Jostein Gaarder made his Norwegian literary debut in 1986 with a collection of short stories, followed by two young adult novels. In 1990 he received the Norwegian Literary Critics Award and the Ministry of Cultural and Scientific affairs Literary Prize for his book The Solitaire Mystery. Mr. Gaarder taught high school philosophy for eleven years in Norway, giving him a strong basis for writing Sophies World, his first book to be published in English.
After its three-year spot at number one on Norways bestseller list, it has held the same status in Great Britain, Germany, and France also appearing on bestseller lists in Italy, Spain, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, and the United States. In Sophies World, Jostein Gaarder twines the history of philosophy with the supernatural antics of Alice in Wonderland. The main character is a girl named Sophie Admunsen, the novels namesake. Sophie is fourteen years old, and lives in Norway with her mother and all of the animals in her Garden.
She is soon joined by the mysterious Alberto Knox, first through correspondence, and then linked by a full-scale philosophy course he has chosen her for. He seems to have lived forever, with the ability to bring magic and supernatural lessons into her life. Alberto is old, kind, extremely wise, and cloaked in mystery for much of the novel. It is difficult to explain the relationship between all of the main characters outside of explaining the plot. Sophie and Alberto are the initial main characters. Sophie comes home from school to find a white envelope addressed to her.
Who are you? Where does the world come from? This begins her thinking about the major questions of existence, and then the philosophy course began. Alberto is not physically revealed until late in the first quarter of the novel. Through the second quarter of the novel the philosophy course and odd happenings are the focus. Sophie finds items, and postcards addressed to Hilde Moller Knag c/o Sophie Admunsen. While the reader is digesting the vast information presented in the philosophy course, they are also trying to piece together all of the odd happenings.
Who is Hilde? What does she have to do with Sophie? The third main character, who mirrors Sophie is Hilde Moller Knag. Hilde is introduced in the second half of the novel, and proves to be the reason Sophie was selected for the philosophy course. She is a girl of Sophies age, her fifteenth birthday the same date, and her father away with the military. The correlation between the two girls is not revealed completely until the last part of the novel. The fourth main character is The Major, Hildis father. He is the glue that propels the story.
Not much is know about him, except that he is manipulative of Sophie and Alberto, and that he loves and misses his daughter very much. The story unfolds by completely switching from Sophies view, to Hildes view. Her father sends her a birthday present from where he is stationed a novel called Sophies World. He has written it for her. The clues that were so difficult to understand with Sophie and Alberto, are clear through Hilde and her reading. The plot shifts from wondering who Hilde is, to Hilde noticing that the items Sophie found we indeed missing from her room.
This leads Hilde to sympathize with Sophie and Alberto, because she feels that her reality too, is slipping into her fathers novel. Sophie, Alberto, and Hilde fight to stop The Major from manipulating the characters in Sophies world. The Major takes on a Deity figure and proves to be the most prominent protagonist. He becomes almost sinister, warping Sophie and Albertos reality. The novel becomes focused on how to escape The Majors grasp, as to not be trapped in the pages of a predetermined story forever.
The plot is completely unpredictable, with twist and turns of reality that stretch imaginations to uncomfortable limits. Another aspect of Gaarders writing is his ability to paint pictures in the mind. The story is set in modern Norway (1990s), but includes vivid images of Sophies house and garden. Also, the trek to the mysterious Majors Cabin is described to perfection. The setting is largely encompassed by nature, specifically when it correlates with the natural philosopher section. The intricacies of mystery and fanciful imagery bring the story to life.
The overarching theme through Sophies World dictates that existence, as we know it, is largely subjective. Though Sophie and Alberto may feel like their actions are their own, they are actually determined by the Majors imagination. Jostein Gaarder was a teacher of philosophy, and in his novel he states, The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder. With the story being as complex and reality shattering, it gives the reader a key to question their own existence. Are we merely characters in a Deitys plot?
Gaarder is acting as Alberto in the first half of the story, asking the right questions, posing the right situations, to force us to think outside of our comfort zone. It was hugely liberating for Sophie, and if taken in without hesitation, also hugely liberating for the reader. It is not asked of often in day-to-day life to question personal position in the grand scheme of the universe. One of the passages in this book illustrates Gaarders power of tweaking thought to create non-conformist ( or philosophical) thinking. If a newborn baby could talk, it would probably say something about what an extraordinary world it had come into.
We see how it looks around and reaches out in curiosity to every thing it sees But long before the child learns how to talk properly and long before it learns to think philosophically the world will have become a habit. A pity, if you ask me A lot of people experience the world with the same incredulity as when a magician suddenly pulls a rabbit out of a hat which has just been shown to them empty. In the case of the rabbit, we know the magician has tricked us. What we would like to know is how he did it. But when it comes to the world its somewhat different.
We know that the world is not all a sleight of hand and deception because we are in it, we are part of it. Actually we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The only difference between us and the white rabbit is that the rabbit does not realize it is taking part in a magic trick. Unlike us. We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would like to know how it all works. As far as the rabbit is concerned, it might be better to compare it with the whole universe. We who live here are microscopic insects existing deep down in the rabbits fur.
But philosophers are always trying to climb up the fine hairs of the fur in order to stare right into the magicians eyes. Metaphors are used brilliantly and effectively throughout the novel. Large concepts, from the ancient Greeks to Freud, Democritus to Kierkegaard, are all explained with metaphors and language that would be conducive to teaching a person of fifteen years, perhaps a wise fifteen years. The simplicity is subtle enough that it does not detract from the overall meaning of the novel. The tone staggers between lightly introspective and gravely serious.
For example, there are points where Sophie is walking through her garden, admiring beauty of her nature. A feeling of serenity pulses through her observations, a feeling of being grounded. Conversely, she realizes that every blade of grass is merely an idea in the Majors mind. Shattered reality and escaping being a pawn in a birthday game color the serious side of the dichotomy. This novel is comparable to Alice in Wonderland. Though it is unfortunate that Alice cannot find her way home, the characters she meets, and the situations she is in have an interesting feel.
It is difficult to decipher if the story is positive or distressing, it relies completely on how it is analyzed. Sophies World is deserving of the highest praise. It is the history of philosophy wrapped into an engaging story that will tickle the mind and reality of the reader. It is a magical novel that critiques how we function everyday through the presentation of all aspects of thought. The reader can draw upon every major philosopher, and their extremely different views of the world. It not only suggests, but demands, that one climbs up the fine hairs of the rabbit and stares the magician in the eye.