After a short conversation with her mother,Hilde reads about Sophie’s discussions with Alberto in the church. She recognizes that her father is making a point about the relativity of time. During the chapter where the plane carries a banner, Hilde sees that Sophie’s storyline is “catching up” with her own. Hilde then reads about Sophie’s realization that she might only exist in the major’s mind, and Hilde starts to feel sorry for Sophie.
Hilde is reading the book Sophie’s World in the same way that we are—she’s learning about the history of philosophy, but she’s also learning about philosophy through the form of the novel itself. Sophie’s struggle to understand her world is a fascinating illustration of the ideas of Plato, Berkeley, Spinoza, and others.
Hilde eats dinner with her mother, and confesses that she just wants to go back and read the rest of the book her father wrote. Before Hilde returns to her room, she mentions that she’s missing her crucifix. Hilde’s mother replies that Hilde lost it by the dock weeks ago; she adds that she mentioned this to Hilde’s father. Hilde’s mother says that she picked up the crucifix off the dock, but when she goes to look for it in her bedroom, she is surprised to find that it’s disappeared. Hilde, however, expects this by now.
In the same way that Hilde reads Sophie’s story from an “all-knowing” perspective(she can tell that Sophie’s trapped in her father’s fiction long before Sophie herself can), we might want to read Hilde’s story. And yet, the novel wants us to ask ourselves, why couldn’t wealsobe the product of someone else’s imagination? (God’s?)
Hilde continues reading. In the text, it’s Sophie’s birthday, June 15th. Mom enters the room and wishes her daughter a happy birthday. Sophie is still rattled by the storm the night before, and wonders if it was “all only a dream.” Downstairs, Sophie opens presents—a tennis racket, which Sophie finds underwhelming. Sophie’s Mom asks Sophie if Sophie’s feeling all right, and Sophie insists that she is. Mom leaves the house, leaving Sophie to her studies.
Just as Hilde seemed a little disappointed by her mother’s gift, so does Sophie. Both girls have lost themselves in the world of philosophy. “It was only a dream” is a literary trope, but Gaarder has fun with it here in all his meta-fictional convolutions.
The phone rings in Sophie’s World, and Sophie picks it up. It’s Alberto, who explains to Sophie that he and she may have only been invented for the amusement of “the major’s” daughter, Hilde. But since he and Sophie aren’t real, just literary creations, then nothing they do really matters anyway—they have no free will.
By this point, there’s no mystery about it: Sophie and Alberto know that they’re trapped in Albert’s book. But of course, even their awareness of this fact is just the product of Albert’s imagination (although Hilde doesn’t seem to believe this).
Alberto suggests something to Sophie—maybe there is a way for them to exercise free will after all. If they speed through the rest of Sophie’s education (Freud, Marx, Darwin, Existentialism, etc.) before the major returns to Bjerkely, then they might be able to “detach” themselves from the major’s imagination. Alberto and Sophie plan to meet in the major’s cabin soon, though Alberto points out that they shouldn’t worry too much—since their worry is imaginary, just as they are.
Alberto thinks he has a plan for escaping Albert, precisely by using Albert’s intentions (of teaching the history of Western philosophy) against him. And yet Albertoalso seems more willing than Sophie to exercise a kind of philosophical defeatism—i.e., to say that nothing really matters, since they’re imaginary, anyway. This isn’t unlike the belief in fate or predetermination.
Hilde finishes reading the chapter of Sophie’s World. She finds it odd that Sophie and Alberto are becoming “aware” of their fictional nature. Hilde has a strange feeling that Sophie and Alberto are real after all, even though they’re just ink and paper.
One could say that Alberto and Sophie’s awareness of their situation is an illusion, no more or less “real” than their passive acceptance of the story’s coincidences. But Hilde seems to believe that Alberto and Sophie have taken on a higher reality as they move through their education. While this may seem a little silly, we shouldn’t entirely dismiss this idea, since it’s a basic assumption of fiction (good fiction, at least) that the characters are, at least in an emotional or a conceptual sense, real.
Hilde continues reading. Sophie receives two cards from Lebanon, one addressed to her, one to Hilde. In the letter addressed to her, Sophie reads about the lesson plan that Alberto will shortly present to her, structured around the Enlightenment. Clearly, the major is watching her closely, Sophie thinks.
Now that Albert “knows” that Sophie knows the truth about her reality, he can be more upfront about his control of Sophie’s world—and she has no choice but to comply.
Sophie and Alberto meet up in the major’s cabin, where Alberto dives into talking about the Enlightenment. The key Enlightenment philosopher was Immanuel Kant—other major figures include Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. Sophie tells Alberto that the major has already told her that Alberto will be discussing the Enlightenment. Alberto sighs and proceeds with his lesson.
Once again, Alberto and Albert are presented as both “doubles” and as competing figures. Now that we know more about the reality of the novel, it becomes clearer that Alberto’s criticisms of Albert are really just Albert himself being self-deprecating and playful.
The Enlightenment philosophers were interested in the power of human reason. Figures like Kant tried to rationalize morality—i.e., to show that the rules of good and evil were based on simple, reasonable ideas. It’s important to note that the Enlightenment philosophers were influential in the development of the modern school system—they saw it as their duty to teach the young how to use reason to understand right and wrong. Another key milestone of the Enlightenment was the encyclopedia, pioneered by the French in the late 18th century. The encyclopedia, with its formidable compilations of information, is a symbol of the Enlightenment faith in reason, careful study, and truth.
It’s a sign of the relevance of the Enlightenment to Sophie’s own enlightenment that figures like Kant and Rousseau focused so extensively on education for young people. In general, we should keep in mind that the Enlightenment figures celebrated reason and intelligence above all else. They thought that the human mind was capable of understanding everything in the universe; hence the rise of projects like the encyclopedia, which could be said to compress all the information in the world into a set of books.
Enlightenment philosophers toyed with the idea that civilization was overrated—even so-called primitive people seemed perfectly happy and healthy. To the philosopher Rousseau, this suggested that humans were innately good, and civilization was a kind of disease that corrupted them. The goal of society, he suggested, was to become “natural”—i.e., to uphold man’s natural potential for goodness and reason. This means that a good society is one that rationalizes everything: religion, politics, education, etc.
One paradox of Enlightenment philosophy is that while many philosophers of the era thought that their civilizations were on the verge of solving all human problems (with tools like the encyclopedia or the school), other philosophers believed that allcivilization was deeply flawed. We’ve already seen hints of this idea in Sophie’s World: civilization as it’s usually understood (a practical education, a job, travel) is portrayed as lonely, dull, or otherwise unfulfilling.
The Enlightenment philosophers were interested in a form of religion called Deism. In Deism, God existed, but wasn’t actively involved in controlling the world: God was something like a watchmaker, using the laws of physics and mathematics to create a universe that could take care of itself without his help.
We can’t help but contrast Deism with the “rules” of Sophie’s world. In Sophie’s world, Albert Knag is actively involved in controlling what Sophie and her peers do: he can’t sit back and let his imaginary world run itself.
Another aspect of Enlightenment thinking was its emphasis on individual rights. Enlightenment thinkers believed that men were born with natural rights—rights that they didn’t have to work to earn, in other words. One of the key events in the history of the Enlightenment was the French Revolution of 1789. During this period, the people of France rebelled against what they saw as an irrational and corrupt system of church and state. In place of Louis XVI’s monarchy, the French people established a government that respected the universal rights of man. Sophie is curious about the Enlightenment’s attitude toward women’s rights. Alberto explains that Enlightenment philosophers were often progressive about women’s rights. One of the key philosophers of France in the period leading up to the revolution was Olympe de Gouges, an early feminist who believed that women deserved the same rights as men.
Enlightenment thinkers could be said to celebrate the natural rights of human beings—an idea that’s so common nowadays that it’s sometimes hard to believe that it was once highly controversial. How can a human be “born” with anything? Don’t humans have to work to achieve the right to do anything? Questions like these challenged thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau to develop a theory of natural right that was logically sound, and that could be used to justify a political revolution. One major theme of these later chapters of the novel is the relevance of philosophy to the real world, especially the political world: philosophers like de Gouges and Rousseau undeniably had a real-world impact, since their words inspired many to take up arms against the King of France.
Sophie directs Alberto’s attention to the pictures of Berkeley and Bjerkely. She suggests that Hilde “lives” somewhere in the picture of Bjerkely. Suddenly, she sees an envelope. She opens it and finds a letter from Albert Knag to Hilde, explaining that Alberto should have just explained the history of the French Enlightenment to Sophie.
As Sophie becomes increasingly aware of the existence of Albert Knag, she also becomes more attuned to the fact that Albert is communicating with Hilde, and that the purposes of her (Sophie’s) interactions with Alberto is to educate Hilde: in other words, Sophie realizes that she was created with a purpose in mind.
Hilde, who’s been reading all this, hears her mother call to her. She decides to look up something in the encyclopedia her father gave her: Olympe de Gouges. She begins to read about this woman, who published a “Declaration on the Rights of Women,” and was beheaded for opposing Robespierre.
Philosophy, we can see, isn’t just an exercise for dead white men, as it’s sometimes claimed—philosophy can empower all sorts of people, and de Gouges is proof that philosophy can be a powerful and dangerous tool in the hands of the oppressed.