Understanding Sophie’s Choice: It’s about a Return to Nature

In the film “Sophie’s Choice“, Sophie (played by Meryl Streep) is ordered by a Nazi officer to make the difficult choice as to which of her two children she keeps – one would be gassed to death and one would be sent to a children’s camp.

As any parent will testify, it’s an impossible decision to make. How can you choose between your children?

And yet Sophie was forced to choose.

On the face of it, Sophie’s dilemma is brought about by the cruel, inhuman behaviour of a Nazi officer but there is more to it than this. The situation arose because in the death camps the normal protections and rules of society no longer existed. Although surrounded by others, Sophie was alone. There was nobody or nothing that was going to help her.

Within this harsh, hostile environment, with society effectively vanquished, it was a back to Nature existence. And in Nature, difficult decisions have to be made:

If there’s a runt in a litter, when does the parent give up hope on its survival?

If there are not enough resources to support a full litter, how and when does a parent give up on the survival of certain members of that litter?

Does a mother with a large brood of chicks try to keep them all alive or does she concentrate her efforts and resources on those most likely to survive?

If one of her off-spring is badly injured, does a mother continue to nurture it or does she concentrate her attentions on the others, giving them a better chance of survival?

These are all life and death decisions – parents having to decide who shall live and who shall die. It’s a troubling, undesirable responsibility. And yet, when governed by Nature, when there’s no society to help, such decisions have to be made.

Living as such, Nature may give some supportive help and guidance. For instance:

  • Nature ensures that parents are not overly challenged. A female does not tend to have more off-spring then she can realistically be expected to rear. Evidence even suggests that nesting birds will lay more eggs during abundant times than when food resources are scarce.
  • Animals do not have the same emotional development as humans, so making such tough decisions may not be as difficult or as distressing for them.
  • Very few animals will have additional off-spring when they already have dependent young. Most animals only breed when their previous off-spring have reached some level of independence. This means that in comparing and choosing between their off-spring, the calculations are less complicated. It’s much easier to make comparisons between the survivability and prospects of each off-spring if they are all at the same stage in their lifecycle.
  • The instinctive “survival of the fittest” behaviours of young animals mean that the strongest and loudest, the most dominant and demanding are the off-spring that get more food and are therefore more likely to prevail. The process is naturally weighted to ensure that the most likely to survive are the ones that do so. This reduces the need for parents to have to make difficult decisions.

This grim world of Nature is something that humanity has strived to escape. We have sought to cocoon ourselves from the ruthlessness of Nature and having to make such difficult life and death decisions by establishing a societal existence. Society exists to support and protect us, to shield us from many of Nature’s hardships. It enables us to by-pass, disregard or quash many of the decisions we might have to face if we lived entirely within Nature’s remit.

Sophie’s Choice shows us what we might experience if society is not there to protect us and if the rule of Nature (as represented by the Nazi’s) takes control. We might have to start making some of those difficult decisions.

In the film, Sophie opted to save Jan (her nine year old boy) by sending him to the children’s camp whilst sacrificing Eva (the younger girl) by having her sent to the gas chamber. Fearful of losing them both, she had to choose, but did she make the right choice?

It is generally considered that Sophie’s choice was based on survivability – that she believed a boy was more likely to survive the harsh camp than a girl.

That may be true but there is another reason why Sophie may have chosen the way she did. Living in Nature and having to make such a choice, parents would normally tend to favour the off-spring that they have already invested the most in, perhaps feeling that they have more of a stake in that one. That off-spring would also be more grown and therefore, in all probability, more assured of survival.

There will, of course, be exceptions to this. There may be a preference for a younger child if that child showed some exceptional quality that could be considered as genetically beneficial and advantageous to their survival. It should also be noted that as society emerged, in certain societies males are considered more favourably than females and therefore a younger boy might by favoured over an older girl.

Although Sophie’s decision – from an analytical perspective – was the correct one, having to make such an emotional choice when tired, stressed and threatened cannot have been conducive to clear and rational thinking. She was in a desperate situation, when living becomes purely about survival. In such circumstances people do what they have to do.

Unfortunately, whether her decision was properly thought through or whether it was derived from some deeper impulse or instinct Jan didn’t survive the camp. Sophie’s hopes went unrealised. It’s a sad tale of what might happen without society there to look after us.

Perhaps the message we should therefore take from Sophie’s Choice is an appreciation of having a supportive and protective society, one that excuses us from having to make such impossible decisions.