Sophie doesn’t tell anyone about the postcards she receives. As she proceeds with school, she begins to notice that her teachers are dull and concerned with unimportant things. She wishes they would tell her about things that really matter—what it means to be human, or what it means to exist.
Sophie’s traditional education in school doesn’t satisfy her. It teaches her important information about math and history, but it doesn’t make her feel any more confident or any less lonely. Gaarder suggests that philosophy, then, will be Sophie’s true education.
One day after school, Joanna asks Sophie to come home to play cards. Sophie tells Joanna she’s no longer interested in cards, or games of any kind. Joanna becomes annoyed with Sophie, and suggests that Sophie is in love. Joanna walks home without Sophie, and Sophie regrets being short with Joanna.
Here Sophieshows her immaturity by becoming so humorously pretentious right away. One common thread of the book I that people will assume that Sophie’s strange behavior or actions come from her having a boyfriend or crush—everyone assumes that a young girl must only be thinking about boys, not about life’s deep questions.
Sophie returns to her home and checks the mailbox. Inside, she’s surprised to find a big envelope with her name on it. Inside, she finds a three-page letter, headed, “WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?” The letter explains that philosophy is the most abstract and yet the most useful thing in the world. Human beings have learned to provide for their material needs—they can find food and shelter. But humans also require intellectual and spiritual nourishment—this is what philosophy provides.
Sophie’s introduction to philosophy corresponds perfectly to the sense of frustration she felt in the classroom. School has given Sophie plenty of information but very little wisdom—philosophy (literally the “love of wisdom” in Greek) will satisfy what Sophie feels she’s been missing. (Of course, this isn’t true for everyone, but Gaarder assumes his readers to be of a similar mindset).
Sophie’s letter goes on to identify several major questions that philosophy tries to answer. These include: “How was the world created?”; “Is there life after death?”; “How ought we to live?” The letter explains that philosophers proceed like detectives: they use evidence and contemplation to solve their “mysteries.” One of philosophers’ favorite tricks is to answer big questions by “working their way up” from tiny details—or, as the letter puts it, “to climb up the fine hairs of [a rabbit’s]fur in order to stare right into the magician’s eyes.” The letter ends, and there’s no signature.
In this letter, an unknown author spells out the basic “direction” of philosophy, and of Sophie’s education. Sophie will start with profound, mysterious questions about the universe. But in order to make broad conclusions about the universe, she’ll have to focus on the “little things” in life. Once again Gaarder intertwines a rather straightforward lesson with a mysterious, whimsical plot, and thus enriches both aspects of his work.
Sophie tries to make sense of her letter. It was probably written by someone other than the person who sent a postcard to Hilde Møller Knag, since there’s no stamp or postmark on this most recent letter. Sophie then checks the mailbox again, and is amazed to find another large letter. She looks around, hoping to find the person who placed the letter there—but all she sees is Sherekhan, her cat.
Throughout this novel, the plot of the book will mirror the study of philosophy itself—in other words, Sophie won’t just be tangling with the mysteries of philosophy; she’ll also have to solve the concrete mysteries of who’s been sending her letters, and who Hilde is.
Sophie’s newest letter begins by explaining that Sophie’s philosophy lessons will come in small portions. The most important thing for Sophie to keep in mind is that philosophy requires “the faculty of wonder.” As people grow older, they lose their innate sense of wonder—they begin to take the world for granted and focus on smaller, more mundane things. The letter urges Sophie never to forget that she is an “extraordinary being”—her very existence is something of a miracle.
This is one of the key passages of the novel—an explanation of the philosophical “attitude” rather than any specific philosophical position. There are many implications of the idea that philosophy is an act of wonder, which the novel will unpack later on. For now, though, it’s important to recognize that philosophy doesn’t just give its students information; it teaches them how to live their lives differently—with a sense of excitement and curiosity.
The letter asks Sophie to perform a thought experiment: imagine that a family of three (a mother, a father, and a small child) is eating breakfast. The father suddenly begins to fly through the room. The small child is delighted by his father’s behavior, while the mother, on the other hand, is terrified. The difference, the letter suggests, is that small children are used to miracles and new phenomena—everything they see is equally surprising. By the time we get to adulthood, though, we’re trained to see the world as a “matter of course.” The exception, the letter argues, is the philosopher. The letter then makes an analogy. Every day, humans see incredible things—like an audience seeing rabbits coming out of top hats. Average humans become accustomed to this sight, however—in the analogy they “burrow” into the rabbit’s fur, losing their sense of the big picture.
The letter clarifies its initial point by contrasting a baby’s experience with an adult’s. It’s a common trope of children’s books that adults are dull-minded and unobservant, while children are more open-minded and innocent (The Polar Express, anyone?). That is certainly the case in this novel—Sophie is young, but what she lacks in real-world experience she makes up for with her unique and open sensibility. Sophie will never “burrow,” we can sense—she’ll continue to explore life’s mysteries. Without Sophie’s sense of wonder, this novel wouldn’t get very far at all.
Sophie is fascinated by the letter. When her Mom gets home, Sophie asks her if she thinks it’s an amazing thing to be alive. Mom replies, “Stop talking like that.” Sophie tries to explain the letter’s analogy about rabbits and fur, but Sophie’s Mom tells Sophie to be quiet. She jokes that Sophie has been “mixed up” with drugs.
Gaarder presents Sophie’s Mom as a kind of foil—an example of what happens to adults when they lose their sense of wonder and curiosity about the world. Mom seems to be rather dull, but Gaarder isn’t too negative or cruel in his presentation of her—she’s just a kind of stereotypically clueless, narrow-minded parent who won’t accept her child’s fantastical experiences.