Sophie Amudsen had three goldfish, two parakeets, and a cat named Sherekan, who usually rushed to the doorstep as soon as he heard her coming. The Amudsens lived in a single-family house that seemed to be "out at the world's end, since the woods began right behind the yard." Sophie liked to play on the swings and play cards and badminton. She was not very pretty, with "flaxen" hair that refused to stay put. On June 15, she would be 15 years old.
One day, when she got home from school, Sophie brought in the mail and found a letter addressed to "Sophie Amudsen, 3 Clover Way." No stamp and no return address. Inside was a little slip of paper with the brief message: "Who are you?"
Little did Sophie know that that brief message would turn her life topsy-turvy. But her curiosity was aroused. Who are you? What a question! I'm Sophie Amudsen, of course. But if I had been somebody else, would I still have been the same Sophie under another name? How do I know I am Sophie? When did I become Sophie? Will I stop being Sophie someday, like grandma, whom I miss so much? Who put this letter in my mailbox? Sophie rushed to the porch, raised the green metal cover, and found another message just like the first one: "Where did the world come from?"
So begins Sophie's World, the remarkable "novel" by Jostein Gaarder, a Norwegian professor of philosophy and the history of ideas. Sophie's World was published in Oslo in 1991. Before then, Gaarder taught in Bergen and published some schoolbooks on religious history, a collection of stories, and three novels for young people. For a long while, Gaarder had one idea foremost in mind: to write a history of philosophy for everyone. That book is Sophie's World, a book in which the leading character is philosophy. It is a real novel, a "thriller" that, while running the gamut from Democritus to Jean-Paul Sartre, explains without abstruse language all the high points in Western thought.
As Sophie sorts through the mailbox in hopes of finding a third message, she finds a postcard with Norwegian stamps but bearing the return address: "Norwegian United Nations Contingent, Lebanon." It is addressed to "Hilde Moller Knag, c/o Sophie Amudsen, 3 Clover Way." It is a birthday card that says, "I really want to give you a gift that will help you grow up. Forgive me for sending the card to Sophie. It was easier that way. Love and kisses, Dad."
The next day, a big envelope comes addressed to Sophie marked "Philosophy Course. Handle with Care." It contains three typewritten pages pinned with a paper clip. Her correspondent continues sending his yellow envelopes almost daily. Sophie can't wait to get them. She has made up her mind to learn all the lessons so that, like the philosophers, she can "embark on that dangerous journey that leads to the outer reaches of language and existence." She pesters her friends with her tales of the death of Socrates and the questions that come on her little notes. "Do you believe in fate? Is there a natural modesty? What should a man do to have a happy life?"
Anyone can follow at leisure the adventures of Sophie on this side and that side of the looking glass, find his way around the byways of being, and go zigzagging around among Aristotle's first causes, Hegel's absolute knowledge, Kant's categorical imperative, and Kierkegaard's ethical stage. Here and there, the reader will run across Aladdin, Ebenezer Scrooge, Little Red Riding Hood, and even a pixie or two. And the trip must be a pleasant one, to judge by the phenomenal success of this book. It went through a first printing of 7,000 copies in Norway and will soon reach 50,000. In translation, it has conquered Germany (almost a million copies), England, the U.S., Italy, and some 30 other countries.
It is not hard to understand the book's success. The end of this century has seen many certainties crumble and a proliferation of "would-be wisdoms" ranging from parapsychology to the occult and quasi-religious cults. The feat achieved by Sophie's World is that it brings back an image of philosophy that had rather withered. This is edifying philosophy, a philosophy that teaches and informs.
But watch out! Sophie's World is full of twists and turns. One gets lost in the mazes, loses sight of the landmarks, even fears that the world is just an illusion--or the illusion a world.
What is real are the typewritten sheets Sophie reads and rereads. Everything is clearly set out there, from the Platonic theory of ideas to Marx, Darwin, Freud. As the theories unwind, as the history of philosophy goes by and Sophie forms her own ideas, her world takes on a different look. It has too many mirrors, too many reflections, too many shadows. The philosopher plants doubts--which are the beginning of philosophy. Is it her mind that leads Sophie toward a big manor surrounded by birch trees?
There, Sophie finds a strange book, Sophie's World, and her world breaks into a thousand pieces. She realizes that she and the professor are only characters in a novel written by a major in the Norwegian UN contingent in Lebanon for his daughter, Hilde, who in turn does not exist. But don't be alarmed. Sophie and the professor find a way to escape from the book and go off to live happily ever after, so to speak, in a country where nothing ever ends and where they are welcomed with open arms:
"I came from a Grimms' fairy tale, nigh on 20 years ago. And where do they come from, these two?"
"We came from a philosophy book. I am a philosophy teacher, and Sophie here is my student." --Robert Maggiori, "Liberation" (leftist), Paris, March 2, 1995.