Sophie's Choice

by William Styron

Hardcover, 1979



Fiction. Literature. HTML:This award-winning novel of love, survival, and agonizing regret in postâ??WWII Brooklyn "belongs on that small shelf reserved for American masterpieces" (The Washington Post Book World). Winner of the National Book Award and a modern classic, Sophie's Choice centers on three characters: Stingo, a sexually frustrated aspiring novelist; Nathan, his charismatic but violent Jewish neighbor; and Sophie, an Auschwitz survivor who is Nathan's lover. Their entanglement in one another's lives will build to a stirring revelation of agonizing secrets that will change them forever. Poetic in its execution, and epic in its emotional sweep, Sophie's Choice explores the good and evil of humanity through Stingo's burgeoning worldliness, Nathan's volatile personality, and Sophie's tragic past. Mixing elements from Styron's own experience with themes of the Holocaust and the history of slavery in the American South, the novel is a profound and haunting human drama, representing Styron at the pinnacle of his literary brilliance. This ebook features an illustrated biography of William Styron, including original letters, rare photos, and never-before-seen documents from the Styron family and the Duke University Archives.… (more)


(1266 ratings; 4.1)

Media reviews

Evoking a period just after the end of that War, the novel deals with themes so plangent and painful, particularly Sophie’s experiences in the Holocaust, that the book becomes an important meditation on the effects of war on the individual consciousness.
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More than once in this smugly autobiographical novel, Styron pouts about how his last book, The Confessions of Nat Turner, drew accusations of exploitation, accusations that "I had turned to my own profit and advantage the miseries of slavery." And Sophie's Choice will probably draw similar
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accusations about Styron's use of the Holocaust: his new novel often seems to be a strong but skin-deep psychosexual melodrama that's been artificially heaped with import by making one of the characters--Sophie--a concentration-camp survivor.
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In "Sophie's Choice," his first novel in 11 years, you will participate in his greatest risks to date, both in structure and theme. Within the context of a single Brooklyn sum- mer, the summer of 1947, in which the autobiog- figure and narrator, Stingo, sets out to write the "dark Tidewater
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fable" that will be- come "Lie Down in Darkness," Styron will set himself the task of trying to understand what he calls "the central issue" of the 20th Century: the embodiment of evil that was Auschwitz. And how does a 22-year-old Southerner, just fired from his job as a junior editor at McGraw Hill, with literary aspirations and in robust health, connect even remotely with Auschwitz? In 1947?
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User reviews

LibraryThing member otterley
This is the third book I've read in about a year that follows the innocent abroad being educated by coming into contact with sophisticated older people who - for some reason not apparently obvious to the reader - take a shine to the callow youth. It gets repeated because it works - it allows a
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naive first person voice that grows with the book into worldly wise retrospection (how could I have been so naive?), allows the writer to draw fascinating and sophisticated characters and to discover their cracks and flaws (it was only later that I realised...) and it speaks to all of us who learn through experience throughout our lives. So does Sophie's Choice work? Styron is a very sophisticated writer. His lead character is semi-autobiographical and the whole book is an experiment in narrative and the slow reveal, while being 'about' the biggest topics in the world - suffering, faith, love, loss, evil, mental illness, sex - seen through the prism of Auschwitz. He leavens this with comedy and plays with genre - is he channelling Philip Roth's Jewish sexual drive or southern tales of corruption? - which makes the deadpan descriptions of much of the Auschwitz scenes much more powerful. His writing is furious, rich and teeming with life, even as he writes about death. The great romance at the centre of the book is both degraded through guilt, humiliation and delusion and juxtaposed with the narrator's fruitless and egotistical attempts to lose his virginity. Sophie's choice looks into the heart of evil, but does so from the messy and vital guts of ongoing life.
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LibraryThing member peacox
Styron's luminous writing guides readers through very dark subject matter: alcoholism, abuse, violence, war, and the Holocaust. His world is richly enveloping, his characters larger than the paper they inhabit. I never saw the movie made from this book, and am I glad I didn't. I don't see how any
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film adaptation could do justice. If you love language and complexly woven novels, you must read this book. Styron is often cited as the writer of The Confessions of Nat Turner, but I think he never exceeded Sophie's Choice.
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LibraryThing member siafl
One of the most well-written book I've read to date, Sophie's Choice is like a Beethoven symphony - perhaps Pastorale was in Styron's mind while he wrote the novel, as that title came up more than once as I recall - and one needs to take care reading it to comprehend how truly remarkable this book
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I thought, through most of the pages, that the choice in Sophie's Choice refers to the fact that Sophie tangles with two men in her life and she has a choice to make. Of course, I was fooled through 500 plus pages of wading through heavy but incredibly beautiful and stunning prose until that powerful and shocking revelation. I did find the book thick at times, especially through the middle, but I was drawn deeply to Styron's mastery of words. I found myself wanting to learn from the work, not just its wealth of fresh words, but the shrewdness in the way Styron sees and describes things, his approach, and everything else about his process as a writer, which he so cleverly encapsulates in Stingo's character.

I loved the many references to classical music and literature. It's not easy to finish, but it's an important book to read and I believe it's one of the best books I've read.
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LibraryThing member Socrmom78
My first umambiguous thought is that I really, really liked this book. And I almost feel guilty saying that, because the subject matter was so heavy and sad, that it feels wrong to say that I enjoyed reading it. Yes, there were some parts that were very sad, and shocking, and horrible, but Styron
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kept you on your toes as a reader, waiting until the very end to find out the truth about Sophie and Nathan, revealing things piece by piece, getting to the very core of his characters and their experiences. The characters were all multi-dimensional and easy to sympathize with, even Nathan, once I learned that he was psychotic and on drugs and couldn't really help his horrible behavior. They were all characters that came from broken places. The writing was beautiful and I was sucked in from page one.

I haven't read any books on the Holocaust, and in fact on our family vacation to Washington, DC last month, actively campaigned to skip the Holocaust Museum, knowing how gut-wrenching it would be to see, or even learn about any of that. Now I am sorry I missed it. I had no idea that the Holocaust affected so many people of all ages, and not all of them Jewish or German.

What I found most interesting at many times during the book was how Styron would take Nazi characters like Hoss, his daughter Emmi, or the doctor on the platform, reveal them one moment as unfeeling automatons who believed and did as they were commanded, but then in the next paragraph would show something of their humanity, showing that even inside terrible people is something human we can relate to. Everyone in the book had a dirty secret or guilt that they were trying to live with, whether they were Nazi or not. In the end, we're all human and imperfect.

I am reading my way through the Modern Library's Top 100 Board's books, and out of Books 100-96, it was the only one so far that I sank into and never wanted to resurface. Totally recommended.
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LibraryThing member FMRox
I hate this book. I tried for over 3 months to swallow this slop and made it to page 96. Styron's writing is horrid! It takes him a paragraph to say a sentence, several pages to make a point. It's ridiculous. The vocabulary diarrhea is unappealing. I don't even know where the plot was going. So, I
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gave up. I'm glad I never had to read this for any classes.
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LibraryThing member RoseCityReader
In Sophie’s Choice, William Styron does as masterful job of telling a horrific tale in bearable way. Sophie is a Polish Christian who survived 18 months in Auschwitz before the camp was liberated by the Allies. Of course her story is heartbreaking. But Styron unfolds the tale in a way that allows
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the reader to take it all in without being crushed by the sadness of it.

First, instead of marching out the story of Sophie’s capture and imprisonment in chronological order, Styron layers it on, each layer building on the next. When the 22-year-old narrator, Stingo, a Southerner moved to Brooklyn to write novels, first meets Sophie in the summer of 1947, she gives him only the briefest version of her experience in the war. It is only as they grow closer as friends that Sophie, through a series of drunken encounters, provides more details to Stingo, each time admitting that she had lied to him before in earlier versions of her tale.

By presenting the horrifying particulars bit by bit, Styron seems mindful of the warning, and even quotes Stalin as saying, that a “single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” The reader sees the tragedy of Sophie’s experience because, by offering just a little at a time, Styron allows the reader to digest her story, along with a great deal of information about the Holocaust in general. If Styron had presented her story in full from the beginning, the awfulness would be numbing.

Also, Styron balances Sophie’s tragic past with her tragic present in Brooklyn. In love with Nathan, a brilliant drug addict subject to violent fits of jealousy, Sophie has no chance of building a “normal” life in America. But, given her experiences in the concentration camp, it is impossible to imagine how she could. Rather than present an unbelievable fairy tale of survival, Styron uses the tortured relationship between Nathan and Sophie as the catalyst for her revelations to Stingo, as well as the vehicle of her ultimate, and well-foreshadowed, undoing.

Finally, for all its sadness, there is plenty of humor in the book. Some of Stingo’s failed romantic adventures are downright funny, as are his self-deprecating descriptions of his writing efforts. Again, without these side stories offering a respite from the main narrative, Sophie’s story would be unbearable.

Sophie’s Choice is going in my Top 10 favorite novels of all times. I don’t know yet what it is bumping off the list, but it is definitely going on.
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LibraryThing member stveggy
Poor - a superficial overview of the main men in philisophy
LibraryThing member pdebolt
Just as the holocaust was the ultimate example of cruelty that goes beyond imagining, this novel demonstrates the strength of the human spirit to survive despite having undergone the most vicious evil the world has ever known. The cruelty that Sophie has experienced is overwhelming in its
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magnitude, and her choice to live means a lifetime of self recrimination. Styron's own bouts with depression are obvious "drivers" of the plot and its characters. If you finish this book with your heart intact, read it again. There is indomitable strength and hope in Sophie that will make all of us re-examine our own darkest hours.
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LibraryThing member sueo23
I expected more of this book. It was beautifully written, but I felt let down at the end. The story is involving and I certainly enjoyed getting to know the characters, but it left me feeling a bit empty at the conclusion.
Sophie is a very sympathetic character and I felt her pain - Styron is a
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master of nuance and emotion, no question. I think I was put off by the narrator, Stingo, actually. I found him tedious and more than a bit self-involved and even towards the end of the book when he is trying to save Sophie, he is really doing it for his own ends. Nathan, Sophie's lover, was larger than life and whilst he was a threatening character, I liked him more than Stingo. This could, of course, say more about my penchant for villains than it says about the characters...
The accounts of life in the concentration camps was searing and did not sugar coat anything. The arbitrary nature of the decisions some of the commandants and their minions made were captured well. This was the writing I enjoyed most in the book, not the content per se, but the mastery and economy of language. Styron is rightfully in a class of his own there.
My biggest gripe is that when the "choice" finally came, I was alread losing interest because of Stingo's rambling on so many tangents. That is the biggest fault of this novel for me - too much wandering. It's like Styron thought he needed to fill some more pages so the book looked longer or something.
At least now I can say I have read it.
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LibraryThing member shieldsk2
Incredible novel of the war, and how it forces choices that are unimaginable. Beautiful prose!
LibraryThing member ostrom
Well plotted, great characters. I read it in Germany and wrote Styron a letter. Lo and behold, he wrote back--on a note dated Christmas Day 1980. A very kind gesture.
LibraryThing member russelllindsey
What a great book! I learned a lot about the WW II era from this book. It provided me with a new perspective on the Holocaust.
LibraryThing member Othemts
It's been a long time since I've read this novel, but I'm still can remember the powerful emotions I felt reading this story of a Polish survivor of the Holocaust and a young man from the South who befriend one another in Brooklyn in the late 1940's. It's both laugh out loud funny and incredibly
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depressing, tragic yet inspiring.
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LibraryThing member kraaivrouw
I read this (sort of) once before, in 1985 after seeing the movie. I remember I was traveling on a plane from New Mexico (where I lived at the time) to Seattle (to visit family). I had the book on the plane & had been reading it, but having a hard time with it & when I left the plane I left the
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book without finishing it. Leaving a book behind is extremely unusual for me - I never go anywhere without a book & I just about always finish just about everything. I decided that I just wasn't meant to read this book if I'd left it behind. I was 22. I had equal trouble with Lie Down in Darkness - just couldn't get through it. I loved his book on his own struggles with depression - Darkness Visible - I thought it was one of the truest pieces of writing about depression that I had ever read. I figured eventually I'd get back to his fiction.

I picked up Sophie's Choice again as part of a reading challenge - to read some American prize winning books & compare them. I'm glad I did. This one won the National Book Award. Styron can write & he can tell a story - painful though it may be. I loved the craft of this book, the interplay of language & the brick-by-brick-by-word-by-word deftness of his creations - Stingo, Sophie, & Nathan & long ago far away Brooklyn.

As much a meditation on his younger days as a fledgling writer as it is a Holocaust story, this novel is also a Southerner's rumination on what it means to be Southern, to be liberal, to have lived through the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis & to see similar horrors perpetrated in your home (see also, slavery & lynchings). There are aspects of this book that remind me very clearly of North Toward Home - Willie Morris' wonderful memoir about being a Southerner among Northern intellectuals. Styron beautifully captures Stingo's naivete & self-conscious youth as he struggles with his first novel.

Equally well-drawn are the doomed Nathan & Sophie - their mutual histories of madness & despair intertwined in fatal & beautiful ways. It is worth remembering that more than Europe's Jews were caught up in the Nazi insanity - Sophie's story is just one of many.

This is a difficult, painful & ultimately worthwhile novel. Read it - you won't regret it.
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LibraryThing member blake.rosser
I stuck with it out of curiosity, not so much to find out what her choice was, but because this is supposedly an important American novel and I kept waiting for the "Aha!" moment when it would finally get good. To me it was just way too long. I now know what it's like to suffer from too much
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foreshadowing. It was so tiresome reading hint after ominous hint about what was going to happen.

The narration was clumsy and over-explanatory. Do you really have to recap an event that you just narrated 50 pages anterior? Did Styron think the audience too dumb to remember the episode well enough to comprehend an explicit allusion or (god forbid) an oblique reference? Do you really have to hammer home over and over again how frustrated he is to not be having sex, just to build up one of the last scenes? I'll grant that it might have been intentional to create a narrator so unsympathetic and annoying, but the result was irritation and a hesitance to continue reading. Another problem with the narration was Sophie's narrative about Auschwitz. There were several moments when you saw the quotes around the paragraphs, indicating she was talking, but it was grammatically perfect. It was, as I already said, clumsy, and I can only suppose it was poor planning. Styron clearly wanted to eat his cake and have it too.

There were some pretty passages mixed in. Most of the good stuff revolved around the Auschwitz narrative and the observations it afforded Styron to make about human nature and the nature of hellish war. There were some good analogies, particularly the rats-in-barrel (Jews) vs. rats-in-burning-building (all other victims). Of course, this reaffirms my opinion that this could have been a much better book by cutting out 2-300 pages. I'm just going to assume that most of the "staggering," and "masterful" touches (two adjectives employed in the praise section of the edition I read) to this work were over my head.
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LibraryThing member RussellBittner
When I read and reviewed Set This House on Fire at the end of last March, I suggested I wouldn’t abandon Styron until I’d given Sophie’s Choice a fair chance.

I just have.

In spite of the obvious appeal of this novel — not to mention the brilliant choice of Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Peter
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MacNicol to play the principal characters in its cinematic interpretation — I found some of the same flaws in it that I’d found in Set This House on Fire.

To quote from my previous review: “there are certainly moments and entire passages that let a reader understand why Styron has the reputation he has. But these are too few and far between.”

Styron is a stylist — and a consummate one. He’s also a consummate story-teller. But where is his editor? There are moments when Sophie sounds authentically like the non-native English speaker she is. But then, there are others when Styron would seem to have forgotten whose mouth he’s in.

But let’s give the man his due. The scene from which this novel takes its title is even more gut-wrenching than Meryl Streep’s portrayal of it on the silver screen. And the prose leading up to it had already put me in a distinctly apocalyptic mood — this, although I was reading it on a quiet grassy knoll on the second day of a resplendent summer.

William Styron can write; make no mistake about it. He just needs to rein in a bit when he’s on a roll. He (or a good editor) could’ve done away with a hundred pages of this novel — and it would’ve been perfect.

Why, then, only four stars when I might give five to a far less well-known, far less practiced writer? Because I hold writers like William Styron to a higher standard.

Brooklyn, NY
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LibraryThing member speedy74
Set in Brooklyn in the late 1940’s, the story’s narrator, Stingo, an aspiring writer, becomes very good friends with Nathan and Sophie who live in the same boarding house. Both Nathan and Sophie have dark secrets that are revealed to the narrator throughout the course of the novel. The darkest
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secret, which is alluded to by the title, deals with Sophie’s experiences in Auschwitz as a Holocaust survivor.

I was hooked at the beginning of the novel with the narrator’s sarcasm as he describes his work as a manuscript reader in the publishing house McGraw-Hill, but there were times throughout the novel when the narrator is tedious and immature. As the novel progresses, the narrator isn’t quite as annoying. This may have been the author’s intention to show his increasing maturity or maybe it is more engaging because the characters have finally been established and the narrator spends more time developing their back stories, either way I’m a bit surprised I stuck with it. Perhaps the suspense Styron creates regarding the secrets Nathan and Sophie have, were enough to keep me reading, or perhaps Styron’s gift for character development was enough, but the story really didn’t pick up until about page 250. At this point in the novel, I couldn’t wait to read more of Sophie’s back story.

Overall, I’m glad I put forth the effort to read Sophie’s Choice. Styron is a gifted writer in terms of his complex plot structure, development of suspense, and complicated characters. His writing evokes emotional responses from the reader—irritation at Stingo, anger at Nathan, and empathy toward Sophie. Given the situation of the times, the characters seem believable and make the reader ponder what one might do in a similar situation.
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LibraryThing member Rocky_Wing
dark, depressing, tragic . . . typically all adjectives that i would be drawn to in a book, but not this one.

the story is interesting enough, yet i found myself despising the main character. i think that if the story would have been told through sophie's eyes instead of stingo's (an immature,
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insecure, friendless chap focused solely on sex) i would have a more favorable review.

the characters are deep, their inner struggles so real. at the same time i had no connection or care for them (maybe because i was seeing them through Stingo's eyes?). so when the end did come i found myself not really caring about the tragedy or those so drastically affected by it.

perhaps the only redeeming quality in the six-hundred pages is found in the rich themes of love, death, self-hatred, depression, and suffering. i especially love the concept that was repeated concerning time. as you hear some story about suffering, you think back to what you were doing on that specific day. the main character could barely fathom the depth of this idea, that while sophie was starving to death he was guzzling down beers.
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LibraryThing member DaveFragments
Pray you never have to make Sophie's Choice.
LibraryThing member loewen
I really enjoyed this, and although I found the characters to be highly unlikable, I still found myself enjoying the prose, the feeling of Brooklyn in 1949 and the historical tidbits scattered throughout.
LibraryThing member BrianDewey
Styron, William. Sophie's Choice. Vintage International, New York, 1976. A sad story, beautifully told. This is a book that makes you think about the nature of evil and the effect it has on the lives of ordinary people. Some things to ponder when reading, or re-reading, this book. How unreliable a
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narrator is Sophie? How much can we believe about her story and character? Second, why is there so much sex in the book? It seems completely extraneous and distracting. What purpose does it serve in the story? These are the questions that occur to me; I haven't taken the time to think up satisfactory answers. When I reread the novel, that's what I'll do.
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LibraryThing member KameaZ
LOVE this book. A classic you will never forget.
LibraryThing member Amzzz
When Stingo moves to New York he meets Sophie and Nathan. Throughout his time there, Sophie starts to tell him her story. This is a great and moving book about how even though the war technically ends, its effects are longstanding and inescapable.
LibraryThing member charlie68
Although the movie is compelling the old truism wins out, the book is better. Where the movie leaves gaps the book fills them in. All the main plot points are there just filled with more gravitas. The look into Holocaust is especially gripping and its effect on Sophie heartbreaking. While the story
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is well told the writing is flat at times and the ending is a little contrived.
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LibraryThing member mybucketlistofbooks
I’m not going to write much of a review here as I don’t want to ruin the book for the (very) few folks who haven’t read it. I will say it is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. Styron expertly weaves different strands of the story into a whole more efficiently and
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seamlessly than almost anyone I can think of.

The message of the book is not particularly subtle, nor should it be given the subject matter. It almost requires you to realize within the first few pages what he is getting at in order to understand and appreciate the rest of the story. So don’t go looking for a lot of hidden meaning. If you received an adequate history education in high school, and paid attention during sections on the Holocaust and the Civil War, you won’t have any trouble. However, if you are one of those folks who were taught the Civil War was not about slavery, but about state’s rights or northern aggression, or some other lost cause nonsense, then you may find yourself wondering what the heck Styron is getting at.

The only complaint I have, and I hesitate to mention it, is the way sex was portrayed in the book. First, there is a lot of it. I have no trouble with that. But the way Styron writes these scenes, I just could not help but think I was reading the script from a pornographic movie with pretensions of seriousness. Some of it was laugh out loud weird.

Also, after reading the book I decided to watch the movie. Bad, bad, bad…but a topic for another day!
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Random House (1979), Edition: 1st, 515 pages

Original publication date





0394461096 / 9780394461090


Original language

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