Sophie’s World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy
An international bestseller when it was first published over a decade ago, Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World has recently been re-released with a new appendix consisting of a short set of thematic and plot-related questions. Gaarder’s novel, brilliant in its philosophical scope and concision, narrates the intellectual maturation of its protagonist, Sophie Amundsen, a fourteen-year-old girl living in Norway. The novel is comprised of brief synopses of major philosophical theories and figures, from classical myth to twentieth century existentialism, from Socrates to Beauvoir. The synopses are interspersed between narrative segments that follow Sophie’s quest to discover the mysterious identities of Hilde Møller Knag, Hilde’s father Albert Knag, and their connection to her philosophy teacher Alberto Knox. In a quite frightening narrative twist constructed as a type of surreal mise en abyme, which culminates in the delightful philosophical garden party, Sophie and Alberto discover that they are fictional characters in Albert Knag’s novel (coincidentally entitled Sophie’s World) that he has written to Hilde for her fifteenth birthday.
In his review in the New York Times of the novel upon its first publication in English in 1994, John Vernon aptly refers to the Sophie’s World as a kind of modernized “old-fashioned conduct book of the sort written by a father for his daughter’s education.” While this description bespeaks the novel’s unfortunate bland style—which Vernon calls as “plain as a box,” with “tissue thin” characters—it also is indicative of the novel’s practical value as an elementary guide to the history of philosophy; if a reader, for example, wanted a brief summary of Sartre’s version of existentialism, she can easily flip to the novel’s index for quick reference. It is a wonderful resource for a basic introduction to philosophy, especially for younger generations of readers who have already devoured J.K. Rowling’s and Philip Pullman’s books and who are looking for something else to satiate their desire for intellectual intrigue, mystery and adventure.