The Garden of Forking Paths

by Jorge Luis Borges

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 227

“The Garden of Forking Paths” is a neat and clever detective story, but it also includes a theme of which Borges was very fond: the notion of multiple possibilities of an action. In science fiction, a whole subgenre of stories has been written to speculate on multiple universes arising from different choices in crucial situations: What would the present be like, for example, if the South had won the Civil War? This is the sort of story that Ts’ui Pen wrote, yet his story included not only an unexpected outcome but also multiple possible outcomes of various actions. The idea so fascinated Borges that he wrote another short piece, “Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain” (“An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”); the mythical Quain wrote novels like Ts’ui Pen’s. A single first chapter is followed by three second chapters, among which the reader may choose. Each of those second chapters is followed by three possible third chapters, and so on.

As Albert says in the story, people, with their attention fixed on their memory of the past and their limited perception of the future, tend to think of time as a single strand of reality, with all the unrealized events and all the unchosen alternatives only possibilities. This fascination with the theme of multiple universes marks many of Borges’s works.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647

Time
Dr. Stephen Albert tells Yu Tsun,"The Garden of Forking Paths is an enormous riddle, or parable, whose theme is time...." Likewise, Borges seems to be implying that the major theme of the short story "The Garden of Forking Paths'' is also time. Yu Tsun reflects early in the story, "everything happens to a man precisely now. Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen...."

With this, Yu Tsun describes time in a linear manner. That is, humans experience time as a series of present moments, one following the other. As soon as the moment is experienced, however, it no longer exists. On account of this, the past is no more real than the future. Both exist nowhere but in the human mind: the past belongs to the realm of memory, while the future belongs to the realm of imagination.

When Yu Tsun arrives at the home of Albert, however, the notion of time as linear is challenged. Albert argues Yu Tsun's ancestor ‘‘did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent, and parallel times.’’ In this construction of time, all presents, pasts, and futures exist simultaneously. Further, each decision a person makes leads to different future. The branching, or forking, of all these decisions suggests that time is not a line, but rather is a web or a network of possibilities. The image of the labyrinth, thought of as a forking of time, rather than space, is the clue that Albert needs to rethink the concept of time.

For a moment, Yu Tsun experiences time as Albert describes it: "It seemed to me that the humid garden that surrounded the house was infinitely saturated with invisible persons. Those persons were Albert and I, secret, busy, and multiform in other dimensions of time.'' The appearance of Madden, however, pulls Yu Tsun into the future he chose when he got on the train. In this moment, in this present, Yu Tsun murders Dr. Albert.

Order and Disorder
In addition to the consideration of time in "The Garden of Forking Paths," Borges also seems to be exploring the concepts of order and disorder. Indeed, Thomas P. Weissert argues that the subject of the story is ‘‘chaos and order.’’ Within the short story there exists a novel by Yu Tsun's ancestor. The novel is described variously as "incoherent," "chaotic," "an indeterminate heap of contradictory drafts," and "confused." In short, the novel appears to represent the very essence of disorder.

However, Albert believes that he has solved the mystery of the lost labyrinth and the chaotic novel. He argues that if one assumes that the novel itself is the labyrinth, and is the author's attempt to represent the webbing nature of time, the novel is not an example of chaos, but of order. Furthermore, Albert works to create order out of the disorder of the novel. He says, "I have compared hundreds of manuscripts, I have corrected the errors that the negligence of the copyists has introduced, I have guessed the plan of this chaos, I have re-established...the primordial organization."

In other words, Albert acts as an ideal reader of this text, imposing form and structure to what might otherwise be seen as nonsense. Like a labyrinth, which only seems chaotic to someone who does not hold the key to its solution, the novel itself becomes, in Weissert's words, "an ordered maze" once Albert discovers the key to the novel.

Borges seems to be implying that while the universe may appear to be chaotic and disordered, the chaos itself may represent an order-as-yet-not-understood. Certainly, the tension between Yu Tsun's reading of his ancestor's text as incoherent and Albert's reading of the same text as ordered parallels the human experience of trying to render meaningful the apparently random events of life.

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