Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The word “circular” in the title accurately describes the form that Borges’s story takes. At the end of the story the pieces fall neatly into place: Remembering that the dreamer erased all memories of his beginning from his son’s mind, the reader recalls with new understanding the mysterious origin of the dreamer himself. The reader is never told where the dreamer comes from, except that it is upstream. His history is scanted, and the reader is never told how it is that he knows about the ritual of the fire god, or how he has acquired his magical powers. When the dreamer realizes that he is merely one revolution in a cycle, the reader realizes that the dreamer’s memory has been wiped clean by his “father,” just as the dreamer has done for his “son.”

Borges’s reliance on philosophical idealism in his fiction should not be taken as evidence that he seriously believed that human perception creates the universe. Rather, the philosophy is one that he could put to work in art; in “The Circular Ruins,” it allows an ending of great power and surprise. Borges had a thorough familiarity with English and American literature, even with what is sometimes called “popular” literature—the detective story, for example. He often expressed an admiration for the classic detective story, especially for its ending, in which all the pieces of the mystery must fall into place in a revelation that is both surprising and satisfying to the reader. Just such a story, transposed into fantasy, is “The Circular Ruins.”