Literature Study GuidesFiccionesPart 1 The Library Of Babel Summary

Ficciones | Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges

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



The first-person narrator describes "the Universe (which others call the Library)," made of six-sided galleries containing 20 bookshelves. It is not known how many galleries there are; perhaps there are infinitely many. Each gallery has two tiny private rooms for the librarian's use: a bedroom and a bathroom. The narrator is one of the "men of the Library." He says he traveled in his youth, meaning he traveled to other parts of the Library. Now he is old and expects to die soon. After he dies, other librarians will "hurl [him] over the banister." He expects his tomb to be "the unfathomable air" and his fall "infinite."

All the Library's books have 410 pages. Each page has 40 lines and each line roughly 80 letters. The narrator interrupts his description to state certain axioms or principles. The first axiom: "The Library exists ab aeterno." The Latin ab aeterno means "since forever" or "from an infinitely remote time in the past." He adds imperfect humankind "might be the work of chance or malevolent Demiurges [lesser gods]." But the Library—he calls it the universe—"can only be the work of a god."

The second axiom: "The number of orthographic symbols is twenty-five." A footnote from another writer explains the 25 symbols include 22 letters, the period, the comma, and the space. The Library's identically sized books are seemingly random combinations of these 25 symbols. Thus all books are "formless and chaotic." One book consists of the letters "MCV" repeated to fill the 410 pages. Another is "a mere labyrinth of letters," but written on its last page is "O Time your pyramids."

The librarians have had different opinions about the books' meanings. Some thought the books were in an ancient language. Although different areas of the Library have different dialects, this theory has been rejected. Others thought the books were in code.

About 500 years ago a librarian found a book containing two pages of what seemed like sense. Librarians debated about which language the passage was written in. It was found to be "a Samoyed-Lithuanian dialect of Guarani, with classical Arabic inflections." One knowledgeable librarian declared every book in the Library to be unique, and travelers have confirmed this. He then deduced "the Library is total," and its books contain "everything which can be expressed, in all languages." The reaction to this statement was joy, initially. All librarians believed they possessed "a secret, intact treasure." No matter what the problem, somewhere the Library had a book with the solution. Now, four centuries later, there are official searchers or Inquisitors, but "no one expects to discover anything." Depression reigns.

New beliefs arise in reaction to the failure to find the hoped-for books. Some decide to "write" books themselves, composing them by chance combinations of letters. Others decide to "eliminate useless works." These librarians hope to reach a "Crimson Hexagon" where the books are "of a smaller than ordinary format, omnipotent, illustrated, magical." Many mourn the loss of the destroyed books, but the narrator points out two things. One, humans cannot make that much of a dent in the infinite Library. Two, since the Library is infinite, there are always "several hundreds of thousands" of near-copies or facsimiles, which differ only by one letter or comma.

Some believe in a kind of ultimate book, "the cipher and perfect compendium of all the rest." This book is "analogous to a god" and the mythical librarian who has read this book is known as "the Man of the Book." The narrator has spent years in search of things like this. The narrator discusses other, similar philosophical issues. He believes "this useless and wordy epistle"—the story he is narrating—already exists somewhere in the Library. So does a book that tells the opposite of his story. He also wonders how one knows what words mean; maybe readers of this narrative are mistaken about its meaning.

"The present condition of men" in the Library is despairing. The population of librarians has decreased because of "epidemics, heretical disagreements, the pilgrimages which inevitably disintegrate into banditry." There is also a wave of suicides. The narrator thinks "the unique human species" might be going extinct, but the Library "will last on forever." He believes it is infinite, in a special sense: "limitless and periodic." After a certain period the disordered, chaotic books are all repeated, and the repetition creates order from disorder. The librarian finds this belief an "elegant hope."


The epigraph to the story comes from Richard Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, a 17th-century English treatise on "melancholy" or depression. Burton quotes from his vast learning, including classical Latin. Part 2 of Burton's book concerns the ways to treat melancholy. One of the best cures, Burton writes, is study, and he advises studying combinations of "the 23 letters" (these are the 23 letters in the classical Latin alphabet). The quotation in full, which Borges does not give, is as follows:

By this art you may contemplate the variation of the twenty-three letters, which may be so infinitely varied, that the words complicated and deduced thence will not be contained within the compass of the firmament; ten words may be varied 40,320 several ways.

The "art" Burton mentions is the art of contemplating the whole thing by way of a part, "ex ungue leonem," as Burton says. These words are part of a Latin expression meaning "we may judge the lion by its claw." Thus one cure for melancholy is to take a limited part, the 23 letters, and contemplate an immense whole, a treasury of words more numerous than the stars.

In this story Borges has done something similar. The books in the Library are combinations of 25 "orthographic symbols": 22 letters, the period, the comma, and the space sign. (There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet.) From this small part, the 25 symbols, Borges calculates an immense whole, a Library containing every possible book. As contemporary American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has pointed out, the number of books in this Library is far greater than the number of atoms in our universe. One question the story does not answer is whose sorrow occasioned this contemplation of the 25 symbols. The sorrow might be the narrator's. It is also worth noting the atmosphere of suicidal despair and even violence in "The Library of Babel." As at the end of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" where the fictitious world is compared to dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, and Nazism, the Library's fanatical devotion to order descends into violence and destruction—the suicides and the tearing up of books.

The librarian in the story also judges "ex ungue leonem," deducing the whole from the part. He has seen a part of the universe, the hexagonal galleries and connecting walkways of the Library. He reasons there is nothing else to the universe. Other librarians, too, use the words universe and library interchangeably. In a realistic story this librarian-narrator would have to be insane. The Library described is not possible. For example, one passage in a book is analyzed as being written in "a Samoyed-Lithuanian dialect of Guarani, with classical Arabic inflections." No such language could spontaneously come together in our universe—Guarani is a language native to Paraguay and Samoyedic languages to northern Siberia. This is not a problem in the Library of Babel, however, where linguistic combinations seem to come together randomly. But more than that, with what signs could "classical Arabic" be written? The limited alphabet of the "The Library of Babel" could not write in classical Arabic. The Library's combinations of signs are ideal, unconstrained by geography and history. In this respect the Library's limitless expanse may recall how Tlön invaded and occupied the narrator's reality. In Borges's stories a world can be built from a logical proposition. Borges can't stop toying with these idealist propositions, but they also seem to generate considerable anxiety about their implications.

The 22 letters of the books in "The Library of Babel" recall the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The oldest known Hebrew text is the Sefer Yetzira (Book of Creation), which explains how God created the universe from the 10 divine numbers and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Book of Creation is important to Kabbala, a variety of Jewish mysticism. These allusions perhaps explain why the books in the Library are mystical combinations of letters rather than constructions based on words and sentences. An editor intervenes in the narrator's text to explain the 25 symbols. The editor says the "present note" in the story was written by "an unknown author." Thus it is possible the narrator's prediction has come true: "this useless and wordy epistle [the narrator's story] itself already exists" somewhere in the Library.

"The Library of Babel" may have some autobiographical elements to it. Borges worked for nine years as a cataloguer in a suburban library. His fellow librarians were not booklovers. Borges later wrote they cared only about "horse races, soccer and smut." He later referred to this period as "nine solid years of unhappiness," and that is the mood of "The Library of Babel," wracked with book destruction and suicides.

The tragedy of the Library of Babel is that its infinite wealth of symbols produces almost nothing meaningful. One of the few exceptions is the brief string of words, "O Time your pyramids." The line is a nearly exact quotation from Borges's poem "Of Hell and Heaven" (1942). But even this is only a snippet, not an entire book. The books imagined by the more theoretically inclined librarians are entrancing: vindications of individual lives; magical, illustrated books; and the "Man of the Book," who has seen the book containing all the other books in the Library. But the actual books they stumble on are either nonsensical or useless, such as a vindication of the lives of future or imaginary people. The problem of the Library of Babel is similar to the problem of Ireneo Funes, the main character in "Funes, the Memorious." The prodigious memory cannot forget any detail long enough to form a concept. The Library of infinitely combined letters lacks larger units of sense, as does its namesake the biblical Tower of Babel. Building stopped when God intervened by introducing foreign languages so workers could no longer understand each other and who soon scattered throughout the world no longer speaking a common language. At the end of "The Library of Babel" the narrator clings to the hope the Library's disorder, repeated, can become order. He advances the proposition the Library is "limitless and periodic." At some point the disorderly combinations on the shelves will repeat themselves "in the same disorder." This repetition of disorder "would constitute an order: Order itself." The idea of the "limitless and periodic" is a repeated figure in Borges. It is in the circularity of "The Circular Ruins" and in "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim," in which every sought-after mage turns out to be another seeker. It is possible this hope for order relates to the pursuit of invention and astonishment in Ficciones. The tension between order and astonishing inventiveness—in "The Babylon Lottery," especially—animates the whole short story collection.

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