William Styron’s Appropriation

“‘Have you read D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover?’ I had to say no.

…’Read it,’ she said, her voice husky and intense now, ‘get it and read it, for the sake of your salvation… Lawrence has the answer–oh, he knows so much about fucking. He says that when you fuck, you go to the dark gods.'”

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron is more sensitive and vividly characterized than I would have expected, but is still a manipulative, politically problematic story that appropriates the Holocaust narrative to create slightly sickly melodrama. By explicitly framing the titular “Choice” (made by a blonde Polish woman, because Styron legitimately thought the Jews were paid too much attention) as the “ultimate evil,” the novel is clearly attempting to meditate on the concept of evil, but only manages to sensationalize it.

This tendency to affect profundity is reflected in the nondescript language, which is only memorable when Styron invokes more poetic works than his own. The above passage, for example, cites a brutally insightful line from D.H. Lawrence’s creed against Benjamin Franklin, but in service of an inconsequential moment in Stingo’s life that amounts to little more than a virginal man’s bitter sexual entitlement. And without thematic heft or some kind of intertextual dialogue with Lawrence, the habit of repeatedly referencing stolen phrases like the “dark gods” becomes a crutch, one that’s more plagiarism than allusion.

The original:

“Beware of absolutes. There are many gods…Never ‘use’ venery at all. Follow your passional impulse, if it be answered in the other being; but never have any motive in mind, neither offspring nor health nor even pleasure, nor even service. Only know that ‘venery’ is of the great gods. An offering-up of yourself to the very great gods, the dark ones, and nothing else.”

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