Skip over navigation

Sophie's World

Jostein Gaarder

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

The Garden of Eden, The Top Hat, and The Myths

Themes

The Pursuit of Philosophy as a Means of Ordering Human Experience

Sophie's World is both a novel and a history of philosophy, and so it is not strange that philosophy is its unifying theme. Philosophy is presented not as some esoteric exercise to be performed by people with too much free time but rather as something integral to life itself. Sophie and Alberto need philosophy to understand their world. But they are not so different from the rest of us. They can be sure that their world is the creation of Albert Knag, but just because we lack the answer to the question of where our world (or universe) comes from does not mean that we are freed from asking about it. In fact, as Gaarder stresses throughout the book, to be a philosopher is to never cease asking questions. Alberto tries to get Sophie to realize just how amazing her own existence is. It does not matter that there may be no single answer to the questions that we ask—the very asking of them is what makes us human. Why we are here, what makes a good life, and all of the other philosophical questions posed in the book are, according to Gaarder, the most important things we can ask. Once our physical well-being is taken care of we must concern ourselves with our mental lives. Life is thrust upon us, and the only way that it can mean anything to us personally is if we ask these questions constantly. Philosophy stands alone, outside of other disciplines, because in reality Gaarder equates it with living. If we live without philosophizing, then we have deprived ourselves of the greatest pleasure and understanding that we could ever come to. Philosophy is an ongoing, lifelong pursuit. We alone of all the creatures on earth can engage in philosophical reflection. Although it may not make our lives simpler or give us any easy answers, philosophy will fill us with a sense of wonder about our existence and our existence. Gaarder shows us that even when philosophy is intricately complicated, it revolves around simplicity.

The Illusory Nature of Free Will

The philosophical issue that plays the largest role in Sophie's World is that of free will. Sophie and Alberto learn that their existence is due to the imagination of Albert Knag. Up until that point Sophie had believed that she was an independent, free being. When they discuss the philosophy of Berkeley it becomes clear that in reality their freedom is only what Hilde's father lets them think they have. Yet, despite the fact that they are imaginary, Sophie and Alberto manage to find a way to escape. They cannot obtain what we would consider real existence, but they gain the freedom to act of the own accord. But what of Albert Knag's free will? He wrote a book for his daughter's birthday, and it seems that perhaps he was not in complete control of all that he was writing. Furthermore, some of his thoughts seem to have developed the ability to act of their own accord. Although Gaarder does not suggest that all of our actions are determined, it is also not clear the extent to which we may exercise our own free will. Perhaps there is an uncertainty in everything and even our own thoughts are not always what we want them to be. What is clear is that the concept of free will is both extremely important and very complicated to sort out.

Symbols

Books

Sophie's World is a book within a book, with the implication that perhaps such a regression could continue ad infinitum. Alberto lectures Sophie about philosophy but then we learn that the lectures are really not for Sophie but for Hilde. Yet as readers we realize that the lessons are not in fact for Gaarder's imaginary characters but for us. The very medium of the book is used to help illustrate philosophical points. Although it is quite engrossing, this is not the sort of book that one can read without being conscious of that fact. Many times what people prize in book (as in other forms of entertainment) is the ability to get lost in them. But even getting lost in Sophie's World requires knowing precisely that one is lost within the book. Gaarder constantly reminds us that we are reading a book about characters in a book a girl is reading. Besides the humorous irony that comes from such reminders, we are also forced to take the ideas of the novel seriously. Because the ideas that are put forth do not only have import within the book, and that is part of Gaarder's main point. The book itself insists that we must question what we read and attempt to better understand what Sophie and Hilde struggle with so that we can make philosophy personally relevant.

Dreams

Sophie's World contains many dreams, some of which are not easily differentiated from reality. In fact, dreams are used quite effectively to question our sense of reality. Sophie obtains items that belong to Hilde in he dreams. Of course, since Sophie's dreams are orchestrated by Hilde's father, that does not seem strange. However, the fact that Hilde cannot find the items that Sophie comes across suggests that strange things are happening. Hilde dreams that Sophie speaks to her before her father comes home and at the end of the book that is exactly what happens. Alberto also tells Sophie (and therefore Albert tells Hilde) about Freud and theories of dreams as wish fulfillment and links to the unconscious. As a literary device, the dreams in the book provide foreshadowing. However, their role is greater than simply to alert the reader to future occurrences. The dreams themselves bring into question our free will and our possibilities of understanding the world.

Motifs

Alberto as teacher

Alberto Knox represents the ideal teacher in Sophie's World. He is intelligent and demanding, yet concerned with the understanding of his pupil. Furthermore, what he teaches has great personal relevance and he tries to inspire this same feeling in Sophie. Of course, Alberto and Sophie are actually able to answer part of the question regarding their existence and so philosophy has a more direct import for them. However, Albert uses Alberto to teach Hilde and he is inspiring to her as well. Alberto also makes Sophie come to many of her own conclusions, rather than thinking for her. Such an interactive method of learning seems critical for philosophy, something that we need to be able to do on our own and all the time.

Hilde as reader

Hilde reads Sophie's World the way we all should. She thinks about everything that Sophie is learning and applies it to her own existence. Hilde does not simply agree with Sophie or Alberto but takes their thoughts and uses them to come up with her own insights. She thinks philosophically and critically. Furthermore, Hilde questions the text itself. She wonders why her father does some of the things that he does. It is important not to be indoctrinated. Descartes decided all of the learning passed down from the Middle Ages was worthless. We must likewise decide what to take from a book and what to disagree with. Gaarder wants us to question above all else and Hilde does this.

Sophie as student

Sophie takes Alberto's lessons to heart. The difference between her lessons with Alberto and her attitude towards school is marked and telling. School is an attempt to teach us things that will be valuable to us in life, but it is not always successful. There are some things in school that will not be very helpful to us. Sophie is eager to learn but she also can tell what resonates with her and what does not. She understands the relevance of philosophy and after her time with Alberto she is clearly a philosopher of her own accord. But our lifestyles and the societies we live in often take us away from philosophical reasoning, even if as children we are very close to it. Therefore we need to be good learners and students so that we can seize the opportunity to become philosophers should it come our way.

More Help

Previous Next
a question we all ask

by pala909, August 08, 2012

For my whole life, I have questioned where God came from. I've always believed in a God and that He created us, but I could never wrap myself around the idea of where He Himself came from. One day, I asked my friend and his answer was quite helpful and it might also help you guys, he said, I think God was always there as the essence of "there". God doesn't exist like you and I exist. Based on the way we understand existence, God doesn't exist. That's why that question is so hard for us. When Moses asked God's name he said "I Am"
And t... Read more

5 Comments

123 out of 158 people found this helpful

Follow Us