By: Jostein Gaarder
Type: Philosophical Fiction
Setting: Norway, 1990
Fourteen year old Sophie Amundsen receives a mysterious letter in her mailbox, with a simple question: Who are you? Later that day, she receives another letter: Where does the world come from? These two sentences light the spark of learning in Sophie, and she embarks on a Wonderland-style journey through the history of western philosophy, guided by a mysterious philosopher named Alberto Knox.
The book gives us a survey course in philosophical thought from ancient Greek times through the twentieth century, using letters and conversations between Sophie and Alberto as a framework, much as Gödel, Escher, Bach uses conversations between Achilles and the Tortoise to illustrate points. However, where Gödel, Escher, Bach relies on expository chapters to explain the conversations, Sophie’s World uses examples from Sophie’s own experiences to keep the story in novel form.
As the novel progresses, strange things start happening to Sophie. Notes addressed to Hilde Møller Knag begin appearing everywhere, and most implore Sophie to pass on messages to Hilde (whom Sophie doesn’t know) from her father, a U.N. Major stationed in Lebanon. Neither Sophie nor Alberto can explain the letters, or the other strange occurrences, but Alberto seems to grow an understanding as events happen. At about the midpoint of the book, we finally get enough clues to really piece the strange happenings together, and the second half seems to be a bit more of a novel and a bit less of a textbook.
Comparisons to Alice in Wonderland are inevitable, and Gaarder knows this. He addresses them directly at the beginning of the book by talking about a white rabbit, then bringing the Mad Hatter into the story briefly in the second half. His writing is charming, though I must admit it almost felt Victorian in tone. I’m sure a number of things contribute to this, not the least of which is that the book I read is an English translation. The Alice comparison might also make it feel as if the language is a bit dated. As it is, though, when modern topics cropped up, I was jarred out of the story briefly. For example, when Sophie talks to her mother about philosophy a couple of times, her mother asks her if she’s started taking drugs. In a modern novel, this shouldn’t be a shock, but it feels alien in this novel.
Another jarring example is the relatively frank depictions of sex, including a bizarre scene in which two young teenagers begin to have sex in front of their parents at a garden party. To be fair, this scene is in a very surreal part of the novel, but it feels at odds with the formal language. Also, I can chalk several scenes involving sex or discussion of sexual topics up to my inherent American prudish tendencies. Most Europeans don’t recognize the stigma that Americans attach to sex — and frankly, I don’t understand it either — but I have to acknowledge that I am affected by it.
One thing did concern me, though, and perhaps this is simply because I’m a father to a young teenager. When Sophie’s mother finds out that Sophie is “studying philosophy” with a much older man, and is gone for hours at a time without leaving messages, she’s not overly concerned. She does says some things to Sophie, but not enough, and she takes no action to keep Sophie from seeing this mysterious older philosopher. Judging by the latter half of the book, however, Gaarder might also be using this as a clue to the reader that not everything in the book is exactly as it seems. Still, it was a bit bothersome.
Gaarder is not without his philosophical biases, and glosses over some of the most important philosophers of Europe, like Nietzsche and Rousseau, but devotes entire chapters to Freud and Berkeley. This is partly because the story depends on these philosophical pillars for support. However, if he didn’t have the biases, the story would probably rest well on other high points of western philosophy. There is also a strong pro-U.N. bias throughout the book. I occasionally had to check the spine to make sure I wasn’t reading Dag Hammarskjöld. I have nothing against the U.N., but the way it’s presented in the book, it is clear that Gaarder has an axe to grind in favor of a world governing body.
Lest anyone think I disliked the book due to these stylistic concerns and philosophical differences, let me assure you that I did enjoy it. It is a delightful romp through the history of philosophy, with enough story sprinkled in to give it a pleasant flavor. I am somewhat surprised that this book is largely unknown in America, especially since, according to a fan website, it sold more copies than any other fiction book in the world in 1995. This is probably a testament to the thickness of the cultural blinders that many Americans grow up wearing.
Sophie’s World was, for me, a good refresher course in western philosophy, with a fresh approach and a valuable non-English perspective. I recommend it to anyone interested in philosophy, especially those of us who grew up with particular English or American biases in our college philosophy texts.