Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Shape of the Sword” raises provocative questions about identity, betrayal, memory, and storytelling. Jorge Luis Borges was particularly haunted by these issues, and he explored them throughout his fiction. In this tale, before the Englishman reveals his true identity, he remarks that he felt as ashamed of John Vincent Moon’s cowardice as if he himself were the coward. The Englishman goes on to articulate Borges’s philosophy about the interdependence of all human experiences: “What one man does is something done, in some measure, by all men. . . . Perhaps Schopenhauer is right: I am all others, any man is all men, Shakespeare is in some way the wretched John Vincent Moon.”

This idea is poignantly illustrated by Moon’s actions and their effect on him. His betrayal of his comrade, which Borges specifically compares to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, ignores their common humanity, as well as the sacrifices that the other has already made on his behalf. Moon’s intense guilt, years later, indicates that he himself has suffered for what he did to his comrade.

The narrative structure of “The Shape of the Sword” cleverly reinforces the idea that “what one man does is something done, in some measure, by all men.” By telling his tale not from his own point of view, but from that of the man whom he betrayed, Moon affirms their commonality. Just as he plays the roles of both narrator and protagonist, so he also plays the roles of both traitor and hero. The narrator of “The Shape of the Sword” preserves this narrative device when he retells the story to the reader. As “The Englishman” concludes his tale by revealing that he is John Vincent Moon, the narrator concludes his story by revealing that he is actually Borges himself. The different levels of the story’s narrative structure thus illustrate its theme. Through the story, the reader can vicariously experience the roles of both traitor and hero, narrator and protagonist.