Sophie opens her front door and is surprised to find a small envelope. Her “mystery man” has tricked her—knowing that she’d be looking out her window toward the mailbox, he must have snuck to the mailbox from a different direction.
Sophie is busy trying to understand the mysteries of the universe (“what is the world made from?” for example) but she must also contend with the more personal, concrete mysteries of her own life; i.e., who’s delivering her letters?
Sophie finds a series of cryptic questions inside her letter: “Do you believe in Fate?”; “Is sickness the punishment of the gods?”: “What forces govern the course of history?” Sophie isn’t sure if she believes in Fate or not. She knows many people who do, however—many of her classmates, for example, are superstitious.
The idea of Fate is particularly complicated and prevalent—many people believe in some kind of order or meaning to the universe, whether they acknowledges this or not.
Talk of free will gives Sophie an idea, and she writes a letter to her mystery man. In the letter, she asks him to come to have coffee with her in her home. She places the letter in the mailbox. When Mom gets home, she teases Sophie about being so interested in the mailbox, and suggests once again that Sophie has a crush. Sophie lies slightly and tells Mom that her “crush” is interested in philosophy. Mom nods and wishes Sophie good night.
While the nature of being and reality is the crucial philosophical question of the novel, the issue of free will is probably second most important. It’s telling that Sophie’s Mom assumes that Sophie has a boyfriend at school. Mom isn’t the most open-minded thinker, and she seemingly assumes that girls should be more interested in boys than in ideas.
Late at night, Sophie watches her mailbox from her window. She sees a man creep to the mailbox, deposit a large envelope, and take Sophie’s letter. Excited, Sophie tiptoes downstairs, takes the envelope out of the mailbox, and begins reading her latest letter, which is titled “FATE.”
There is finally a real, physical character to attach to these mysterious happenings. Sophie’s quest to answer to catch her mysterious teacher seems even more intriguing than her quest to come to terms with God and Fate.
The letter begins by warning Sophie never to “check up” on the mystery man. The man assures Sophie that “one day we will meet,” but he doesn’t specify when or where.
Part of Gaarder’s project is “meta-fictional”—this is a story about itself, but also one connected to its subject. Thus Sophie and the teacher are meant to meet because it’s been written as such (as we’ll later learn), but this idea of predicting the future also has to do with the philosophical idea of Fate that the characters are discussing.
The letter discusses the role of fate in culture. All human cultures believe in fate in some capacity. In ancient Greece, there was an oracle in the town of Delphi, where the god Apollo would supposedly possess the body of a priestess and allow her to speak in the gods’ voice.
One could say that thebelief in fate is almost as basic as the belief in a supernatural cause for complex phenomena. Indeed, fate is just another word for this cause, like “God” or “Thor.” Fate can be used to explain anything.
The Greeks had many stories about the role of fate in the world. The famous legend of King Oedipus is about a man whose horrible fate (or destiny) catches up with him, no matter how he tries to escape. But there were also Greeks, like Thucydides and Herodotus, who tried to use reason and research to explain why wars or large historical events happened—they weren’t satisfied with fate as an explanation. Around the same time, the Greek doctor Hippocrates was making similar developments in medicine. Although many Greeks believed that disease was caused by fate or the gods, Hippocrates believed that sicklinesswas an unnatural imbalance in the body that could be modified with the right treatments.
Part of the Greeks’ legacy is that they showed mankind struggling against the gods, and against the force of fate—in other words, they showed human beings exercising (albeit in a limited capacity) their free will. This is a struggle that clearly hasn’t been resolved in modern times, as the stories of Oedipus and others remain relevant and popular. Thucydides and Herodotus, for their part, remain relevant because they showed that larger social and political forces could also be confused with a divine sort of fate.
Sophie wakes up early Saturday morning. She’s fallen asleep reading her letter. Under her bed, she’s surprised to find a red scarf with the name “Hilde” written on the seam. Sophie wonders who Hilde is, and how she’s come to receive Hilde’s things.
Even as Sophie learns about Greeks who challenged the authority of the gods and of fate, it begins to seem that Sophie’s own life is dominated by fate—an unseen figure who controls everything.