This post is part of a series that takes a closer look at the scholarship in the articles and issues of IU Press journals. Posts may respond to articles, provide background, document the development process, or explain why scholars are excited about the journal, theme, or article and are primarily written by journal editors and contributors.
By Michael Lackey, author of "The Scandal of Jewish Rage in William Styron's Sophie's Choice" in issue 39.4 of the Journal of Modern Literature.
Rapists are perpetrators, never victims. It is this psycho-cultural dogma that has led scholars of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice to conclude that the Jewish character Nathan Landau, who brutally rapes the protagonist Sophie, is more like a Nazi than a Jew, more like an anti-Semitic perpetrator than an oppressed minority. But while teaching the novel in my Holocaust course, I noticed a strange parallel that made me question this seemingly infallible truth about rape and subsequent approaches to Nathan.
At the time, I was working on a book (The Haverford Discussions) about the conflicts between black integrationists and black separatists, and I observed that the concentration-camp survivor Elie Wiesel made a strikingly similar claim as the Black-Power militant, Eldridge Cleaver. After Wiesel and some of his fellow survivors were liberated from a death camp, they decided, as Wiesel records in the Yiddish version (Un di Velt hot geshvign) of his canonical text Night, to go to Weimar in order to rape German women. This was an effort to get revenge on the Germans for what they did to the Jews. In the book Soul on Ice, Cleaver says that he raped black females as practice for raping white women, because he believed that violating white women would be a potent act of political revenge against the community of oppressors. In both cases, oppressed figures (Jews and blacks) view rape as an act of political retribution.
Is it possible that this twisted form of political logic informs the behavior of Styron’s Jewish character Nathan? Such was the idea that led me to write “The Scandal of Jewish Rage in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.” But it is important to note that my new interpretation of Nathan builds on my previous work about Sophie’s character, which I formulated most clearly in my book The Modernist God State: A Literary Study of the Nazis’ Christian Reich. For the longest time, most scholars treated Sophie as an innocent victim of Nazi atrocities. But when writing The Modernist God State, which focuses on the anti-Semitic version of Christianity that Hitler and the Nazis adopted in order to justify their brutal treatment of the Jews, I realized that Sophie had a profound understanding of the Nazis’ specific approach to Christianity and that Styron strategically suggested throughout that Sophie, like her father, had adopted the Nazis’ anti-Semitic version of Christianity when she was still in Europe. It was this discovery that led me to overturn most interpretations of the novel by demonstrating that Sophie was actually more perpetrator than victim.
If it is true that Sophie not only understood but also internalized the Nazis’ anti-Semitic version of Christianity, and if it is also true that Nathan started to realize that Sophie had once been more of a Nazi sympathizer than she willingly admits, then one can understand why Nathan calls Sophie Irma Griese, the sadistic Nazi concentration-camp guard. And if we follow the logic of political revenge as articulated by Wiesel and Cleaver, then we could say that Nathan, in raping Sophie, behaves more like an oppressed Jew than a Nazi perpetrator.
This interpretation makes considerable sense when we note that Styron documented the horrific political logic of retribution-rape in his 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. Styron’s Turner opposes rape so much that he considers abandoning his idea of an insurrection because he fears that some of his rebels will rape white women. But after suffering humiliation and abuse at the hands of his white oppressors, Styron’s Turner fantasizes about raping a white woman, despite his moral objections to the contrary. In essence, Styron pictures the overmastering psychological effects of oppression on the inner life of the oppressed, a political logic that Styron would develop in even more detail in his novel about oppressed Jews in the anti-Semitic West.
Given this interpretation, is Styron sanctioning Nathan’s rape of Sophie? The answer is an emphatic no. In both The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice, Styron, like Frantz Fanon, suggests that a soul-crushing culture of oppression creates twisted psycho-political forms of reaction. This approach does not sanction rape, and Styron is not suggesting that there is such a thing as legitimate rape. But the best way to prevent these sadistic and perverted responses from coming into being would be to stop the targeted oppression of certain racial and ethnic communities.
Read Michael Lackey's essay "The Scandal of Jewish Rage in William Styron's Sophie's Choice" in issue 39.4 of the Journal of Modern Literature, which is available now on JSTOR.