Themes and Meanings
In many ways, the story of Pierre Menard is representative of the work of Borges, for it is a manifestation of the processes of fictional invention that have made him one of the most influential twentieth century writers. In fact, this story deals with the process itself of literary artistic creation. It is, then, a commentary on what happens as Borges invents his fiction, just as it is an analysis of the creation of the work of art by Menard, or by Cervantes, or by any other artist.
Borges treats this theoretical question with respect to the Quixote in several of his other short fictions and essays included in the first collection of Borges’s work widely available in English, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (1962, 1964). The essay “Partial Magic in the Quixote” analyzes the doubling of the fictional text through the invention of a manuscript on which the Quixote is based, a technique that confuses the distinction of fiction and history and has been the origin of the concept of metafiction developed by the literary critics of the 1970’s and 1980’s. “A Problem,” which is a parable, pursues further the question of the historicity or fictiveness of the manuscript and its supposed author, Cide Hamete Benengeli. The “Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote” explores the relationship of Cervantes to his character, Don Quixote, a question that Borges also confronts in the narrative about Menard.
The story of Pierre Menard poses a theme that Borges examines in many of his works: the relationship of the fictional world portrayed in the text and the world of real, historical experience. The passages are identical—those of Menard and those of Cervantes—but the difference of three centuries in the experience of the perceivers of the text (the readers and the authors) alters the essence of the fictional reality that arises from the text. The clearest example of the influence of the reader’s perception is seen in Borges’s comments on the language of the two apparently identical passages. Because of the reader’s own linguistic experience, Cervantes’s use of language is rhetorical but contemporary, while Menard’s is archaic and affected.
It is evident that for Borges the experience of reading is a process of transforming the fictional world into an interiorized experience analogous to historical experience. That process is a phenomenon inextricably bound to the circumstance of the reader.