Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

It is often said that Jorge Luis Borges deals in metaphysical games and paradoxes, in particular with those having to do with death and time and identity. In “The Lottery in Babylon” he seems to focus mainly on human beings’ interest in systematically organizing their surroundings—as do all people in one mythic way or another; either through religion, or literature, sociology, history, or something else. In Babylon it is done by chance.

The use of chance as the basis for running anything is an oxymoronic way of doing things, a way of making sense out of nonsense. It seems significant that Borges wrote this story during the unsettling era of the dictatorial regimes of the Nazis, Fascists, and Soviets. Borges’s narrator questions how the lottery is run—if indeed it is being run—and to what end, if any. Amid such uncertainty, one can be, as the narrator says in his opening line, like “all men in Babylon . . . a proconsul . . . a slave,” and one can know “omnipotence, opprobrium, jail.”

Such uncertainties are, however, possibilities—and not merely metaphysical ones—in all ages, not only those dominated by totalitarianisms or by technologies that offer totalitarian possibilities. This touches on one of the great fears of all people: the idea that life—represented in this story by the Company—makes no sense at all, that it is not ordered even by chance. What guides the Company may be wisdom; it may be astrology, or...

(The entire section is 513 words.)