The Garden of Forking Paths

by Jorge Luis Borges

Start Free Trial

Borges argues in “The Garden of Forking Paths” that life has endless possibilities, so there is no reason for anyone to feel despair. Nonetheless, his short story doesn’t feel very optimistic. Explain the sadness that is found in the events of the story and also in his theory of infinite realities itself.

In the short story "The Garden of Forking Paths" by Jorge Luis Borges, the theory that life has endless possibilities is not good or bad in itself. The characters, settings, and historical context of the story give it a sad and pessimistic tone.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The short story "The Garden of Forking Paths" by Jorge Luis Borges is mainly narrated by a Chinese spy named Dr. Yu Tsun, who is working for the German army during World War I. He is being pursued by an Irishman named Captain Richard Madden. He just barely manages to escape where he is staying, and he makes his way by train to the estate of a Sinologist named Stephen Albert. He is hoping to get a message through to German authorities to tell them which village to attack, and he does this by shooting Albert, which is the name of the village.

As outlined above, this is a fairly straightforward spy story, but Borges gives it depth and nuance through Albert's explanation of a Chinese novel that he has been translating and studying. Tsun's ancestor proclaimed that he intended to both write a novel and build a labyrinth, but Albert points out that the novel is the labyrinth. Instead of a physical location, it refers to a labyrinth of time in which there are infinite possibilities. Borges was fascinated by ideas such as mazes, labyrinths, imaginary literary works, and libraries, and used them often in his works. In this story, the garden of forking paths is similar to modern concepts of alternate histories, parallel universes, or the multiverse.

In fact, the idea that life has endless possibilities is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Some possible alternatives would be favorable and others unfavorable at the point of decision, but each of us follows a particular timeline, and that is the one to which we refer, whether it turns out good or bad. For this reason, Borges's theory of infinite possibilities is neutral. Our decisions determine which path we pursue. Having a multitude of choices is a result of free will.

The sadness or dark tone of the story is not due to the endless possibilities of life that Albert uses the novel to explain. Instead, it is due to the circumstances of the characters and the plot. The narrator is a spy for the German army who is being hunted. He murders a man as a means of sending a message. He is then condemned to death. Additionally, the story takes place at night in a mansion set in lonely countryside. If Borges had chosen different characters and a different setting to introduce his theory of infinite possibilities, readers would see it in a much more optimistic light.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team