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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349

"The South," by Jorge Luis Borges, is a short story set in 1939. Its protagonist is Juan Dahlmann, the director of a city library in the northern part of Argentina. The descendant of a German and an Argentinian, Dahlmann has always strongly associated himself with his maternal grandfather, Francisco Flores,...

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"The South," by Jorge Luis Borges, is a short story set in 1939. Its protagonist is Juan Dahlmann, the director of a city library in the northern part of Argentina. The descendant of a German and an Argentinian, Dahlmann has always strongly associated himself with his maternal grandfather, Francisco Flores, who died in battle, run through with a spear. He keeps the Flores house in the south of Argentina and has always longed to go there, as if he belongs there.

One morning in 1939, by chance, he hits his head on a doorjamb. It is a worse injury than it should be, and he is sent to a clinic. He endures a number of treatments and almost dies of septicemia; eventually, it is suggested that he should go south to recuperate.

Part of the story tracks the pleasant part of Dahlmann's journey south. While he had hated being confined to the clinic, he finds something romantic in the journey, thinking that now he is finally going towards the lands of his ancestors. He enjoys petting a cat which lives in a cafe in one of the terminals they stop at on the journey. He eats broth on the train which tastes better than food has tasted since his accident, and he dreams of waking up soon in the "hacienda."

However, before he gets there, the train stops, and Dahlmann goes to get dinner in a local establishment where some "ruffians" are eating and drinking. One of them throws a spitball at Dahlmann. The owner of the cafe tells Dahlmann that the men are "pretty high" and he shouldn't pay any attention to them, but Dahlmann feels overwhelmed by a sense of fate. When one of the men throws him a knife and suggests they take this outside, Dahlmann is fairly sure he will have no idea how to use the knife, and that this is an excuse for them to kill him. However, he takes the knife—"which perhaps he will not know how to wield"—and leaves with the other man, possibly to be killed like his grandfather Flores.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 580

Juan Dahlmann works in a library in Buenos Aires. Like many Argentines, he is of mixed heritage. His paternal grandfather was a German minister who emigrated to Argentina in 1871. His maternal grandfather was a famous Argentine military man who suffered a violent death at the hands of Indians on the frontier. In spite of Dahlmann’s bookish lifestyle, he prefers to think of himself as more closely linked to his military-hero grandfather, “his ancestor of romantic death.” Because of this, Dahlmann keeps some souvenirs that remind him of the more heroic side of his heritage. One of these is a run-down ranch in the South that belonged to his mother’s family. Dahlmann is an absentee landowner, however, as his work at the library keeps him in the city.

Dahlmann’s life changes dramatically on a February evening in 1939. Eager to examine a rare edition of Alf layla walayla (fifteenth century; The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, 1706-1708), which he has just obtained, Dahlmann elects not to wait for the elevator in his apartment building but instead rushes up the dark stairs, where he accidentally runs into the edge of an open door. The injury to his head is such that he is forced to spend several feverish days at home in bed. When he does not improve, he is taken to a sanatorium, where he endures a battery of neurological tests. Sometime later, the doctors reveal to him that “he had been on the point of death from septicemia.” After several months in the sanatorium, he is told that he should go to his ranch in the South to convalesce.

Dahlmann sets out for the ranch, acutely aware that he who travels to the South “enters a more ancient and sterner world.” Once on the train, he attempts to read his still-untouched copy of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, but now, free of the sanatorium, he finds himself distracted by the “joy of life” and pays little attention to the book. He instead gazes out the window at the passing countryside. Though able to recognize much of what he watches go by, he is not intimately familiar with anything in this part of the country, for his firsthand knowledge of the region is “quite inferior to his nostalgic and literary knowledge.” As the train moves deeper into the South, Dahlmann dozes.

Because of a ticket mix-up, Dahlmann is forced to disembark at a stop short of his destination. While waiting for further transportation to arrive, he decides to eat in the local general store. There he is harassed by three young ruffians. Though he does his best to ignore them, he is finally forced to acknowledge their taunts. He confronts them. One of them pulls a knife and challenges Dahlmann to a fight outside. When the store owner points out that Dahlmann is unarmed, an old gaucho, “a summary and cipher of the South,” throws Dahlmann a dagger, which lands at his feet. Although he knows that he is no match for his opponent, Dahlmann picks up the weapon and, in so doing, accepts the challenge. He views his impending death as “a liberation, a joy, and a festive occasion,” for were it between dying a violent and heroic death in the South and dying in the sanatorium, it is the more romantic death that “he would have chosen or dreamt.” The story ends as Dahlmann, holding a knife that will probably be of little use to him, goes out to fight.

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