Literature Study GuidesFiccionesPart 1 The Babylon Lottery Summary

Ficciones | Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges

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Ficciones | Part 1, The Babylon Lottery : The Garden of Forking Paths | Summary



The first-person narrator describes the fortunes and misfortunes that have befallen him. He has been proconsul, "like all men in Babylon." He has also been a slave, "like all men in Babylon." These and other fates have been visited on him by the Babylon lottery.

Centuries ago the lottery was like other lotteries, which the narrator describes as failed. "The moral virtue was nil," he says. The first improvement to the lottery was the addition of "adverse outcomes." Some ticket holders would have to pay fines. Now the lottery interested people.

Losing players refused to pay the fines and took jail sentences instead, intending this refusal as a blow against "The Company," the organization running the lottery. The next step in the lottery's evolution was no more fines, only jail sentences for unlucky ticket holders. Soon the lottery had other prizes and fines, none related to money. The Company "multiplies the stakes."

Poor people felt excluded from the exhilarating game of "terror and hope," because they couldn't afford lottery tickets. The situation encouraged theft. The Company was thus forced to "accept complete power," and the lottery became "secret, free, and general." Tickets were no longer sold for money. Every "free man" who reached the age of majority participated. The actions of the Company were secret. A lucky ticket might lead to a man's "elevation to the council of the magi." An unlucky ticket might lead to "mutilation, dishonor of many kinds, death itself." Each drawing determined a man's fate until the next drawing.

People still complain about the lottery. They deposit their complaints in special places thought to lead to the Company, including "a sacred privy called Qaphqa." The Company replies via a scribbled piece of paper left in a mask factory. If the lottery contains errors, the Company says, those are also the workings of chance and so part of the lottery. The mask-factory declaration has led to a theoretical discussion. Some say if the lottery is about infusing chance into life, chance should intervene at all stages of the lottery. They point out the contradiction between chance determining death but law prescribing the manner of death.

The narrator then summarizes the reforms. He asks readers to imagine a lottery determines someone should die. A drawing then determines nine possible executioners. Then another drawing determines the one actual executioner and then a drawing that replaces the death sentence with a lucky prize. Still another drawing might make the death sentence worse. In conclusion, says the narrator, "the number of drawings is infinite." With the lottery, "No decision is final, all diverge into others."

The narrator remarks there are also "impersonal drawings," with mysterious purposes. One drawing might call for a "bird [to] be released from a tower roof." Another might stipulate "a grain of sand be withdrawn (or added) to ... a certain beach." These drawings sometimes have "terrifying" consequences.

Finally no one knows which events and objects result from the lottery. An ancient relic could be a fake implanted by the lottery. A death could be a murder ordered by the Company, or not. Even impostors who believe they are resisting the Company could be doing the work of the secretive "Company." Masked heretics make this radical announcement: "the Company has never existed, and never will."


Although the idea of this wide-ranging lottery may seem like fantasy, in ancient Athens judges and other officials were selected by lottery. Indeed, it has been argued the practice of selection by lottery is more democratic than election by voting. In the Athenian judge lottery everyone is equal, just as in Borges's Babylonian lottery "all men" participate. Borges's use of the word men points to a restriction in this imaginary Babylonian society. Athenian citizenship was restricted to free men, excluding slaves and women, and the Babylon lottery seems likewise restricted. But Borges takes the "The Babylon Lottery" further than as a tool for democratic rule.

Usually fate and chance are opposite ideas: either one does something because one is fated, or one does something by chance. The lottery delivers fates, but it delivers them by chance. On its most refined level, the lottery seems like a working-out of a chaos theory, the study of apparently random behavior in complex, rule-governed systems. That is, chaos theory brings apparent chance, or seemingly random behavior, under the control of rules or deterministic laws. The classic example of chaos theory is following the chain of cause and effect by which the flapping of a butterfly's wings results in a typhoon on the other side of the globe. In "The Babylon Lottery" there are "impersonal drawings of undefined purpose," such as a lottery decreeing a bird be released from a tower roof. In keeping with the intertwining of chance and law in chaos theory, "the consequences [of the trivial drawings], sometimes, are terrifying." Although they are never mentioned specifically, the implication is they are more than personal consequences, for prison terms and death have already become lottery results.

At least part of the story can be read as an allegory of the decay of religious belief. In the real world, beginning in the Renaissance, secularism turned attention away from religion—a shift from belief in an all-powerful God to the belief God does not exist. In "The Babylon Lottery" a phase of intense doubt follows a phase of intense belief. The lottery and the Company become enormously powerful, and their power endures. The reform of the lottery toward greater complexity is said to have been "the practice of centuries." But the "infinite" lottery gives rise to a radical doubt: "the Company has never existed and never will."

The narrator seems to be an exile or expatriate from the country he describes. At the least he is traveling. In the first sentence he identifies himself as a Babylonian: "Like all men in Babylon ..." But he soon reveals he is not recounting these events in Babylon: "I come from a vertiginous country where the lottery forms a principal part of reality." That sentence could be spoken only somewhere other than in Babylon. Moreover the narrator is on the move again: "I have little time left ... the ship is ready to sail." Borges does not indicate where the narrator is going or why, leaving the reader to wonder whether the narrator is leaving by choice or whether the lottery is sending him away or calling him back. Such uncertainty matters because the story encourages readers to ask themselves the same kinds of questions: have I chosen my path, or was it determined by a secret lottery? If this concept seems an overreach, readers may consider the foreshadowing Borges provides on the story's first page. The narrator offhandedly says people in other countries do not know the lottery, or else it "operates among them imperfectly and in secret."

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