Everyday, people are faced with choices. Some of life’s choices are simple, such as deciding what to wear to school or choosing a television station to watch. Other choices, however, are much more serious and have life-altering consequences. Sethe, the protagonist of Beloved, and Sophie, the main focus in Sophie’s Choice, are mothers that are faced with choices that change their entire lives. While the time period and characters involved differ, the choices of Sethe and Sophie can easily be compared.
First and foremost, Sethe and Sophie both make choices that lead to the killing of their children. In both pieces, the actions of the mothers cause the audience to think twice about the limits of maternal love. Sethe tries to kill her children to save them from a life of slavery. Sethe’s plot was unsuccessful, for only one daughter was murdered. To fully understand Sethe’s actions, the reader must realize that on that August afternoon in 1855, Sethe reaches for the handsaw to protect her children from Schoolteacher. Sethe wants to murder her other children, but they escape before she can harm them. Sethe truly believes that she is saving her family from the pain of slavery, and, as a result, her choice alienates her from the rest of her community. Nobody in the area wants anything to do with Sethe after the death of her daughter.
Like Sethe, Sophie also attempts to spare her family from pain. She is also faced with a gruesome choice that ends up affecting the rest of her life. At Auschwitz, during World War II, Sophie is forced by the Nazis to choose which of her children shall live and which child shall be put to death. Because she sees that her son is stronger and would be more likely to survive the brutality of war, she sends her young daughter to the oven.
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The choices of Sethe and Sophie are also similar in the respect that they both involve death, guilt, and pain. Sophie and Sethe both lose children as a result of their decisions and have to live with the consequences of their actions. After the loss of her daughter, Sethe spends each day of her life isolated and filled with guilt in 124. As an attempt to deal with her guilt, she treats her living daughter, Denver, with great care. No matter how hard she tries to console herself, however, she is still haunted by the ghost of her deceased daughter. Sophie also experiences a great deal of guilt as a result of her choice, but she handles her feelings differently than Sethe. Instead of trying to comfort herself like Sethe does, she tries to punish herself by dealing with the mental instability of her lover Nathan. At times, Nathan is horribly cruel to Sophie, only to become sweet and loving just hours later. Even though both women cope with their feelings differently, they both cannot completely abolish their guilt.
Although Sethe and Sophie have similar feelings of pain and guilt, they deal with their problems in completely different time periods and places. Sethe makes her choice in 1855 in Ohio, while Sophie has to make her decision during World War II in Europe. Despite the difference in time and place, both women live in a society where death is a more favorable option than life. This is partially because Sophie and Sethe are both minorities in their day. Sethe is a black woman trying to be free in a time when slavery is justified, and the Nazis want Sophie because of her Polish origin.
Along with the difference in scenery, the characters’ choices also differ in level of complexity. Although it is a matter of opinion, it seems that Sethe’s choice to murder her children is so much more complex than the decision Sophie has to make. When Sethe takes the handsaw to her children, she mentally assures herself that death is the best solution for them. She feels that she is being a wonderful mother by sparing her family from a life of slavery. After her daughter’s throat is slit, however, the inhabitants of Sethe’s community feel that Sethe’s actions are amoral. On the other hand, Sophie’s choice appears to be a less complicated decision. Sophie sees that her son would be more likely to survive than her young daughter, so her daughter is sent to the ovens.
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In addition to the difference in level of complexity, the mothers’ choices are also brought about in different ways. Sethe takes it upon herself to choose murder, while Sophie’s choice is brought about by the Nazis and is not of her own free will. Because Sethe’s decision is her own, it can be said that her choice is voluntary. Sophie’s choice is mandatory because unlike Sethe, she is physically forced by authority to lose a child. The main difference in the mothers’ attitudes is that Sethe wants her children dead and Sophie does not. Although Sophie’s choice is made unwillingly and Sethe’s choice is made by her own free will, both hearts are left with a certain emptiness that can never be fully regained.
In life, depending on the circumstances, there are few times that a decision can be taken back and made again. Of course a teenager can change his or her school clothes hundreds of times, or a television station can be altered with the click of a remote, but choices similar to those of Sethe and Sophie cannot be taken back. Sethe cannot wipe the blood of her baby daughter off her hands, change her mind, and magically hear the baby’s heart beating again. Similarly, Sophie cannot request her son to be killed instead and instantly reconstruct her daughter’s ashes from the oven. Some choices in life are permanent, and therefore, the power of choice must never be doubted. Although in different time periods and continents, Sethe and Sophie both made life-changing choices that they must live with for the rest of their lives.