Sophie's World | Study Guide

Jostein Gaarder

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Sophie's World | Chapter 15 : The Middle Ages | Summary



Sophie does not hear from Alberto for a week. During this time she goes over the postcards with Joanna and plays badminton. Then another postcard addressed to Hilde smacks against her window. Sophie supposes Hilde must know more about her than she knows about Hilde.

She gets a call from Alberto. He tells her there will be no more letters; she must meet him in person. Time is of the essence now that Hilde's father, Albert Knag, is returning. She meets him the next morning at St. Mary's Church, and he goes through the history of the Middle Ages with her. Medieval philosophy centered on the intersection of religion and reason—were they compatible or contradictory. St. Augustine (354–430) thought there was a limit to philosophy that could only be reconciled with faith. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) believed that faith and reason could both reach the truth but at different points. Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179), although not strictly considered a philosopher, was a learned woman of medieval times. She had a vision of Sophia, what the Greeks called the "female side of God."


When Sophie and Alberto discuss St. Augustine, Sophie brings up the question of fate—if God has preordained some people to be saved and others to be damned, then how much free will do humans really have? Alberto says St. Augustine "did not deny that we have free will," but he also thought that "God has foreseen how we will live." This is a complex argument that seems contradictory, but it is essential to understanding how Sophie and Alberto exist within the pages of Sophie's World.

As their author, Albert is "God" to them. He has "foreseen" what they will do because he created their plot from his imagination. But Gaarder seems to suggest even fictional characters have some free will, and, in fact, authors often say when they write their characters "take over" and make different story decisions than the author would have made. Gaarder is taking this metafictional conceit and making it quite literal. In this chapter he even explicitly pits Alberto and Sophie against their creator. "We have to attract Hilde's attention and get her over on our side," he tells Sophie.

Later, he asks Sophie "Don't you feel you know something about the author just by reading his book?" He explains that when you read an author's book, you get to know something about their nature, but you have to read their autobiography to find out biographical facts about them. Similarly, St. Thomas Aquinas felt he could see God's influence in nature, but to discover God as a person, he had to read the Bible. But Alberto's question is not meant just for Sophie. It is meant for Hilde and for the reader, too. In a sense he is asking the reader to fathom the author's purpose for writing the novel. Does Albert intend to provoke Sophie into a meaningful existence? Does Gaarder intend to provoke the reader of Sophie's World into the same?

In this chapter Gaarder also reveals why he chose the names Hilde and Sophie. Sophia appeared to Hildegard von Bingen in a vision in the same way Sophie appears to Hilde in this novel.

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