Literature Study GuidesFiccionesPart 1 The Garden Of Forking Paths Summary

Ficciones | Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges

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



During World War I Dr. Yu Tsun, formerly an English teacher in Tsingtao, China, hangs up the phone, ending a conversation with Captain Richard Madden. Yu Tsun, the narrator, thinks Madden's presence in the office of Viktor Runeberg means Runeberg has been killed or arrested, and Yu Tsun, a German spy in England, believes he too is under threat.

To reflect on the possibility of his death Yu Tsun retreats to his room and thinks about how one's experience is limited to oneself in the present. "Things happen only in the present," he thinks, "and all that really happens happens to me." Madden does not yet know Yu Tsun "possess[es] the Secret—the name of the exact site of the new British artillery park on the Ancre" (a river in France and the site of a British victory in 1916). He wants to find a way to let the Germans know the name of this site before he is captured and executed as a German spy.

He goes through his possessions, including "a revolver with a single bullet." He quickly thinks of a plan to get the name of the site to his chief in Berlin and in the telephone directory locates the name of "the only person capable of passing on the information." This man lives "in a suburb of Fenton" (in England, where Yu Tsun also is). Yu Tsun then explains his motives for spying and carrying out his plan. He "did not do it for Germany," which he considers "a barbarous country," and he finds the role of spy "degrading." Instead he did it to prove an Asian man could save his chief's armies and to escape from Captain Madden.

He heads to the "village of Ashgrove" but buys a ticket "for a station further on," to conceal his destination. As the train leaves, he sees a man running "furiously, but vainly, the length of the platform." It is Madden. Yu Tsun thinks "the duel had already started" and believes he has won the first round "by an accident of fate." He presents arguments to himself to prove he is capable of ultimate victory over Madden, but looking ahead he is pessimistic. He believes "new abominations" will occur every day, and "soon only soldiers and bandits will be left." He offers advice: whoever has to do "some atrocious enterprise should act as if it were already accomplished." Such a person should act as if the future were "as irrevocable as the past."

At Ashgrove Yu Tsun disembarks. Some children, unprompted, direct him to Dr. Stephen Albert's house, telling him to keep turning left as he advances along the road. Their advice reminds him of "the common formula for finding the central courtyard of certain labyrinths." He reveals he is the great-grandson of Ts'ui Pên, governor of Yunnan province who retired "to write a novel ... and to create a maze in which all men would lose themselves." A stranger assassinated Ts'ui Pên 13 years later. No one understands his novel, "and nobody ever found his labyrinth." Thinking about the lost labyrinth, Yu Tsun also thinks about patriotism. He decides a man can be "an enemy of other men" but not an enemy of a country: "not of fireflies, words, gardens, streams, or the West wind."

Behind Albert's iron gate is a summer house or pavilion. Chinese music issues from it. A man approaches from the main house, carrying a paper lantern and speaks to Yu Tsun in Chinese, assuming him to be a representative of a Chinese consul named Hsi P'eng. He also assumes Yu Tsun has come to see the garden of forking paths. The startled Yu Tsun reveals he is the descendant of Ts'ui Pên, creator of the garden.

The man is Stephen Albert, and he invites Yu Tsun into his house, filled with European and Asian books. Formerly a missionary in China Albert "aspired to become a Sinologist," an expert on China. They talk about Ts'ui Pên. Aware he must make an "irrevocable decision," Yu Tsun thinks he can put it off. Madden cannot arrive in less than an hour.

Albert reveals he has figured out Ts'ui Pên's labyrinth: it is Ts'ui Pên's novel, "an invisible labyrinth of time." He says the clue was Ts'ui Pên's desire to make an "infinite" labyrinth, which could not be just a physical labyrinth. He shows Yu Tsun a letter written by Ts'ui Pên: "I leave to various future times, but not to all, my garden of forking paths."

Albert has seen ways to make a book infinite. It could be circular, with the last page of the novel being the same as the first; or recursive and metafictional, like The Thousand and One Nights; or hereditary, with each new generation adding something. But Ts'ui Pên's will was Albert's clue. In most books, Albert says, a character makes a choice. In Ts'ui Pên's novel the character "chooses—simultaneously—all" alternatives. In doing so the character "creates various futures." He gives an example in which a character, Fang, chooses to kill an intruder and chooses not to. He makes an analogy with himself and Yu Tsun. "In other possible pasts you are my enemy; in others my friend."

Albert remarks the novel was a "despised" genre "in Ts'ui Pên's period" and thus another clue that an illustrious man would spend 13 years on a despised genre. A further clue was the novel never referred to the garden of forking paths. A riddle can't have its answer in the question, he says, and Yu Tsun agrees. So the novel that is a labyrinth of time never uses the word time. "To eliminate a word," says Albert, "is perhaps the best way of drawing attention to it."

Summing up, Albert says The Garden of Forking Paths is Ts'ui Pên's image of the universe: "an infinite series of times." Albert poses various permutations of their present encounter. In some Yu Tsun is the enemy. Yu Tsun feels an anxious "pullulation," a swarming or multiplying, of "invisible people" and asks for another look at the letter. As Albert rises and turns his back, Yu Tsun shoots and kills him.

Yu Tsun hurriedly recounts the rest of his story, saying it is "unimportant." Arrested by Madden, Yu Tsun has been condemned to hang. But "I have yet triumphed!" he says. The "secret name of the city to be attacked got through to Berlin." The city's name was Albert, and news of Yu Tsun's arrest for the murder of Stephen Albert communicated it to Germany. He thinks the chief already figured this out, but the chief does not know "of my infinite penitence and sickness of heart."


In "The Garden of Forking Paths" both Dr. Stephen Albert and Dr. Yu Tsun are familiar with possible worlds theory, which maintains the universe is composed of many worlds. One is actual and the others possible. Philosophers have used possible worlds theory to theorize modal logic. Propositional logic is the logic of statements, which are true or false, such as the statement (or proposition) "My name is Borges." Modal logic adds expressions like "probably" to the true or false judgment. Narratology, the study of narratives, has used possible worlds theories in ways similar to Borges's. Italian author and critic Umberto Eco (1932–2016) describes literary texts as "machine[s] for producing possible worlds." In Eco's view each literary text contains not just one possible world (named Narnia or Middle Earth), but many possible worlds. He describes three classes of possible worlds in fictional texts:

  • possible worlds imagined and written by the author
  • possible worlds imagined by the characters
  • possible worlds imagined by the reader in the course of reading (for example, imagining what will happen next)

Like many literary texts "The Garden of Forking Paths" has examples of all three types. But it is particularly rich in possible worlds of the second type. Ts'ui Pên is an author, and he creates a possible world in that he writes a novel. However, Ts'ui Pên's novel is unique; at every turn in the plot the novel presents all possible outcomes as chosen. Any character in the novel "chooses—simultaneously—all of them."

In this story Borges also makes intricate twists in the third type of possible world, the worlds imagined by a reader who wonders what happens next. Suspense, tension, and surprise in a story have to do with the relationship between the story and this third type of possible world. In the course of the story the reader's assumptions turn out to be proved or disproved. At first it would seem the story will hold few if any surprises. The first page identifies the criminal and announces the crime: a spy will pass on information to his unseen chief. In any such story, such as a heist movie, if the reader or spectator does not know the plan at the outset, the plan will succeed. If the reader does know the criminal's plan—if the criminal explains it first—the plan will fail, or it will have to change to succeed. Therefore, a savvy reader knows from the start Yu Tsun's plan, whatever it is, will succeed. The reader also knows Yu Tsun's motive, which he explains at the start. With this story Borges shows how much suspense can be wrung from the reader's not knowing how the plan will succeed. The suspense of what happens next and the possible worlds imagined and discarded by the reader along the way concern how Yu Tsun will pass along the information. As Borges says in the prologue to Part 1, "The Garden of Forking Paths" is a detective story in which the reader is the detective.

However, from another perspective the element of suspense is not the point of "The Garden of Forking Paths." From this perspective the suspense falls away as the story progresses. Instead the story's forking paths reveal unexpected dimensions to this "espionage thriller" narrative. The dazzling parts of the story are in the labyrinth and not in Yu Tsun's fate. What Yu Tsun learns about his ancestor's literary labyrinth intimates a staggering array of possibilities. This one particular world, in which the narrator's mission will affect the world at war, pales by comparison.

In "Three Versions of Judas," which appears in Part 2, the narrator remarks most vices contain a trace of virtue: "In adultery ... tenderness and self-sacrifice; in murder, courage; in ... blasphemy, a certain satanic splendor." In that story Judas chooses the vices "unvisited by any virtues: abuse of [trust] ... and informing." Of Yu Tsun in "The Garden of Forking Paths" a reader might say spying contains traces of ingenuity or cleverness. But Yu Tsun also chooses villainous acts: he abuses his host's hospitality and, by extension, the hospitality of England. This is underlined when Yu Tsun shoots Stephen Albert in the back, the act of a coward. There is also crafty deceit in Yu Tsun's final words to Albert. Claiming "I am your friend," he asks to see the letter again, thus getting Albert to turn his back. But "The Garden of Forking Paths" is not about condemning villainy. As American literary critic Paul de Man wrote about Borges's infamous villains, "The artist [Borges] has to wear a mask of the villain ... to create a style."

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