Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504
“The Shape of the Sword” is an elegantly constructed, self-reflexive story that asks profound questions about the nature of human identity. Borges was fascinated with the doubling of human consciousness, and with the complementary roles that can be played by a single man—themes that he also explores in his witty essay, “Borges and I,” and in other stories, such as “Theme of the Traitor and Hero,” “Death and the Compass,” and “Three Versions of Judas.”
“The Shape of the Sword,” in particular, uses the literary device of the double to illustrate the multiplicity of human consciousness. A double is a literary character with an uncanny likeness to the protagonist; typically, the double represents a single aspect of the protagonist’s character, such as the conscience or the unconscious. Stories featuring this device usually end, as “The Shape of the Sword” does, with a struggle between the protagonist and the double, and with the death of one of them. In “The Shape of the Sword,” however, Borges elaborates on the psychological implications of this literary device. John Vincent Moon and the martyred Irish patriot are actually separate characters, but in telling his tale, the Englishman switches their identities. After his act of treachery, the Englishman apparently began to identify himself with the man whose death he caused.
Borges also emphasizes the theme of the double in the story’s imagery and wordplay, beginning with its title. “The Shape of the Sword” refers simultaneously to the semicircular scar on the Englishman’s face, the curved scimitars mounted on the wall in the library of the country house, and the form of the story itself—which reveals the identity of its main character only at the end. This shape, of course, is also that of a crescent moon. Although the narrator reveals at the beginning that the Englishman’s name is of no importance, it turns out to be the key to the entire story. His last name, Moon, alludes to the half-moon shape of his scar. The half-moon suggests, in turn, that he is now only half Moon; the other half of his personality identifies with the man whom he betrayed.
The phases of the moon also recall the changeability of the protagonist, who has been described in ambivalent, ambiguous terms from the beginning. The narrator has heard rumors suggesting that, as a master, the Englishman is both cruel and fair, both timid and apprehensive. This dual nature is later confirmed by the tale that he tells the narrator. Even after he has revealed his true identity to the narrator, the Englishman remains a complicated and ambiguous figure. Has he redeemed himself through his suffering, or is he as cowardly and evasive as ever, because he denies his true nationality, and even pretends that he is someone he is not? By the end of Borges’s brilliant little story, the reader knows the secret of the protagonist’s mysterious scar, but that revelation only leads to more perplexing questions about the nature of human identity.