Themes and Meanings

Most stories by Borges do not “mean” something in the sense that this word is usually used. The narrator of “The Library of Babel” reminds his readers that even the word “library,” which to him means “ubiquitous and everlasting system of hexagonal galleries,” also means many other things in many other languages. It can mean “bread” or “pyramid” or “almost anything else.” “You who read me,” he addresses his audience directly, “are you sure you understand my language?” With such warnings, it is often foolhardy to close too quickly on one explanation of a Borges story and claim that it “means” one thing. He conceives of his stories more playfully and, often, more seriously than the quick application of a “meaning” would allow. “The Library of Babel” summarizes many different solutions to one intellectual puzzle: How do small, autonomous, and thinking men coexist with a world that is unimaginably large and complex? Where is their significance in such a world?

Although “The Library of Babel” clearly raises this question, it does not clearly resolve it. The story offers not one but a variety of hypothetical answers. Borges’s theme seemingly has more to do with how all men address such problems than with recommending one or the other of their solutions as the correct idea or meaning. He explores the variety of ways in which men grapple with understanding themselves and their world, fascinated by the “fiction” they are forced to create to survive. If the story does not have simply one meaning, it does, like many of his narratives, resonate on different levels of associations. It places imaginary characters in a fictive world as large and as mysterious as the world usually posited by twentieth century science, and it provides a structure or a pattern that can be used to apprehend both the marvels of modern astrophysics and the troubling psychological problems that contemporary cosmology often raises. Like many of Borges’s stories, this one duplicates the familiar in an unfamiliar way, playing tricks with readers’ normal or expected patterns of perceptions to expand their frames of reference so that the familiar is seen in an unexpected, but more comprehensive way.