was to choose death for both children. It is easy to forget that in the midst of that terrifying scene, Sophie chooses life. Over and over again, Sophie chooses life with the tenacity of one refusing to release the thorned rose, though the grasp wounds.
Within the dark chambers of this Holocaust story it is also easy to forget that Sophie was a Catholic. Her loss of faith is reflective of her loss of self, the sense of abandonment she suffered. It is not at Auschwitz, however, that Sophie feels God turn away from her. She is angry at Him then, but afterwards, when she is freed, she goes to a church to kill herself because she thinks it would be a great sacrilege. At that point, Sophie still thinks there is someone to be angry at. Sophie, as a child, used to play a game she called “Looking for the Shape of God.” She is still playing that game when she goes to the country inn with Nathan and meets his demonic side there. Only then, after everything she has gone through, does Sophie see God leaving her, “turning his back on me like some great beast and go crashing through the leaves.” (375)
Sophie is a woman tormented by what she did for life. There is no redemption for her guilt. Nor is there any escape. Sophie uses Christian imagery to describe what she has become when she points to her heart and pulls away the imaginary veil there. “Only this has changed, I think,” she says. “It has been hurt so much, it has turned to stone.” (540)
Sophie is helpless against her torturer, first at Auschwitz, and then everywhere, because the torment she experienced was an internal corruption as violent as any of the Holocaust medical experiments.
- 2. There is also a victimizer who is associated with evil and whose powers are immense and supernatural.
What would Sophie’s life have been like had the Nazis never
come to power? Her husband’s minor appearance in the novel reveals him as an unkind man, at best. Her father used her for her talent with language, liked to display her beauty, and had no apparent affection for her at all. Her mother seems an ineffectual person throughout.
Sophie, with her weakness for “getting along,” likely would have done just that. There is nothing to indicate she would have risen above her circumstances to find what we like all our heroines to find, true love and happiness.
Yet didn’t Sophie deserve the opportunity to make a mess of her life? Why couldn’t her poor choices have been relegated to the mundane reality of choosing the wrong man to marry, being loyal to a father that didn’t deserve it, emulating a mother who could not protect her own daughter?
The entire novel offers only a few scenes at Auschwitz. Styron turns to other sources to develop a picture of evil both vast and intimate. He quotes Hoss’s actual account, written in prison while awaiting his own execution: “My invariable answer was that the iron determination with which we must carry out Hitler’s orders could only be obtained by a stifling of all human emotions.” (166)
The sublime implies humans can, through feelings and language, transcend their condition. In other words, the way to arrive at the spiritual height the Gothic strives for is at least partly through the territory that separates human from beast, the realm of emotions.
Stingo, in his exploration of Holocaust horror through an examination of other texts (this text-within-text style is a frequent Gothic tool), turns to Richard L. Rubenstein’s book, The Cunning of History. The Gothic depravity of Sophie’s choice, the element that defines as well as consumes Sophie, lies in the immense power of the Nazis to siphon emotion so entirely that their victims became, as Rubenstein describes them in a term later used to describe a different fictional horror, the “Living dead.” (Styron 257)
The inclusion of elements of the supernatural is often the primary characteristic used to define Gothic fiction, and Stingo does allude to that realm. In describing the boarding house he writes, “…and had I been able to use a turn of phrase current some years later, I might have said Yetta’s house gave off bad vibrations.” (48) Sophie describes a premonition she had “and was filled with the slowly mounting frightful sensation.” (91) She tells Stingo that seeing two nuns is bad luck. A Russian fortune teller reads Sophie’s palm and tells her that “everything will turn out well.” (331) In fact so prominent is Sophie’s tendency towards belief in what most people consider the supernatural that Stingo writes, “Sophie had a confused and unformed belief in precognition, even of clairvoyance.” (440)
Yet the supernatural elements in Sophie’s Choice don’t rest in the meaning we most often associate with the word, but rather in the secondary definition as cited in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Volume Two: “Beyond the natural or ordinary; unnaturally or extraordinarily great.” (3112)
When Sophie points to her stone heart and says that only it has changed, she is saying everything has changed. What was once a human being is a human dying; the torment she suffers at the hands of the Nazis is not diminished by the removal of those hands. The Nazis are not inhabitants of a realm beyond earth. This does not make them less evil. Evil does not depend on the physical world. Its power, harnessed by the Nazis, went well beyond the natural or ordinary into the realm of super terror. In using Gothic elements to tell this story, Styron asks the reader to remember that the supernatural is not just the territory of phantoms, but humans as well, though its reach is beyond human reach. “Someday,” Stingo says, “I will write about Sophie’s life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world.” (560)
- 3. The setting of the gothic story, at some point within
impenetrable walls (physical or psychological), heightens
the victim’s sense of hopeless isolation.
It is important to remember that when the Gothic fiction of castles and cathedrals was being written, those edifices were a common part of the landscape. Gothic fiction was once considered vital because it engaged with frightening aspects of the real world. The spiritual element of Gothic fiction, the secretive monks and frequent Catholic imagery, was potent because it tapped into the nature of fear in society at that time. What if the spiritual guide was the devil’s helper and not the angel’s? What secrets lived in the dark rooms of the castle on the hill? What if evil was amorphous?
Because of its transgressive nature, Gothic literature was not embraced by the establishment, and over time became associated with the less refined tastes of a lower class. The definition of Gothic literature became bound to the material of its past, and in that way, the Gothic became almost silly.
However, real Gothic literature is really frightening. What could possibly be more frightening than Auschwitz?
In Stingo’s investigation into the turmoil Sophie suffered he comes across a quote by Simone Weill that perfectly describes the guilt Sophie will not be able to survive.
Affliction stamps the soul to its very
depth with the scorn, the disgust and even
the self-hatred and sense of guilt
that crime logically should produce but
actually does not.
So it is that Rudolf Hoss, the commandant at Auschwitz, the man who tells Sophie he will let her see her son, and then changes his mind as though it is a matter of little importance, like changing his drink order, is able to write that he was “no longer happy in Auschwitz once the mass extermination had begun” (166) while Sophie, with her love of music, her hungry appetite and her eager sexuality, is left to tap at her breast bone and say that all that is left of her heart is stone.
Sophie’s personal history, that of a Holocaust survivor, heightens her isolation. First, at a very basic, physical level; Sophie is, after all, an immigrant with no surviving family members. During the period Stingo writes about, the atrocities that happened in Auschwitz have been made public. Rudolf Hoss is in prison, charged with war crimes. When Sophie meets a group of Nathan’s friends they comment, out of her hearing, on her tattooed wrist. Nathan, in his dark temper, taunts Sophie with the question of what she did to survive when so many did not.
In this way, Stryon highlights the universal ownership of Sophie’s personal history, how it not only doesn’t decrease her isolation, but increases it. Even though Sophie chooses to tell Stingo what she’s told no one else, there is no sense that the sharing relieves her burden. Even Stingo, who loves Sophie, cannot reach through the dark of her past to place a light there. No one can. It is too dark, and the reach too far. So spectacularly does Stingo fall short of understanding what Sophie’s been through, that when he attempts to bring her south, he insists convention dictates they will have to marry. The reader is left to watch this exchange, knowing what Stingo does not recognize. No marriage can make Sophie less isolated, and in fact, this idea of marrying Stingo only highlights what Sophie realizes: her isolation is total, terrible and inescapable.
- 4. The atmosphere is pervaded by a sense of mystery, darkness, oppressiveness, fear and doom to recreate the atmosphere of a crypt, a symbol of man’s spiritual death.
It bears repeating that the first time Stingo sees Sophie he is struck by how much she reminds him of his first crush, Maria, who he has learned recently killed herself. Shortly after this, Stingo hears Nathan tell Sophie that they are dying. Stingo describes the gloom hovering around Sophie as “almost visible.” (537) When they are on the train together, heading South, and Stingo loses Sophie, he finds her at the end of the car, “a bleak cage of a vestibule” (498) where Sophie gazes up at him and says she doesn’t think she’s going to make it.
Spiritual death exists here, not merely as symbol but as theme as well. Catholic Sophie has lost her religion so entirely she tells Stingo, “I know that my Redeemer don’t live and my body will be destroyed by worms and my eyes will never again see God.” (93)
Styron tells this horrible story and yet keeps us reading by using Gothic elements with great facility. For instance, much of the present story takes place in Yetta Zimmerman’s boarding house. Where a lesser writer might have made the locale as dark and gloomy as the story inside it, Styron paints the building pink. It glows throughout the novel like a stubborn sunset.
The house should be gloomy, but it is not. When Stingo first sees it, he is reminded of The Wizard of Oz. The reference is both pleasant and unnerving. Clearly, Styron is saying that we are entering a different world. The pink is wrong, but it is not intrinsically frightening. This is what Styron does so well with the Gothic elements. He knows how to use them adroitly. He doesn’t move away from the form to provide relief for the reader from the excess of Gothic, but rather, uses the form to its best advantage to keep the reader uncertain, but reading on.
Another aspect of the Gothic, not mentioned in Saliba’s list, is that of strange or unexpected juxtapositions. While an obvious example of the Gothic is a dark and gloomy castle, the gloom of Sophie’s Choice is no less prevalent without one. Under Stryon’s expert hands, gloom moves like a fog, creeping into unexpected corners, somehow made more pervasive by its uncertain travel.
The fairy-tale imagery and poetic whimsy in the midst of this Holocaust story, beautiful Sophie unmasked as the “old hag” Stingo spies when he sees her without her false teeth, the image Styron chooses to describe Emmi when Sophie collapses in the child’s room as “like that of a swollen fetus” (433) – all create a Gothic sense of disorientation.
In Stingo’s study of other texts as some foundation to explain what happened to Sophie, he refers to George Steiner’s perspective on “time relation.” After describing the brutal deaths of two Jews at Treblinka he writes that at precisely the same hour “the overwhelming plurality of human beings…were sleeping or eating or going to a film or making love or worrying about the dentist.” (234)
Stingo, aided by old letters from his father, is able to remember exactly what he was doing on the day Sophie arrived in Auschwitz, “a beautiful day,” she said, when “the forsythia was in bloom.” (509) Stingo was eating bananas in Raleigh, North Carolina, the realization prompting him to note that he became “for the first time in my life aware of the meaning of the Absurd and its conclusive, unrevocable horror.” (509)
The excess of Gothic novels serves to push the boundaries that keep us rooted in our human gravity, to reach beyond the body by exploring its inevitable limitations, to reach beyond language by burrowing into each word in recognition of the meaning that birthed it, to reach the sublime through the weight of being human juxtaposed against what most of us already know: nothing is certain but absurdity.
- 5. The victim is in some way entranced or fascinated by the
inscrutable power of his victimizer.
Though much of its meaning has been diluted by the Disney-fication of “reality,” the Gothic writer is aware of the darker tonal aspects of the word, “fascinate.” Embedded in the shiny bright thing it has become is the meaning to “put under a spell,” (Oxford Volume 1 932) the territory of witchcraft and serpents.
“I was fascinated by this unbelievable thing that was happening to the Jews,” (Styron 510) Sophie tells Stingo, hastening to add that her fascination was not composed of pleasure.
In the present arc of the story, Sophie displays little interest in the Nazis. Instead, Sophie’s fascination falls on Nathan. Though it is true that Sophie, perhaps infected by her father, married a man, her first husband, who was cruel to her well before the trauma of Auschwitz, it is also true that what she suffered there cleaved her profoundly. It is this woman, struggling, as Stingo says, “with the demon of her own schizoid conscience” (269) who falls in love with Nathan, a man who sings the libretto from Don Giovanni by heart, whose enthusiasm is infectious, who saves Sophie when she faints at the library. As Sophie says to Stingo about Nathan, “he was my savior…and I never had a savior before.” (170)
It is an alluring notion to think that Sophie, who has suffered so much, has been rescued by the grand emotion of love. But what few humans can escape is love’s mirror. The fear that to look at the monster is to become one is rooted in the primal knowledge that who we are fascinated by, or who we love, is fashioned from the material of our lives. In other words, the “other” is often the self.
Another prominent theme in Gothic literature is that of the double, the duality of good and evil usually expressed within a single character. It is easy to love Sophie who is beautiful, smart, and tragic. When she displays an ugly tendency, such as when she tells Stingo that she always did hate the Jews, it is easy to dismiss the sentiment, as Stingo does, as an expression of her distress, and not of her true spirit.
What the reader wants of Sophie is that she be made whole again, in some way, even if it be an imperfect wholeness. Where is such healing wrought but in love?
Sophie’s suffering, her damaged psyche, is manifest in who she loves, Nathan. Where the split in Sophie is a divide she cannot heal, it is made more horrible by her recognition of it. When her Prince Nathan appears, Sophie feels she is being saved, until he reveals his own double, his demon side. Sophie is tormented by what happened to her and what she did at Auschwitz, she cannot escape her self, her guilt, or her past, but the narrative arc of Sophie’s Choice does not rest in what she has done but in what she is doing, and Sophie is loving Nathan, a man who abuses her and then cries in her arms, begging forgiveness.
In Gothic excess, Nathan is the double of Sophie’s divided self. While Sophie is severed by what she has done, Nathan is severed by what he is, a paranoid schizophrenic, the embodiment of the human split.
When Sophie has the opportunity to leave Nathan, she is drawn back to him, as one is always drawn by what fascinates, though she cannot survive the fascination. Nathan is the flame to her moth, the destruction she feels she deserves.
Did Styron know he was writing a Gothic novel? It is difficult to believe he did not. His narrator, Stingo, cites his affection for Faulkner, generally accepted as a Southern Gothic writer. Styron even uses what any writer knows to be precious, the last page of the novel, to describe his “abominable dreams” after Nathan and Sophie’s death, “which seemed to be a compendium of all the tales of Edgar Allan Poe.” (Styron 562) The community of great Gothic literature includes in its oeuvre Moby Dick. Surely Styron knew what he was doing when Stingo introduces himself to the reader with the phrase, “Call me Stingo.” (4) The many references to Gothic as a descriptor also offer in-text confirmation of the author’s intent. In G. R. Thompson’s excellent introduction to The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism, he offers a description of the Gothic hero as “ultimately torn apart by demons,” one who “faces a world that he has no hope of comprehending and in which he cannot make the proper moral choices.” (Thompson 6) Minus the pronoun, this is an excellent description of Sophie.
Why is it necessary to locate Sophie’s Choice within the Gothic tradition? After all, doesn’t certain fiction rise above form to occupy that rarefied space reserved for works of genius?
Well, yes, and no. Sophie’s Choice is a great work and deserves to be placed amongst other great works. Yet we do a disservice to the literary conversation by not acknowledging its content. To dismiss the form as insignificant is to relegate all other voices in this conversation to the dark they engage with. To suggest, by censure, that true literature has no place for the Gothic is to propagate the idea that to look at the monster is to become one. It is ironic that Gothic literature, so often ridiculed as the work of superstitious minds, is censored by a lingering fear of looking at what is terrible.
Gothic literature is, by definition, a literature of excess; it can be sloppy, raw, and uncomfortable. The emotional space of Gothic literature is extreme, especially when read by a society that considers extravagant expression a sign of immaturity. Yet Sophie’s Choice, with its wide emotional arcs, carries within it the opposite poles, the life without feeling. Remember Colonel Hoss who wrote that he could only carry out his duties by stifling all emotions? Consider Sophie, who describes how, after the war, she could no longer cry and had no more emotions, equating the emotional life with the spiritual one when she says, “I couldn’t any longer pray to Him or could I cry.” (92)
In her introduction to Best American Mystery Stories 2005, Joyce Carol Oates writes,
I don’t think it’s an irony that as a writer, I am
drawn to such material. There is no art in violence, only crude, cruel, raw, and irremediable harm,
but there can be art in the strategies by which
violence is endured, transcended, and transformed
by survivors… (13)
Sometimes people wonder why anyone reads Gothic literature, heavy as it is with doom, dark with the certainty of the hero’s failure. What Gothic literature remembers is that every fiction has a ghost, the unseen reader whose power within the story is limited to watching it unfold. In Gothic literature, the hero falls, but there is always that survivor, the reader, who closes the book or exits the screen, who has engaged with evil without being destroyed by it. All great literature changes the ghosts who’ve read the fiction into the humans who survive and transcend it. The sublime reach of the Gothic is not achieved by the hero, whose fall is often spectacular as an angel on fire. Gothic fiction, such as Sophie’s Choice, works within the space between the gravity of being human and the height of those angels, seeking the numinous the hero will never reach, but the reader might.
Botting, Fred Gothic. Routledge, 1996
Clark, Kenneth The Gothic Revival An Essay in the History of Taste. Icon Editions Harper and Row, 1962
Oates, Joyce Carol (Editor) Best American Mystery Stories, 2005. Houghton Mifflin Company
Thompson, G. R. The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism. Washington State University Press, 1974
Styron, William Sophie’s Choice. Vintage International, 1992
Mary Rickert’s short fiction, which has been awarded World Fantasy, Crawford, and Shirley Jackson awards, has been collected in Map of Dreams and Holiday.