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Review of Sophie's World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy by

Sophie's World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy

by Jostein Gaarder

Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.

Check out an updated review from 2018!

"It's a bagatelle." These words have been knocking around my mind ever since grade 10, when the world's most awesome English teacher introduced me to Sophie's World. (For those of you not in the know, I'm referring to Ms. Sukalo. She also brought her remarkable energy and attitude to drama class, much to the enrichment of myself and my classmates. And she allowed a small group of us to form a lunchtime Shakespeare book club, but that is a story for another day. She's moved on to teach in New York. We still talk. I wanted to be a teacher long before I met Ms. Sukalo, but it's safe to say she showed me what kind of teacher I wanted to be.)

I confess that the fact Sophie's World is translated from Norwegian completely escaped me the first time I read it. This time, it was obvious—and I want to express my admiration for the translator's skill, for this is a work that relies more heavily on the nuances of language than most. Also, I originally didn't know how well-received this novel has been, both in Norway and elsewhere in the world, to the tune of being the #1 bestseller in Norway for three years. (Go Norway! Keep that philosophy alive.) For me, however, Sophie's World will forever be associated with the halcyon days of grade 10 English, and with everything it has taught me.

This book broadened more than my vocabulary: it taught me history, philosophy, even some science; and it made me think about the tenuous relationship between fiction and reality. Ever since reading it in grade 10, this book has been stalking me. Although my memory of the particulars faded, I recalled the title and the general premise, and with my penchant for philosophy electives in university, Sophie's World has always been quick to come to mind. A few years ago, this copy showed up in a box of books I acquired from a friend who moved away. It is a tattered and much-worn paperback: spine broken, duct tape obscuring half the back cover copy, the bottom left corner of the front cover completely gone, and the cover itself slowly peeling away from the spine. And that makes it perfect. I am never going to get rid of this book until it literally falls to pieces in my hands. And then I will go out and buy a brand new copy the very same day.

What is it about Sophie's World that holds me captive? Really, it's all there in the subtitle: A Novel About the History of Philosophy. OK, I suppose that for the average kid (or adult, for that matter), such a subtitle says nothing more than, "Walk away now." For me though, it's the equivalent of a flashing, neon sign that reads, "This book is made of pure crack." Sophie's World is unabashedly a didactic novel. I find this very appealing. Moreover, unlike many such novels, it also has an excellent story and a vibrant, wondrous protagonist. As Sophie Amundsen learns philosophy from her teacher, Alberto, we learn philosophy too. But we also get to watch Sophie, a 14-year-old approaching her fifteenth birthday, grow and mature as a person thanks to her experiences. By "mature" I don't mean "become more adult-like", because that is exactly what Alberto wants to prevent. Prior to receiving her course on philosophy in the mail, Sophie is like any 14-year-old girl, thinking about school, friends, her parents, and of course, turning fifteen. That all changes:

She had never thought so hard before! She was no longer a child—but she wasn't really grown up either. Sophie realized that she had already begun to crawl down into the cozy rabbit's fur, the very same rabbit that had been pulled from the top hat of the universe. But the philosopher had stopped her. He—or was it a she?—had grabbed her by the back of the neck and pulled her up again to the tip of the fur where she had played as a child. And there, on the outermost tips of the fine hairs, she was once again seeing the world for the first time.

The philosopher had rescued her. No doubt about it. The unknown letter writer had saved her from the triviality of everyday existence.

I love that last line in particular. Philosophy is neither dry nor dusty; it is far from esoteric. It is the means by which we can liberate ourselves from the quotidian and the ordinary and see what the universe is: a place full of continuous sensation and wonder. And life? Life is more than mere survival, more than the dreary daily drudge work of sleeping, eating, working, cleaning. But if one wants to escape that vicious cycle and be awesome, one needs to think philosophically. While an understanding of the history of Western philosophy isn't strictly necessary, it certainly helps.

The subtitle of Sophie's World is not exaggerating: it covers the history of philosophy—albeit mostly Western philosophy. (To his credit, Gaarder does mention Eastern philosophy several times, talking about Hinduism's relationship with pantheism and comparing Buddha to Kierkegaard.) Through Alberto, Gaarder covers the earliest Greeks—Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenedes, Anaxagoras—through to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, all the way up to the Enlightenment and Romantic philosophers and then the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century thinkers of Marx, Darwin, and Freud. This is an incredibly powerful and compelling way to present philosophy, for it provides a sense of the provenance of philosophical ideas. We see how Socrates influenced Plato, and how Aristotle's interest in the natural world was in turn a reaction against Plato's obsession with divine forms. In particular, I loved learning about the impact of Greek philosophy on Christianity, including Augustine's attempts at syncretism, and the preservation of the Greek philosophers through the Arabs and the Byzantine Empire. Later, Alberto conveys the respective zeitgeists of the Renaissance, the Baroque period, the Enlightenment, and the Romantic period. It's a whirlwind tour but one that manages to hit all the right notes. As a grade 10 student largely ignorant of such history, it had a huge impact on me. Now I am more knowledgeable, but thanks to Sophie's mix of adolescent credulity and scepticism, it all feels new again.

Of course, any such survey is bound to be incomplete in some way. Constraints of the novel's length, as well as dramatic requirements of the plot, mean that Gaarder cannot devote equal space and time to philosophers who might deserve it. He has to gloss over the contributions of the likes of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Bertrand Russell. While Gaarder begins his history quite broadly, a comprehensive theme quickly emerges, centred around the question of the nature of reality and our ability to perceive it as it truly is.

As it turns out, Sophie's world is not such a straightforward place after all: Sophie, Alberto, and her entire world are in fact the creations of a UN major, Albert Knag. Sophie's World is a philosophical novel Knag wrote as a fifteenth birthday gift for his daughter, Hilde. The major scatters various birthday greetings to Hilde throughout the story: mostly they are in the form of birthday postcards, but sometimes he shows off. One time he writes them on the inside of an unpeeled banana. When this happens, Alberto likes to scowl and mutter something about bagatelles and how the major should be ashamed of himself for playing god with his creations in this manner. He then observes:

"…it is feasible that they, too, are nothing of the mind."

"How could they be?"

"If it was possible for Berkeley and the Romantics, it must be possible for them. Maybe the major is also a shadow in a book about him and Hilde, which is also about us, since we are a part of their lives."

"That would be even worse. That makes us only shadows of shadows.”

Sophie then goes on to speculate that, if this is possible, then it is also possible that the hidden author behind Hilde and Albert's actions is himself a character in a book:

"Of course it is, Sophie. That's also a possibility. And if that is the way it is, it means he is permitting us to have this philosophical conversation in order to present this possibility. He wishes to emphasize that he, too, is a helpless shadow, and that this book, in which Hilde and Sophie appear, is in reality a textbook on philosophy."

"A textbook?"

"Because all our conversations, all our dialogues…"


"…are in reality one long monologue."

Oh. I see what you did there.

As Hilde and Sophie's birthday approaches, Alberto and Sophie conspire to escape the book. Gaarder cranks the meta-fictional deconstruction up to 11 when Alberto and Sophie succeed at this goal. And there my spoilers shall end, because I want you to read the book and am only going to tease you by whetting your appetite for what will prove to be a wild and amazing ride.

I love this meta-fictional aspect of Sophie's World almost as much as I love how Gaarder encapsulates Western philosophy. This unique storytelling device is one of the reasons this book has stuck with me through the years; it has always been that "book where the characters escape from the book". Yet it's so much more than a mere bagatelle. Gaarder could have just had Alberto mention Berkeley's speculations and the possibility that we are all shadows on the cave wall, but would it have had the same impact? Putting these philosophical ideas into action, as it were, forces the reader to confront them and process them. More importantly, for the character of Sophie Amundsen, it offers hope—both the literal hope of escaping the major's control, but also a thematic escape from the expectations of society. Alberto does not sugar-coat his history. He doesn't hide from Sophie the misogynistic aspects of Aristotle and Hegel, and he laments the dearth of women in his story of philosophy—but when he can, he mentions those women who do play a role, such as Olympe de Gouges. So it is significant that Gaarder chose a young woman to be his protagonist. And with his meta-fictional escape plan, he empowers Sophie, saying, "Yes, fourteen-year-old girl, you can defy the expectations of your parents, of your teachers, of your society. You can be who you want to be, your own person. You can be a philosopher, and you can be awesome." I can't think of anything more uplifting than teaching a young person to think for themselves and question everything.

Sophie's World. Read it.


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