(Originally published July 21, 2009)
If you enjoy bizarre novels where nothing is as it seems, and the line between the real and the surreal blurs, “Sophie’s World,” by Jostein Gaarder, is for you. An international bestseller, it is both a “mystery” novel and a history of the major philosophies that have impacted the world. Knowing that every author of philosophy has his own particular bias, I entered “Sophie’s World” with caution…and rightly so. Initially, I was expecting it to be a lot of educational material crammed into a thinly drawn “plot” merely designed to make the exposition of dry philosophy a little more interesting. As it turned out, I was wrong.
(Note: In order to delve into the complex philosophical/worldview underpinnings of “Sophie’s World” the rest of this review contains spoilers. If you want to experience the twists and turns of the story for yourself, stop reading right here.)
“Sophie’s World” is the story of a young Scandinavian girl named Sophie Amundsen. Out of the blue, mysterious letters begin appearing in her mailbox, inviting her to broaden her mind and start studying philosophy. Her “correspondence course” begins with the early Greek philosophers and then moves through the course of human history, discussing the Middle Ages, the Baroque period, the Romanticists, the Enlightenment movement, and much more. Sophie also finds that she is receiving letters addressed to a mysterious girl named Hilde, whose father is apparently serving in Lebanon with the United Nations. A large part of the tension in the early part of the story revolves around the identity of the mysterious philosopher sending her these letters.
Eventually, it becomes clear that she is learning from a man named Albert Knox, a reclusive philosopher whose goal is to give her a different outlook on the world. But Knox isn’t the one who has been sending her the letters addressed to Hilde. Together, they try to understand the significance of these strange, seemingly interconnected letters – even as the world around them seemingly becomes more and more surreal. Odd things begin to happen – a message is found written in ink on the inside of an unpeeled banana. Sophie passes by a dog who says “Happy birthday, Hilde!” A sea serpent appears in a formerly tranquil lake.
What’s going on?
(Spoiler alert again! The rest of the review gives away MAJOR plot twists.)
Everything becomes clear about two-thirds of the way through the book, when author Gaarder switches from Sophie’s viewpoint to that of the formerly unseen Hilde. The twist: Sophie, Knox, and everyone else are characters in a fictional story being written for Hilde by her father. Every absurd occurrence up to this point has been merely a writing device used by Hilde’s father, who has complete omnipotence within Sophie’s world.
Hmm. Things are getting a little more interesting now.
As Hilde keeps reading the story, readers are once again returned to Sophie’s world. It becomes clear that we, the readers, have been reading Sophie’s story along with Hilde up until this point of revelation. Bizarrely, Knox is aware of the fact that he is nothing more than a figment of Hilde’s father’s imagination…and his whole purpose in teaching Sophie philosophy is to help her recognize this and seek freedom from it.
The rest of the book revolves around Sophie’s and Knox’s quest to escape the power of Hilde’s father, the author of the overarching story. In a particularly memorable (and psychologically grotesque) sequence, Sophie’s birthday party is transformed into a scene of depravity and total absurdity – a final display of the author’s power over his fictional characters. Sophie joins Knox in affirming her independence and freedom to make choices for herself, ultimately fleeing from the pages of Hilde’s father’s story. In a sense, these fictional characters have taken on their own souls and personalities, becoming sentient beings living in a kind of shadow-existence.
Whoa. Heavy stuff for a novel that started off so innocently.
On the surface, “Sophie’s World” seems to be little more than an insanely complex, quasi-philosophical version of “Alice in Wonderland”. But there is much, much more to this story than first meets the eye.
The book is NOT, as its cover proclaims, “a novel about the history of philosophy.” It’s a story of rebellion.
It’s no coincidence that the first chapter of the book is titled “The Garden of Eden.” Neither is it a coincidence that one of Sophie’s first envelopes containing her philosophy course has “two puncture marks” in it. It’s not a coincidence that Knox repeatedly warns Sophie about Hilde’s father “always watching them.” Neither is it a coincidence that the very last philosophy covered before the book concludes is the philosophy of ultimate rebellion, a philosophy of choices defining reality – existentialism.
Connect the dots.
This is a story about man’s revolt against God. More specifically, it is an apologetic for this revolt. Knox is the book’s Satan – but in this case, Satan isn’t the abhorrent Devil. Rather, he is a bringer of wisdom. He enlightens Sophie to the “truth” and encourages her to break free of an oppressive creator by asserting her own independent capacity to choose independence. This is the very foundation of existentialist thought, and the ultimate message of the novel.
(It’s also worth noting that the root of Sophie’s name, “Sophia” is an ancient Greek word for “wisdom.”)
Hilde’s father represents God – he has created Sophie and Knox by writing them into his story, and has total control over their world. Rather than attempting to understand the author of their story, or establish a relationship with him, Knox and Sophie reject him as a wicked tyrant bent on making their lives miserable. Their goal is to become completely free of their dependence on their creator.
The final sequence of the novel drives home this message. Sophie and Knox, invisible to human eyes, are watching Hilde and her father from a distance. Sophie picks up a wrench and strikes Hilde in the head. She cries out, having felt “a sort of pinprick.” Shortly thereafter, Knox loosens the rope fastening a rowboat to a dock. Both Hilde and her father wonder how this could have happened, since the rope had been securely tied.
I didn’t “get” the meaning of this scene until I thought about it in the context of the overarching theme. Sophie and Knox, through their rebellion, have gained the power to directly influence the “real world.” They are challenging Hilde’s father – God Himself – by their display of independent freedom. It’s almost as if they’re challenging him: you created us, but you can no longer control us. We have chosen our course, and in that choice we have become free.
On that existential note, the novel ends.
After finishing “Sophie’s World” I put down the book and stared out the window for a long time. I didn’t understand what point Gaarder was trying to make – until I looked again at the “philosophies” covered in Knox’s course. The only reason Gaarder includes descriptions of philosophies throughout history is to highlight the development of existentialism, and how it provides the only sort of meaning in a world of absurdity. That is the real purpose of the philosophical lessons – not to educate, but rather to indoctrinate, the readers of the novel.
Most people who read “Sophie’s World’ will probably put down the book, shaking their heads at the nonsense of it all. That is precisely the point Gaarder is trying to make: our world is absurd, and our Creator is capricious and cruel. Freedom is only found in choosing to rebel.
So should you read “Sophie’s World”? It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting. I didn’t think I’d be sitting here writing this commentary. From reading the back cover, it sounded like “Sophie’s World” was going to be a thinly veiled history lesson.And to be honest, this subversive message is probably not clear enough to raise question marks for many Christians. Many people will probably read it as an offbeat fantasy in the style of “Alice in Wonderland.”
I can’t honestly recommend a book that takes such an anti-religious viewpoint. It’s certainly thought-provoking in parts, especially when it comes to the descriptions of some of the philosophies that have come and gone throughout history. Readers with a thorough background in worldview and literature analysis will probably find it interesting. Other readers will likely get tired of its oddities long before the conclusion.
A cunningly written, seamlessly crafted existentialist parable. Far more insidious than “The Da Vinci Code.”