Literature Study GuidesFiccionesPart 2 Theme Of The Traitor And The Hero Summary

Ficciones | Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges

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Ficciones | Part 2, Theme of the Traitor and the Hero : Artifices | Summary



The narrator describes a plot he has invented and then gives an abbreviated account of the story he might write. Its setting could be "some oppressed and stubborn country: Poland, Ireland, the Republic of Venice" or elsewhere. Choosing Ireland in 1824 the narrator calls the protagonist Ryan, great-grandson of the heroic, martyred, assassinated Irish leader Fergus Kilpatrick, whose grave was "mysteriously violated." Fergus was a "conspirator" and a leader who "perished on the eve of victory." He "was assassinated in a theater," his killer unknown.

Certain details of the crime puzzle and fascinate Ryan. He sees similarities to Julius Caesar and portents in a fire at his great-grandfather's birthplace. These details lead him to believe in "a secret pattern in time." He thinks about others who have proposed a pattern to history: the French historian Condorcet; the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel; the historian Oswald Spengler, who wrote Decline and Fall of the West; and others. He also thinks about reincarnation, "the transmigration of souls." These ideas are "circular labyrinths." Another labyrinthine puzzle is the last man to speak to Fergus. A beggar said something to him, and his words were "prefigured" in Shakespeare's Macbeth. Ryan is amazed "history should imitate literature." Ryan discovers Fergus's oldest comrade, James Alexander Nolan, translated Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar into Gaelic. Nolan had also worked on some theatrical spectacles in Switzerland, in which whole communities restaged historic events.

A solution presents itself to Ryan: Fergus's murder was a kind of theatrical spectacle involving "the entire city" and spread over many days. In August 1824 the conspirators met to discuss finding a traitor in their midst. Fergus tasked Nolan with finding the traitor. Nolan then discovered Fergus was the traitor. But exposing Fergus would be bad for the rebellion. In remorse Fergus said he would cooperate in making his death look like martyrdom so the people would be inspired to greater acts of courage. This act would allow him "to redeem himself" and "add a flourish to his death."

In a hurry Nolan plagiarized some ideas and lines from Shakespeare. "The public—and the secret—presentation took several days." Fergus's activities in the days before the assassination, and the things he said, all were part of the theatrical presentation of his martyrdom. Everything was planned, even the "prearranged words" the dying "traitor and hero" tried to choke out "between two effusions of violent blood." Ryan concludes Nolan foresaw his, Ryan's, discovery of the plan and accounted for this discovery. Therefore, Ryan does what he assumes is his part in the plan. He keeps quiet.


The "traitor and hero" of the story's title are the same person, Fergus Kilpatrick. Unlike the surprise ending of "The Form of the Sword," this story reveals Kilpatrick's double role early on. At first Ryan thinks he has discovered a pattern in history: Fergus Kilpatrick is somehow the repetition of Julius Caesar. This idea threatens to pitch Kilpatrick into "circular labyrinths" as history repeats itself endlessly. The narrator then says Ryan's next theory "plunges him into labyrinths even more inextricable."

At first the claim seems exaggerated. What is so labyrinthine about a political leader styling himself after Shakespeare's Julius Caesar? Kilpatrick certainly could have read the play. But Ryan's investigation uncovers something like a vast, 19th-century version of The Truman Show, a 1998 movie about a small town that turns out to be nothing but an elaborate soundstage. All but one of the townspeople are actors. So, too, Kilpatrick's colleagues and hangers-on, even a random "mendicant" in the street, are all part of the scheme. In keeping with Borges's interest in the "contamination of reality by dreams," real history has been influenced by a staged event. "Dreams" are able to contaminate reality when they arrive in the form of ideal systems, like the artificial, overwrought interpretation of Kilpatrick. As in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," ideal systems, language and literature, dreams and fictions can influence reality.

Ryan resembles many a conspiracy theorist: he sees an assassination and concocts an interpretation. In Ryan's interpretation Kilpatrick's assassination is full of nuanced meanings. To compare Ryan to a "conspiracy theorist" has negative implications. It is possible the search for nuanced meanings in the chaotic texture of reality causes Ryan's thinking to become deranged. In any case, Ryan's Kilpatrick is a torn man, simultaneously traitorous and remorseful, self-dealing and self-sacrificing. Ordinary history has only a simple Kilpatrick, a one-dimensional hero, loyal to the end. Ryan's traitorous Kilpatrick betrays even his act of treachery, becoming a hero again in the end, at great cost to himself. Kilpatrick's dual identity makes him similar to the version of Judas proposed in "Three Versions of Judas." In that story, too, an interpreter takes an infamous man—Judas—and gives him a double nature. As the narrator of that story remarks, the new interpretation of Judas "added to the concept of the Son, which seemed exhausted, the complexities of calamity and evil." For Borges this ambiguous, double nature is an enrichment. As the narrator of "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" remarks, "ambiguity is a richness."

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