Authors use metafictional techniques to purposely bring up questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. Sophie's World asks philosophical questions, especially about the nature of existence as Sophie, a seemingly regular girl, comes to discover she is actually a fictional character.
In a self-contained work of fiction, readers are asked to suspend disbelief so they can wholeheartedly immerse themselves in the world the author has created. A metafictional work, however, draws attention to the fact it is fiction, thereby forcing the reader to confront the nature of existence.
In Sophie's World, Gaarder uses a variety of metafictional techniques and devices:
- The novel is self-reflexive because it discusses its own writing. Once Sophie discovers she is merely a character in Albert's novel, the point-of-view switches to that of Hilde who reads Sophie's World.
- The novel employs intertextuality to link itself to other fictional universes. For example, well-known fictional characters such as Little Red Riding Hood and Aladdin interact with Sophie.
- The novel features itself as a prop when Sophie finds a copy of Sophie's World on the philosophy shelf of a bookshop.
- The characters comment on certain conventions of fiction. For example, Alberto points out the magic mirror must symbolize something.
- Gaarder exposes himself as the author of a novel in which Sophie and Hilde are characters and reveals his purpose in writing such a novel. In Chapter 26 on Romanticism, Gaarder insinuates he is the "higher mind" who "wishes to emphasize that he, too, is a helpless shadow," and that Sophie's World "is in reality a textbook on philosophy."
- Characters are aware they are characters. Alberto is already aware he is fictional and Sophie becomes aware that she, too, is fictional.
- Characters try to exert influence on the author. Alberto and Sophie attempt to change the story by escaping from Albert.
A main plot point in Sophie's World is the theory of the natural world as a figment of some greater being's imagination: "We exist only in the mind of God." Sophie discovers she is a fictional character in the novel Sophie's World, which Albert Knag is writing for his daughter. This realization comes during the chapter that features Irish philosopher George Berkeley.
Berkeley's conclusion is based on empiricism and idealism. His reasoning suggested that because all sensible objects are things man perceives by sense, and because man can perceive nothing except his own ideas, it must be that all sensible objects are ideas. Further, only a higher spirit can be the cause of ideas that make up the physical world, and God is this cause, thus, man "exist[s] only in the mind of God."
However, Berkeley was not the first to question the physical nature of reality. In the chapter on the artistic Baroque period (1600–1750), Gaarder points out 4th century Chinese philosopher Chuang-tzu's "Butterfly Dream" as an example. He wrote: "Once upon a time, I, Chuang-tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man."
Modern interpretations of this concept include the idea that humans live in a computer simulation. The 1999 movie The Matrix provides one such example. The underlying conceit is that humans do not realize they are living in a simulation because this false reality is indistinguishable from true reality.
Practically, it is impossible to prove or disprove such theories due to the infinite regress problem inherent in such argumentation. Someone living in a simulated reality is not able to discern levels of simulation. Gaarder presents this possibility himself in the chapter on artistic Romanticism (1800–50) when Alberto confirms Hilde and Sophie's author "wishes to emphasize that he, too, is a helpless shadow."
Timeline of the History of Philosophy
Sophie's World covers over 2,500 years of philosophy:
The Pre-Socratic Period (7th–5th century BCE)—These philosophers wanted to understand the natural world and its processes. The period includes the Greek Natural Philosophers Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Empedocles, and Anaxagoras. Greek philosopher Democritus (c. 460–370 BCE) was a materialist who proposed the atom theory.
The Classical Period (5th–4th century BCE)—These Greek philosophers organized and classified questions of philosophy and nature. Socrates (470–399 BCE) is known for his Socratic (dialectical) method and his quotation: "I know that I do not know." Plato (428–347 BCE) is known for his Theory of Ideas and Allegory of the Cave. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) is known for the Golden Mean in ethics and his taxonomies of the plant and animal kingdoms.
The Hellenistic Period (3rd century BCE–3rd century CE)—These philosophers spread Greek thought into areas of Greek influence. The period is known for the Stoics (natural law based on reason), the Cynics (avoid claiming absolute truth), the Epicureans (happiness found in seeking pleasure), and the Neo-Platonists (fused Plato's teachings with Oriental philosophy).
Scholasticism (12th–16th century, though harkens back to earlier philosophers)—These philosophers were concerned with the academic study of theology. Algerian Christian theologian St. Augustine (354–430) thought philosophy had limits only reconciled with faith. Italian Catholic priest St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) believed that faith and reason could both reach the truth but at different points.
Rationalism (17th century)—These philosophers believed reason is the source of knowledge. French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) said, "I think, therefore I am." Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–77) put forth that God created natural laws that govern what man can do.
Empiricism (17th century)—These philosophers believed that sensory perception is the source of knowledge. English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) proposed that man begins as a blank slate (tabula rasa). Other philosophers theorized man exists only in the mind of God. Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–76) was open-minded regarding natural laws.
Idealism (18th century)—These philosophers believed that reality is made up of ideas or thoughts. German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was an idealist who held that knowledge is subjective. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) was an absolute idealist who held that history is progressive and the "world spirit" is the mirror of the times.
Romanticism (late 18th century to mid-19th century)—These philosophers believed that knowledge is found within one's intuition. German philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775–1854) held that art and the creative imagination are the highest values.
Existentialism (19th–20th century)—These philosophers championed the individual. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) thought meaning is found in the individual. German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900) said that "God is dead." French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) held that because there are no absolutes, individuals are free to create their own meaning. French writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86) thought female nature is not fundamentally different from male nature.
Politics and Science (19th–20th century)—Prussian philosopher Karl Marx (1818–83) was a historical materialist and the father of socialism. English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–82) published the Origin of the Species (1859) and proposed the theory of natural selection and evolution. Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) developed theories of dreams and the unconscious.