Sophie’s World

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Sophie’s World Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Jostein Gaarder's Sophie’s World. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Jostein Gaarder
 Jostein Gaarder was born in Oslo, the son of schoolteachers. He grew up in Bergen, Norway, and later studied theology and literature in college. He taught high school in Bergen for many years, during which he began to write Sophie’s World, the novel that would make him famous. During the late 80s, Gaarder wrote children’s mysteries that gained him a wide following in Scandinavia. It wasn’t until 1991, when Sophie’s World was published, that he became an international figure. Following the success of this book, Gaarder became a popular columnist, talk show guest, and journalist, in addition to a writer of children’s books. He established a “Sophie Prize,” named after his novel’s protagonist, which honored education and environmental awareness, and also penned a column in which he lobbied for Palestinian rights. Gaarder continues to write children’s books, though none have had the same international impact as Sophie’s World.
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Historical Context of Sophie’s World
 Because Sophie’s World is a history of Western philosophy, it’s also something of a history of the Western world. While there are too many specific historical events to recount here, a few overarching cultural trends stand out: the rise of the Greek city-state circa 400 B.C., which paved the way for the founding texts of Western philosophy; the death of Christ circa 33 A.D., which inspired the rise of the Christian era; the revitalization of Rome in the 14th century, which provided the material conditions for the Renaissance; the French Revolution of 1789, which inspired the Romantic era’s emphasis on democracy, historical process, and human rights; and the First and Second World Wars, which challenged the Western world’s faith in liberalism and universalism.
Other Books Related to Sophie’s World
 Sophie’s World mentions too many specific works of literature to name—in addition to the works of philosophy that Sophie and Hilde learn about, there’s Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, and many others. In particular, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with its unlikely combination of disorienting fantastical worlds, difficult mathematical ideas, and child-friendly humor, was a major influence on Gaarder’s book. For another book that uses fantasy to teach children about a complicated subject, check out Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s The Number Devil (1997). In this amusing novel (possibly inspired by the unlikely success of Sophie’s World), a confused child teams up with an imaginary friend to learn about number theory, geometry, and probability.
Key Facts about Sophie’s World
  • Full Title: Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy
  • Where Written: Bergen, Norway
  • When Published: 1991 (Norway) and 1994 (U.S.)
  • Literary Period:  Late Cold War celebration of Western culture
  • Genre: Young adult fiction / philosophical novel / novel of ideas / Bildungsroman
  • Setting: Norway, 1990
  • Climax: Alberto Knox and Sophie Amundsen escape the garden party
  • Antagonist: None—this is a novel of education, not action
  • Point of View: Third person limited—the novel cuts back and forth between Sophie and Hilde’s points of view
Extra Credit for Sophie’s World

Little girl, big hit: Nobody expected Jostein Gaarder’s 500-page children’s novel about philosophy to be a big success—but it was. In fact, it sold over 40 million copies, was translated into 59 languages, and remains one of the most successful books ever to come out of Norway.

Sophie fever: Throughout the 90s, there was a wave of “Sophie fever”—Gaarder’s book was so popular that children’s authors everywhere were trying to duplicate its success. The 90s also saw a film version of Sophie’s World, an 8-part TV miniseries aired in Australia, a board game, a computer game, and even a concept rock album based on a line from the book: “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space.”