Hilde finishes reading the chapter on Kierkegaard. Inspired by Sophie and Alberto, she decides to give her father a “scare” when he returns from Lebanon. She calls her family friends Anne and Ole, who are staying in Copenhagen, and begins to tell them about the book her father has sent her.She asks Anne and Ole to do her a favor (but we’re not told what the favor is).
Just as Sophie is often encouraged to learn more from philosophers’ questions than their answers, so Hilde now uses her father’s own methods against him (or so we presume). Albert’s lessons aren’t about indoctrinating Hilde into his worldview, but about teaching her how to build her own worldview.
Later on in the day, Hilde continues reading. In the book, Sophiereturns to her house, where she finds Mom waiting for her, irate that Sophie has slipped away without leaving a note. Mom tells Sophie that she’s received another letter, from the UN Battalion. Sophie lies (feeling that the lie comes from “some guiding spirit”) and says that she’s told her friend Alberto that she collects stamps and postmarks.
This is a good example of how Sophie might be said to lose her individuality and her freedom as she becomes more conscious of Albert Knag. Sophie seems not to invent the lie herself; rather, Albert Knag inspires her to lie. This has a semi-religious quality to it; one thinks of the prophets, inspired to speak the “word of God.”
Two days before Midsummer Eve (June 21), Alberto calls Sophie. Alberto tells Sophie that he’s finally found “a way out.” Since Alberto and Sophie are just characters in a story, they can escape their author simply by not talking. It’s true that their story has been written for them, but perhaps they can find freedom “between the lines.” Alberto asks Sophie to come to the major’s cabin immediately so that they can talk further. Sophie leaves at once.
Alberto continues to suggest ways to elude Albert, but we know the truth: as long as Alberto and Sophie exist in the book, they have to credit Albert with their very existence. This means that they can never be entirely free, in the sense of being entirely self-sufficient: they’ll always owe their existence to someone else. Even so, the idea of finding freedom in between the lines is an intriguing one, supported by the questions Gaarder has raised earlier in this chapter.
On the way to the cabin, Sophie crosses paths with Ebenezer Scrooge, who’s arguing with a little match girl. The match girl wants Scrooge to buy matches from her, but Scrooge refuses, since he’s been saving his money. Sophie buys matches from the girl, and the girl admits that Sophie is the first person to buy matches from her in a century. The match girl explains that “sometimes I starve to death.” Appalled, Sophie tries to convince Scrooge to give the girl some money, but he refuses. The girl threatens to burn down the forest unless Scrooge helps her. When Scrooge refuses, the girl lights a match and begins to burn everything around her. In seconds, the grass and forest are in flames. Sophie finds herself surrounded by ashes.
This is an unusually grisly and vivid episode for the book. As we become more and more conscious of the constructed, artificial nature of the book we’re reading, the events of the book itself become more bizarre (but no less “real” or affecting). Scrooge’s interaction with the match girl illustrates his greediness and miserly personality—important facets of the study of Marxism. The “little match girl” is an old Danish folk tale about a girl who dies while trying to sell her matches.
Sophie proceeds to the cabin, where she finds Alberto waiting for her. She explains her encounter with Scrooge and the match girl, andAlberto explains that Scrooge was a capitalist character in the novel A Christmas Carol. Alberto dives into explaining Marxism to Sophie.
As always, Alberto acts as a kind of encyclopedia for the oddities of the book—whenever there’s a character whom Sophie might not know, he’s there to explain what’s going on.
Karl Marx was one of the key 19th century thinkers—a “historical materialist” who, like Kierkegaard, took issue with Hegel’s faith in ideas and universals. Marx claimed that philosophers merely want to interpret the world—he, on the other hand, aspired to change the world. Marx’s influence on the 20th century is enormous—the governments of the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and Eastern Europe would be inconceivable without Marx.
Marx is one of the key modern philosophers because he expanded the very idea of what a philosopher could do.It’s not entirely fair to say that philosophers before Marx stopped at describing the world, however—we’ve already seen that this isn’t the case at all, as philosophers exercised great influence on the way the world works, from the American and French Revolutions to the dawn of Protestantism.
Alberto begins by clarifying the difference between Marx and Hegel. Hegel believed that history was a succession of ideas. Marx, on the other hand, believed that the only way to truly understand history was to look at economics, hence “historical materialism.” A society that celebrated philosophy and idealism, in Marx’s view, was only possible because certain people had enough leisure time to spend their days thinking—and this was only possible because other people worked very hard all day, building homes, finding food, etc.
Marx goes about analyzing the world in a much different sense than Kant or Hegel. Whereas Kant and Hegel adopt a lofty, “ivory tower” tone, Marx focuses on questions that might have seemed too basic or mundane for earlier thinkers to approach, such as: who has the time to think about philosophy? what civilizations are capable of philosophical thinking? and what is the relationship between financial prosperity and philosophical innovation?”
Marx goes still further, claiming that history is just the history of a power struggle between two classes of people. At certain points in history, it was a conflict between lords and slaves; at other times, it was a clash between aristocrats and citizens. In Marx’s own time (the mid-19th century), the class conflict took place between the capitalists and the proletariat. The capitalists were the powerful—the people who owned the means of production (i.e., the machines, the property rights, etc.). The proletariat, on the other hand, had no power—they spent their days working in factories and mills.
Marx continues his materialistic study of history and philosophy by contending that all of history is about the struggle for finite resources. Critics of Marx contend that this is a gross oversimplification of history—there’s simply no reasonable way that we can understand all of history in such extreme class terms.
Marx disagreed with the way his society worked. Wealthy capitalists feasted and lived in huge houses, while the proletariat starved. In 1848, he and his writing partner Friedrich Engels published “The Communist Manifesto,” an influential pamphlet in which they proposed a new kind of society, one where the proletariat owned the means of production.
Marx, no less than Hegel or Kant, believed that enlightenment was within reach of humanity—he just thought that this enlightenment would have to take a more concrete, real-world form. (Marx is often criticized for not writing enough about what kindof government would be necessary to sustain Communism, and thus for enabling the dictatorships of Stalin and his successors).
Marx’s critique of capitalism was complicated, but Alberto tries to summarize it for Sophie. In a typical capitalist society, the proletariat produced commodities—goods, to be sold on the market (these commodities could be anything—machines, toys, foodstuffs, etc.). Capitalists paid their workers for the time and effort they put into producing commodities. But they also charged their customers for the sale of commodities—moreover, they charged a greater amount than the wages they paid their proletariat workers. In short, capitalist businessmen paid their workers a low wage and took the business profits for themselves. Over time, Marx predicted, capitalists would cut wages more and more, in order to maximize their profits. But in the end, this process would get out of hand, and workers wouldn’t allow themselves to be exploited any further. Instead, they would rise up in revolution and form a society in which they controlled their own labor and absorbed their own profits.
Marx’s theory of capital is immensely complicated (his book on the subject is hundreds of pages long), but there are a few key principles that we should keep in mind. First, history is a constant struggle between those with power and property and those with none. Second, the only real source of power is control of the “means of production”; i.e., control of the industry that makes commodities. Finally, Marx (much like Hegel, with his more abstract dialectical thinking) doesn’t play “good guy/bad guy.” He believes that Communism will inevitably arisebecausecapitalism will lead the way toward it. He argues that capitalism itself will exploit the proletariat until they have no choice but to rise up.
Marx’s ideas were hugely influential. In Russia, for example, they were used to justify a revolution against the Czar. The new government in Russia, led by Vladimir Lenin and later Josef Stalin, was criticized for its brutality. Alberto says that it would be unreasonable to blame Marx for Stalin’s actions, but he also admits that Marx may have erred in thinking too much about the problems with capitalism, and too little about how a Communist society would actually be run and organized.
One could criticize Marx for enabling Stalin by arguing for the historical necessity of Communism without actually focusing on how a Communist government would work (this was Bertrand Russell’s criticism).
Alberto concludes his lesson on Marx by telling Sophie about a thought experiment that was designed by the 20th century political philosopher John Rawls. In this experiment, a group of philosophers must devise a plan for a totally just society. As soon as they’ve done so, they will die, and then be resurrected as randomly chosen members of the society they’ve just designed. Only in this situation, Rawls claims, could a human society be designed to be totally fair—otherwise, the designers of the society would favor their own interests. Alberto asks Sophie if she knows of any society like the one Rawls’ hypothesized—a society where, for example, women and men are treated equally. Sophie replies, “that’s a good question.”
So far, Sophie and Alberto haven’t talked much about political philosophy; their priorities have always been with questions of what is and isn’t real (and these questions have obvious relevance to the plot, as well as the nonfictional content of this book). But this chapter has been a little different: it’s foregrounded questions of politics at the expense of questions of reality. One of the big conclusions of this chapter is that a truly impartial form of government is difficult, if not impossible—those who craft the government will inevitably favor their own interests at the expense of others’.