Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 638
The setting of “The Library of Babel” is not only the story’s most important characteristic, it is, in a way, everything. Much of the narrative consists of descriptions of an imaginary library that is so large that no one has seen the top, bottom, or end of it. It is so old that the recorded history of its librarians stretches back for many centuries and still one cannot account for the library itself or for its architects. It houses so many books that the most accepted explanation for its collection is that it contains all possible books; that is, it contains all the infinite variations on every book whose pages could be generated by random strings of letters, words, or phrases without duplication. The narrator of the story asserts that, “like all men of the Library,” he traveled in his youth, journeying from cubicle to cubicle searching for a book or “a catalogue of catalogues” that might explain where he was and why he was there. He anticipates dying without finding that knowledge, only “a few leagues from” the bookshelves by “which I was born.” “Once dead there will not lack pious hands to hurl me over the central banister of the vast building,” he claims; “my sepulchre shall be the unfathomable air. . . . My body will sink lengthily and will corrupt and dissolve in the wind engendered by the fall, which is infinite.”
The story turns on the narrator’s and the librarians’ attempts to make sense of the infinite building in which they find themselves, a building that has been neatly divided into hexagonal rooms that open on to one another while surrounding a grand central staircase. Generations are born and die within these rooms without understanding the mysteries of their universe or their place in it. Apparently, an increasing number seem to resolve such questions by committing suicide.
The theories that others concoct to explain their situation are like the theories men have traditionally concocted to fathom their own sense of the infinitude of the world. Some believe it their duty to eliminate useless books, books filled with nonsense syllables or unknown languages. Others believe that it is useless to read or write or study in such an environment. Knowledge, they claim, will be more likely produced by chance. They roll dice. Some believe in the superstition of “the Man of the Book.” They argue that because there must be some one book on some one shelf somewhere that is the “perfect compendium to all the rest,” at least one person must have read it. Such a librarian, they hope, has found the knowledge that would make him “analogous to a god.” They search for him. Others search for books that foretell their own futures. The librarians spend their lives looking for such volumes, never knowing whether they have found a meaningful fiction or an absolute fact.
The history of their theories, discoveries, and disappointments, as summarized and evaluated by the narrator, moves the plot along. Like many of Jorge Luis Borges’s narrators, however, this one claims that no one theory seems persuasively better than the others. The story ends without accounting for the mysteries it has raised, the narrator himself claiming to have settled on his own solution to the nature of his universe: The library is “limitless and periodic.” The same volumes repeat themselves “in the same disorder (which repeated, would constitute an order: Order itself). My solitude rejoices in this elegant hope.” However, his hope is a purely personal one. When confronted with a world too big and too complex to explain, men must settle on an idea that satisfies their own personal natures and that plausibly explains what data they have. In “The Library of Babel,” this seems to be the closest the inhabitants will come to achieving absolute truth.