The Garden of Forking Paths

by Jorge Luis Borges

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Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 304

Borges was a great admirer of the detective genre and of its leading writers, from Edgar Allan Poe to Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton to Graham Greene. For him, a detective story required certain characteristics: a complex plot, a small number of characters, a satisfying solution that proceeds from clues the reader has seen all along. For all these characteristics, a labyrinth is a satisfying metaphor; it is no coincidence that Yu Tsun reflects on a labyrinth, or that the idea of a maze appears in so many of Borges’s works. In few of them, however, does the labyrinth figure so prominently as in “The Garden of Forking Paths.”

The labyrinth—a maze of hedges, for example, in a formal garden—is a physical puzzle. Although it appears to contain many pathways, there is only one right solution. In the same way, the detective story is the literary counterpart of the labyrinth.

There are many mazes in the story, yet the conclusion provides a path through all of them: Yu Tsun’s great-grandfather was killed by an unknown assassin; to many people who read about the murder of Albert, Yu Tsun is a virtually unknown assassin. Only those with the key to the mystery—the German espionage service in Berlin, waiting for a message—know why Albert has been killed. Captain Madden is tracking Yu Tsun through the labyrinth of England; Yu Tsun is entangling the unsuspecting Albert in the labyrinth of espionage; Borges is leading the reader through the labyrinth of the story. Not until the very end do readers realize why Yu Tsun, fleeing just minutes ahead of Captain Madden, should go to Albert’s house and spend an hour discussing Chinese culture with him. Not until the very end do readers find their own way through the labyrinth.

Historical Context

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Argentina and Europe
In 1816 Argentina gained independence from Spanish colonial rule. Argentina was becoming a wealthy country, most notably for its beef, wheat, and wool. In spite of their growing wealth, many of the old families of Argentina, including the Borges family, looked to Europe for culture and education.

Consequently, the Borges family left for an extended vacation in Europe in 1916. After World War I broke out, the Borges family chose to stay in Geneva, Switzerland, for the next four years. Consequently, the historical and cultural milieu that shaped Borges during this period was not Argentinean at all, but continental.

While in Switzerland, Borges discovered a number of influential writers: Chesterton, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Kafka. Although the war raged across Europe during this time, it seems to have had little effect on Borges or his work.

With World War I new forms of literature and art emerged throughout Europe. T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Miguel de Unamuno, James Joyce, and Luigi Pirandello, among many others, published a new kind of literature that was classified as modern literature. Experimental art also flourished in the form of dada and surrealism. As Borges continued his travels across Europe in the years after the war, he found himself surrounded by new thinking and new ideas.

The Borges family returned to Argentina in 1921. During the 1920s, Argentina flourished; both mining and oil exploration were well under way, and Buenos Aires even had subway system for the city. At the same time that Argentineans embraced all things modern, they also rediscovered the traditional Argentine dance form of the tango.

While the economy was healthy, the Radical party government of Hipólito Irigoyen maintained power through the 1920s. However, the economy crashed in 1930 and Argentina slumped into depression. A military Conservative coalition came to power and continued to rule throughout the period.

Borges continued to publish short stories throughout the 1940s. Politically, a new power began to take shape in Argentina. Juan Perón was elected president, and effectively became dictator of Argentina. Just before Perón was elected, Borges had signed a petition protesting fascism and military rule.

Consequently, Perón fired him as a city librarian. He also offered Borges a post as a poultry inspector in order to embarrass him. Borges, in an uncharacteristically political gesture, denounced dictatorships at a banquet given in his honor. The Perón years were difficult ones for Borges as well as for Argentina.

Some critics have suggested that the fantastic and imaginative prose that Borges produced during the years of World War II and the Perón years was in response to the grim realities and horrors of daily life. Still others believe that he was a man ahead of his time, prefiguring many of the concerns of postmodernism some thirty years early. Whether he was a man of his times, or a man ahead of his time, Borges is considered an innovative and evocative author.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 720

Narrator and Narration
One of the most interesting tricks Borges plays in "The Garden of Forking Paths" is his narrative technique. As the story opens, an unknown narrator speaks directly to the reader: "On page 22 of Liddell Hart's History of World War I you will read...." The narrator summarizes Hart's position that rain delayed a British attack.

In the second paragraph, the narrator suggests that rain may not have been the reason for the delay. He offers as evidence a statement from a Dr. Yu Tsun, but the first two pages of the document are missing. Consequently, the narrator throws the reader into the statement mid-sentence. The effect of this is to disconcert readers momentarily as they try to piece together the missing portion of the text and to absorb the sudden introduction of a new narrator. Interestingly, although it appears that the original narrator drops completely out of the story after introducing the statement, there is one further intrusion by the original narrator in the form of a footnote.

The footnote serves several purposes in the narration. In the first place, footnotes are generally found only in scholarly works, not short fictions. Consequently, the appearance of the footnote seems to suggest that Borges wants to place the story within a certain genre of work—a nonfiction report. In the second place, the inclusion of the footnote suggests that Yu Tsun's account of his murder of Dr. Albert may not be entirely trustworthy.

Although Yu Tsun says that Viktor Runeberg has been murdered by Richard Madden, the narrator in the footnote calls this "an hypothesis both hateful and odd." The narrator offers another point of view: Richard Madden acted in self-defense. This defense of Madden causes readers to wonder if the narrator and Madden might not be one and the same. At the very least, it casts serious doubt in the minds of readers over the missing two pages of the document. What else has the narrator chosen to hide from readers?

Although superficially the footnote helps to preserve the fiction that this is a factual report, its presence offers yet another troubling detail for the reader to absorb: throughout Yu Tsun's long statement, there is a narrator standing behind him, ready to edit or excise or add bits of text. Furthermore, by calling attention to the narrator that stands outside the margin of the story, Borges also calls attention to himself as the writer. The writer stands behind the narrator, manipulating and formulating plot, character, and setting. Thus, through the use of the narration inside the narration and the footnote inside the inner narration, Borges confuses the fiction of his story. He makes it simultaneously more and less "real" by his inclusion of the footnote.

Detective Story
Critics often refer to "The Garden of Forking Paths'' as a detective story. The genre was invented by Edgar Allan Poe in the 1840s. In detective stories, details are very important. A writer of a detective story is obligated to follow certain rules and conventions, including the inclusion of clues and details that will allow the reader to solve the mystery at just the same moment the detective does. Sometimes, the resolution of a detective story requires some small bit of information that the writer withholds from the reader until the very last moment.

Certainly Borges follows the conventions. His protagonist, Yu Tsun, is a spy. He has a secret he must transmit. He has limited time. He offers clues to the reader without revealing the final secret. Borges even places another mystery within the framework of Yu Tsun's mystery. That is, he offers readers the mystery of Yu Tsun's ancestor and his labyrinth, a mystery that Dr. Albert solves.

However, although "The Garden of Forking Paths" fills the conventions of the detective story, it only resembles a detective story in structure. In reality, the story is more of a philosophical treatise, masquerading as a detective story. Yet even here, Borges plays games with his reader. Because the story is not only about time and mystery, but also about the making of fiction, it seems as if Borges is questioning the rules of fiction.

Consequently, the reader is left wondering: is this a detective story that appears to be about philosophy, or is this a philosophical treatise that resembles a detective story?

Literary Techniques

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One of the most interesting tricks Borges plays in "The Garden of Forking Paths" is his narrative technique. As the story opens, an unknown narrator speaks directly to the reader: "On page 22 of Liddell Hart's History of World War I you will read. . . ." The narrator summarizes Hart's position that rain delayed a British attack.

In the second paragraph, the narrator suggests that rain may not have been the reason for the delay. He offers as evidence a statement from a Dr. Yu Tsun, but the first two pages of the document are missing. Consequently, the narrator throws the reader into the statement mid-sentence. The effect of this is to disconcert readers momentarily as they try to piece together the missing portion of the text and to absorb the sudden introduction of a new narrator. Interestingly, although it appears that the original narrator drops completely out of the story after introducing the statement, there is one further intrusion by the original narrator in the form of a footnote.

The footnote serves several purposes in the narration. In the first place, footnotes are generally found only in scholarly works, not short fictions. Consequently, the appearance of the footnote seems to suggest that Borges wants to place the story within a certain genre of work—a nonfiction report. In the second place, the inclusion of the footnote suggests that Yu Tsun's account of his murder of Dr. Albert may not be entirely trustworthy.

Although Yu Tsun says that Viktor Runeberg, his spy contact, has been murdered by Richard Madden, the narrator in the footnote calls this "an hypothesis both hateful and odd." The narrator offers another point of view: Richard Madden acted in self-defense. This defense of Madden causes readers to wonder if the narrator and Madden might not be one and the same. At the very least, it casts serious doubt in the minds of readers over the missing two pages of the document. What else has the narrator chosen to hide from readers?

Although superficially the footnote helps to preserve the fiction that this is a factual report, its presence offers yet another troubling detail for the reader to absorb: throughout Yu Tsun's long statement, there is a narrator standing behind him, ready to edit or excise or add bits of text. Furthermore, by calling attention to the narrator standing outside the margin of the story, Borges also calls attention to himself as the writer. The writer stands behind the narrator, manipulating and formulating plot, character, and setting. Thus, through the use of the narration inside the narration and the footnote inside the inner narration, Borges confuses the fiction of his story. He makes it simultaneously more and less "real" by his inclusion of the footnote.

Critics often refer to "The Garden of Forking Paths" as a detective story, a genre invented by Edgar Allan Poe in the 1840s. In detective stories, details are very important. A writer of a detective story is obligated to follow certain rules and conventions, including the inclusion of clues and details that will allow the reader to solve the mystery at just the same moment the detective does. Sometimes, the resolution of a detective story requires some small bit of information that the writer withholds from the reader until the very last moment.

Certainly Borges follows the conventions. His protagonist, Yu Tsun, is a spy. He has a secret he must transmit. He has limited time. He offers clues to the reader without revealing the final secret. Borges even places another mystery within the framework of Yu Tsun's mystery. That is, he offers readers the mystery of Yu Tsun's ancestor and his labyrinth, a mystery that Dr. Albert solves.

However, although "The Garden of Forking Paths" fills the conventions of the detective story, it only resembles a detective story in structure. In reality, the story is more of a philosophical treatise masquerading as a detective story. Yet even here, Borges plays games with his reader. Because the story is not only about time and mystery, but also about the making of fiction, it seems as if Borges is questioning the rules of fiction.

Consequently, the reader is left wondering: is this a detective story that appears to be about philosophy, or is this a philosophical treatise that resembles a detective story?

Ideas for Group Discussions

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In addition to being engrossing as a piece of detective fiction, Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths" is a complex and sophisticated work of literature that introduces dedicated readers to a variety of literary and even philosophical concepts and techniques.

1. Investigate the political situation in Argentina during the years 1940-60. Who was in power during that time? How did government policies affect Argentinean writers and artists? In particular, how was Borges affected?

2. Dr. Albert cites Newton and Schopenhauer as he explains Ts'ui Pen's concept of time. Who are Newton and Schopenhauer? What do they have to say about the idea of time?

3. Chaos theory is a concept that has gained popularity in the scientific community. What is chaos theory? What is bifurcation theory? How do these ideas relate to "The Garden of Forking Paths"?

4. Literary allusions are references within a story to other historical or literary figures, events, or objects. Try to identify at least five allusions in "The Garden of Forking Paths." Look up the allusions in a dictionary and/or encyclopedia. How does your understanding of the story change with your understanding of these allusions?

Social Concerns

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First published in 1941, "The Garden of Forking Paths," published in Spanish as "El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan," marked a turning point in the literary career of Jorge Luis Borges. Helping to establish his reputation as a fiction writer, the work received immediate critical acclaim in Argentina, even though he failed to win an important prize the year of the work's release. Critics found Borges' fictional voice to be important and original, proposing that his writings reflect a unique blend of South American and European influences.

In spite of their wealth, many of the old families of Argentina, including the Borges family, looked to Europe for culture and education. Consequently, the Borges family left for an extended vacation in Europe shortly before World War I. After fighting broke out, the Borges family chose to stay in Geneva, Switzerland, for the next four years. Consequently, the historical and cultural milieu that shaped the young writer during this period was not Argentinean at all, but continental. While in Switzerland, Borges discovered a number of influential writers: G. K. Chesterton, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Franz Kafka. Although the war raged across Europe during this time, it seems to have had little effect on Borges or his work.

With World War I, new forms of literature and art emerged throughout Europe. T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Miguel de Unamuno, James Joyce, and Luigi Pirandello, among many others, published a new kind of fiction, since dubbed modern literature. Experimental art also flourished in the form of dadaism and surrealism. As Borges continued his travels across Europe in the years after the war, he found himself surrounded by new thinking and new ideas.

The Borges family returned to Argentina in 1921. During the 1920s, Argentina flourished; both mining and oil exploration were well under way, and Buenos Aires even had a subway system for the city. At the same time Argentineans embraced all things modern, they also rediscovered the traditional Argentine dance form of the tango. While the economy was healthy, the Radical Party government of Hipolito Irigoyen maintained power through the 1920s. However, after the economy crashed in 1930 and Argentina joined the rest of the world in slumping into economic depression, a military-Conservative coalition came to power.

Borges continued to publish short stories throughout the 1940s. Politically, a new power began to take shape in Argentina. Juan Peron was elected president, effectively becoming dictator of Argentina. Just before Peron was elected, Borges had signed a petition protesting fascism and military rule. Consequently, Peron fired him as a city librarian, offering Borges a post as a poultry inspector in order to embarrass him. Borges, in an uncharacteristically political gesture, denounced dictatorships at a banquet given in his honor. The Peron years were difficult ones for Borges as well as for Argentina.

Some critics have suggested that the fantastic and imaginative prose Borges produced during the 1940s was in response to the grim realities and horrors of daily life. Still others believe that he was a man ahead of his time, prefiguring many of the concerns of postmodernism some thirty years early. Whether he was a man of his times, or a man ahead of his time, Borges is considered an innovative and evocative author.

Compare and Contrast

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1940s: World War II rages all over Europe as England, France and the Allied Powers fight Hitler's Nazi regime. When Japan bombs Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States enters the war on the side of the Allies.

Today: Although the decade is free of large-scale war, several regional conflicts pose threats to world peace. Problems in the Middle East, in Africa, and in the Balkans force the United Nations to send troops around the world.

1940s: In Argentina, Juan Perón is elected to the presidency, but quickly becomes a dictator with the support of the military.

Today: After decades of repression—particularly of the press and intellectuals—Argentina moves toward a more open government with the return of a civilian government in the 1980s. The government puts forth a concerted effort to find the bodies of people who "disappeared" during the 1970s.

1940s: Building on the work of Albert Einstein and others, scientists build a cyclotron, which leads to the creation of the atomic bomb. Einstein's theory of relativity continues to be hotly debated, and Newtonian physics is displaced by quantum mechanics.

Today: Unified field theories, chaos theories, and nonlinear dynamics occupy mathematicians and physicists attempting to explain the nature of the universe.

1940s: Science fiction and fantasy literature become popular genres, particularly in North America. Pulp magazines such as John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction flourish.

Today: Science fiction and fantasy continue to generate wide readership. In addition, films such as the Star Wars and Star Trek series attract large audiences.

1940s: Philosophical existentialism, developed in the works of writers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Franz Kafka, becomes an important movement. Existentialists believe that existence is of the greatest importance; however, an individual's understanding of him or herself as alone in the universe results in a sense of meaninglessness, alienation, and anxiety.

1990s: Postmodern philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault move away from the consideration of the individual human being. Derrida "deconstructs" language, demonstrating that the meaning of words and texts is not stable. Foucault examines texts as cultural artifacts; that is, as products of a given culture at a given time.

Literary Precedents

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Many critics have attempted to trace the influences on Borges' work, citing H. G. Wells, Poe, and C. K. Chesterton as important influences. Borges himself noted in several places the debt he owed to Chesterton, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling. To other reviewers, Franz Kafka's influence seems also clear in Borges' work; Borges was largely responsible for introducing Kafka into Argentina through his translations of the Czech writer. Indeed, the image of the labyrinth is important both in Kafka as well as Borges.

Borges' choice of detective fiction as his favorite genre recalls both the stories of Poe and Chesterton's "Father Brown" mysteries. A number of critics have concentrated on this connection, which can be seen in titles such as "The Garden of Forking Paths." In the story, he uses the genre of the detective story—a genre that requires clue gathering and puzzle-solving—in order to explore the way time branches into an infinite number of futures.

Adaptations

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"The Garden of Forking Paths" was recorded on an audiocassette collection of Borges' stories titled Selected Fictions. The recording, made in 1998 by Penguin Audio Books, is six hours long on four cassettes. Andrew Hurley and George Guidall read the stories.

Media Adaptations

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"The Garden of Forking Paths" was recorded on an audiocassette collection of Borges' stories titled Selected Fictions. The recording was made in 1998 by Penguin Audio Books, and is six hours long on four cassettes. Andrew Hurley and George Guidall read the stories.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Barth, John. ‘‘The Literature of Exhaustion,’’ in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 220, No. 2, August, 1967, pp. 29-34.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths, preface by Andre Maurois, edited by Donald A. Yates, and James E. Irby, New York: New Directions Books, 1964.

Fraser, John. "Jorge Luis Borges, Alive in His Labyrinth," in Criticism, Vol. 31, Spring, 1989, pp. 179-91.

Gonzalez-Echevarria, Roberto. ‘‘Borges and Derrida", in Jorge Luis Borges, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom, New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Irwin, John."A Clew to a Clue: Locked Rooms and Labyrinths in Poe and Borges,’’ in Raritan, Vol. 10, Spring, 1991, pp. 40-57.

Jaen, Didier T. Borges Esoteric Library: Metaphysics to Metafiction, New York: Lanham, 1992.

Lindstrom, Naomi. Jorge Luis Borges: A Study of the Short Fiction, Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Stabb, Martin. Jorge Luis Borges, Twayne, 1970, p. 138.

Stoicheff, Peter. "The Chaos of Metafiction," in Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, edited by N. Katherine Hayles, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp. 85-99.

Updike, John. ‘‘Books: The Author as Librarian,’’ in New Yorker, October 31, 1965, pp. 223-46.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and the Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, London: Routledge, 1988.

Weissert, Thomas P."Representation and Bifurcation: Borges' Garden of Chaos Dynamics,'' in Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, edited by N. Katherine Hayles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp. 223-42.

Wheelock, Carter. ‘‘Borges and the 'Death' of the Text,’’ in Hispanic Review, Vol. 53, 1985, pp. 151-61.

Further Reading
Bloom, Harold, editor. Jorge Luis Borges, New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
A collection of important critical essays, including the chapter-length essay, "Doubles and Counterparts: 'The Garden of Forking Paths'" by Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan.

Lindstrom, Naomi. Jorge Luis Borges: A Study of the Short Fiction, Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Offers an introduction to Borges, as well as an interview, selected criticism, a chronology, and a bibliography.

Sorrentino, Fernando. Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Clark M. Zlotchew, Troy, NY: The Whitson Publishing Company, 1982.
A collection of seven interviews with Borges, considered to be among the best books of its kind. Includes a helpful appendix identifying personalities mentioned by Borges.

Weissert, Thomas P."Representation and Bifurcation: Borges' Garden of Chaos Dynamics,'' in Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, edited by N, Katherine Hayles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp. 223-43.
Provides an interesting account of chaos and bifurcation theory in lay terms. Weissert uses the theories to demonstrate Borges' fundamental determinism and modernism, as opposed to chaotic postmodernism. A good choice for the advanced student interested in both literature and science.

Woodall, James. The Man in the Mirror of the Book: A Life of Jorge Luis Borges, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996. An accessible biography of Borges. Includes photographs and bibliography as well as a listing of films based on Borges' work.

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