Sophie and Her Mother
In Jostein Gaarder’s philosophical novel Sophie’s World, Sophie learns about the history of philosophy, concluding with the truth about her own existence. Throughout this, many motifs are prevalent—the mirror, the boat, dreams, constant enlightenment. But the most important motif is that of Sophie’s relationship with her mother. As this motif develops and Sophie and her mother become closer as a result of the philosophy, only to be torn apart again, this eventually helps evince the theme of this novel: to live in the moment, because nothing is permanent.
In the beginning of the book, Sophie has a rather distant, if polite relationship with her mother. As Sophie is introduced, it is explained that although her mother sometimes called their house “a menagerie,” Sophie was “quite happy with [her menagerie]. It had begun with the three goldfish, Goldtop, Red Ridinghood, and Black Jack. Next she got two budgerigars called Smitt and Smule, then Govinda the tortoise, and finally the marmalade cat Sherekan. They had all been given to her to make up for the fact that her mother never got home from work until late in the afternoon and her father was away so much, sailing all over the world” (2). Gaarder’s profuse use of commas in these compound sentences emphasizes just how many animals Sophie has, which in turn emphasizes the fact that they were compensation for not seeing her parents, her mother especially, very much. In addition, that Sophie was “quite happy” with her animals suggests that she not only has become accustomed to but also enjoys time without her parents. After Sophie reads her first packet on philosophy, she corners her mother when she comes home from work and asks her about some of the questions presented in the packet. After her mother puts the potatoes on, as Sophie said she would, she asks, “‘You haven’t gotten yourself mixed up with drugs, have you, dear?’ Sophie was just about to laugh, but she understood why the question was being brought up now. ‘Are you nuts?’ she said. ‘That only makes you duller!’” (20). Sophie’s mother would not know if Sophie had gotten into drugs, because she is away so much of the time. Furthermore, this first dose of philosophy causes much consternation on the part of her mother, suggesting that although their relationship is distant her mother does care about her.
Sophie’s mother’s belief that the white envelopes are love letters is evidence that the philosophy she is learning brings more of her concern upon her. Her mother finds a letter in the mailbox from the philosopher, and because there is no stamp, concludes that it is a love letter. “Aren’t you going to open it?” she asks. In response to this, Sophie thinks, “Let her mother think it was a love letter. Although it was embarrassing enough, it would be even worse if her mother found out that she was doing a correspondence course with a complete stranger, a philosopher who was playing hide-and-seek with her” (28). Sophie is going to such lengths as pretending she has a lover in order to protect her philosophy from her mother, emphasizing that she wishes her mother not to know about the philosophy. This goes to such lengths that “Her mother was clearly worried. She had started speaking to Sophie in a different tone since the business with the white rabbit and the top hat.” (50) The philosophy, although her mother does not know that it is the philosophy, is causing her to be concerned, speaking in a “different” tone than before—implying that she was not so worried or concerned about Sophie before she starts learning philosophy. When Sophie goes upstairs just to stare at the mailbox, she asks, “’Is he the one who told you about the rabbit and the top hat?’ her mother asked. Sophie nodded. ‘He—he doesn’t do drugs, does he?’”(50). The dash after the first “he” betrays worry on the part of her mother, and that she is afraid to go on. Even if Sophie herself is not doing drugs, her mother is concerned that she may be associating with someone who is—while in reality, Sophie does not have a lover at all and instead is learning philosophy.
After Sophie’s visit to the lake, her mother’s questions and Sophie’s responses continue to show how philosophy is drawing them closer together. After Sophie’s mother brings her some dry clothes, she begins to interrogate her. “‘Were you with him?’ she asked after a while. ‘Him?’ ‘With him, yes. Him…. Your rabbit!’ Sophie shook her head…. ‘Now I want the truth. Were you out all night? Why did you go to bed with your clothes on? Did you sneak out as soon as I had gone to bed? You’re only fourteen, Sophie. I demand to know who you are seeing!’” (98-99). Sophie then explains about how she doesn’t have a boyfriend after all. The sudden flood of questions, one after the next after the next, suggests anger, anger and consternation at what Sophie could possibly doing. Sophie has done this all as a result of what she has read in her philosophy, and her mother is concerned over what she has done—her philosopher is causing her mother to be more concerned about Sophie, thus bringing them closer together. To the same effect is Sophie’s confession, which suggests that she trusts her mother.
Much the same thing occurs when Sophie begins crying when on the news, a major in the Norwegian UN Battalion had been killed by a shell. Her mother asks, “‘What’s going on, Sophie?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘Yes, there is. You have a boyfriend, and I’m beginning to think he’s much older than you. Answer me now: Do you know a man in Lebanon?’” (217). The flood of claims, again, shows her mother’s concern over Sophie. Sophie’s reaction, of course, is because of the postcards she is receiving in conjunction of the philosophy. After responding with a flood of questions of her own, Sophie runs upstairs and “pretended to be asleep even though she knew her mother wouldn’t’ believe it. She knew her mother knew that Sophie knew her mother wouldn’t believe it either. Nevertheless her mother pretended to believe that Sophie was asleep” (217). Sophie and her mother, at this moment, have come to a sort of peace with each other, even if it is only temporary. Suddenly she decides to tell the complete truth to her mother, who also confides in Sophie about her relationship with her father, furthering the trust they have in each other.
As Sophie’s philosophy peaks, so does her relationship with her mother. After Sophie learns about Berkeley and realizes that she is only part of a book, she runs home in a thunderstorm, meeting her mother in the middle of a playing field. As she is running, “the sky was pierced again and again by angry darts of lightning” (286). When they reach each other, Sophie’s mother wraps her arms around her. “What’s happening to us, little one?” her mother asks. “I don’t know,” Sophie replies, “It’s like a bad dream” (286). The lightning not only dramatizes the scene, it also emphasizes how Sophie and her mother are at a peak in their relationship. Her mother’s question, “what ‘s happening to us,” could either refer to what was happening physically—the thunderstorm—or their relationship. Sophie’s mother’s referring to Sophie as “little one” also emphasizes how Sophie is still her daughter, she is still her “little one.” At this moment, the two are united in fear and disbelief, the peak of the closeness of their relationship.
Despite all this, at the end of the book, Sophie is torn away from her mother as she leaves the book- world and also the major’s consciousness. Here, then, the way Sophie and her mother have finally become so close, yet are ultimately torn apart evinces the theme—to live in the moment, to enjoy what is there, because even Sophie’s relationship with her mother is not permanent, she must leave her in the end. The motif of Sophie’s relationship with her mother displays this theme.
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