The Garden of Forking Paths

by Jorge Luis Borges

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How does Borges use allusions in “The Garden of Forking Paths”?

In “The Garden of Forking Paths,” Borges uses allusions to enhance the impression that the narrator is presenting factual material and that he is a well-educated man. He further employs them to help develop the labyrinth theme. The narrator, Yu Sun, refers to actual historical figures such as writers and scientists. These include Goethe and Newton. He also refers to a Chinese emperor and scholar who is fictitious but is presumably modeled on a real person.

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In his story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” Jorge Luis Borges employs allusions to develop both the main character and the overall theme. The first-person narrator, Yu Sun, is a studious, contemplative person who mentions writers and scholars. With these allusions, Borges suggests erudition as one of Yu Sun’s primary characteristics. The author further uses this characteristic to develop the broad-ranging theme of labyrinths as actual mazes and as metaphors.

Early in the story, the narrator mentions an Englishman he used to know. Although this man was “modest,” he seemed “as great as Goethe.” In fact, while they were conversing, for about an hour “he was Goethe.” Yu Sun means that even a humble person can be as brilliant as a famous author. And because Goethe is most well-known for Faust, the story of a man who sells himself to the devil, Borges may imply that the narrator has made an evil bargain.

When the narrator reaches Stephen Albert’s house, he is shown into the book-filled library. Among them, he is intrigued to see rare, never-printed Chinese manuscripts:

I recognized some large volumes bound in yellow silk-manuscripts of the Lost Encyclopedia which was edited by the Third Emperor of the Luminous Dynasty.

This emperor and dynasty do not exactly match any actual Chinese emperor. Literary scholars have suggested the model for this character and work as Zhu Di, the third Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who commissioned an encyclopedia.

As they converse, Albert speculates on philosophies of time. He contrasts this emperor, who was Yu Sun’s ancestor, to a scientist and a philosopher:

Differing from Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not think of time as absolute and uniform. He believed in an infinite series of times.

Isaac Newton was a seventeenth-century English mathematician and scientist who pioneered the field of physics. Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who explored fundamental metaphysical questions. Albert mentions people with two different approaches to time to emphasize that the emperor’s ideas were distinct from both.

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