Dr. Fidel Fajardo-Acosta's

World Literature Website













First published in 1941in the collection of stories of the same name The Garden of Forking Paths (El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan)

Language & Form

Short story, detective/mystery genre. Postmodern narrative. Spanish original "El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan"; recommended English translations by Donald A. Yates; third person narrative framing first person account by the protagonist in the story.


Dr. Yu Tsun, a former professor of English at a German university in China, is a spy for the German Reich with the mission of conveying to Berlin the name of a town where the British are hiding an artillery unit. While in this endeavor, Yu Tsun is pursued and arrested by Captain Richard Madden -- an Irishman in the service of England. Prior to his arrest, Yu Tsun accomplishes his goal by killing a man (randomly picked out of the phone book) with the same name as the town where the artillery park is located -- information which he knows will appear in the newspaper headlines which his German chief avidly reads. Ironically, Yu Tsun's victim, Dr. Stephen Albert, is a lover and connoisseur of Chinese culture and literature and had reconstructed a text written by Yu Tsun's ancestor, Ts'ui Pên. Yu Tsun and Albert get to know each other and find out about these curious coincidences minutes before Yu Tsun shoots Albert. At the end, while awaiting execution and dictating the account of his experiences, Yu Tsun expresses his "innumerable contrition and weariness."

Main Issues

meditation on the nature of reality, history, space and time as fictional realms with infinite possibilities; relationship between literary creation and the definition of reality; history and time as a labyrinth of alternate dimensions or possibilities.

questioning of the idea of history as a single path or linear process; posing instead the idea of history branching out in an infinite number of different directions at every point in time and space; every space-time node as the center of a system of branching or forking paths, an ever-recurring moment/place of choice with profound effects on and links to everything else.

act of literary creation as a definition of the possibilities of the real; multiple literary worlds, multiple paths, multiple dimensions all occurring at once and, as such, the possibility that we can be whatever we can dream or imagine.

puzzle- or game-like quality of the story and of the real; literal and symbolic labyrinths (labyrinth of Ts'ui Pên, labyrinth of the narrative, labyrinth of time and reality).

question of time, what it is, how it functions, how it operates in a "labyrinth of infinite possibilities"; time as a network of simultaneously divergent and convergent forces/paths which are not absolute or uniform.

themes of personal, racial, ethnic, and cultural identities in the context of capitalist and imperialist war and nationalistic conflicts; themes of racism and oppression of the cultural other; desperate desire of the oppressed to be accepted by the oppressors (Richard Madden as an Irishman serving England, Yu Tsun as a Chinese man in the service of a Germany).

theme of ironies, hidden and unsuspected connections/ coincidences; city of Albert and Dr. Stephen Albert, Yu Tsun's great grandfather's labyrinth and Dr. Stephen Albert's re-creation of the labyrinth; seemingly unrelated lives and fates linked by invisible ties; Yu Tsun's acknowledgment of his tragic error and misrecognition of the identity of Stephen Albert.

themes of alienation, separation, and conflict (personal, cultural, national, and historical); theme of underlying common identities, common interests, common fates; theme of human possibilities; denial of absolute determinism and linearity of human history; evolution and change open in all directions.

Study Questions

Who is Dr. Yu Tsun? Where is he when the story begins? What is about to happen to him? What has happened to his colleague Viktor Runeberg? What does Yu Tsun want to do? What does he determine to do and how does he propose to accomplish it?

How are the references to the historical text of Liddell Hart significant to the rest of the story? How does the story problematize the seeming authority and truth of a history book? What is history according to this story? What is the relationship between history and fiction? How are they similar? How do they differ? Is it significant that the story replaces an act of nature (the rain) with a human act (Yu Tsun's actions) as the real reason for the unfolding of historical events? Why is that important to the concerns of the story? Is human life fixed, tied to, or determined by natural forces? How is this story an expression of constructionism? What is Borges's notion of the role of human beings in the determination and directing of their own history and evolution? According to Borges, what can the human creative powers, will and imagination, accomplish?

Why the shift in narrators from the third person to the first? What do the two missing pages at the beginning of Yu Tsun's "dictated, reread, and signed" document imply? What is the significance of the protagonist telling his own story? What does that accomplish or suggest? What does it have to do with his realizations? Does he change, learn something, or is he transformed by the events recounted? Who is the intended audience of his statement? Is it significant that his ancestor, Ts'ui Pên, decided to become a writer? Is Yu Tsun, in some sense, also a writer and storyteller? What does that imply? How is that connected to his discoveries or realizations? How does that inform his last words, "he does not know (no one can know) my innumerable contrition and weariness"? How does Yu Tsun judge his own life?

What is the significance of the objects in Yu Tsun's pockets? What about the letter which he decided to destroy but didn't? Where did it come from? What does it contain? Is this in any way related to Stephen Albert's mention of "a fragment of a letter I discovered"? What did Ts'ui Pên mean when he wrote, in his letter, "I leave to the various futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths"? Why is his "garden" absent from some "futures"? Which ones? What role do such letters play in the story, literally and symbolically? Are these letters in any way related to Yu Tsun's statement, "the future already exists … but I am your friend. Could I see the letter again"?

Who is the Chief? What issues are brought up by the situation of a Chinese man working for the Germans? What is the nature of the historical experience between China and Germany and of German attitudes toward the Chinese? What does he want to prove? Why? How about Richard Madden as an Irishman working for the British? How do Yu Tsun and Madden's situations compare? What do they have in common? How does that make their enmity ironic? What is the point Borges seems to be making regarding their servitude to Germany and England as well as their antagonism toward each other? Is Madden's name suggestive in this respect?

Why is the woman on the train dressed in mourning? What is the significance of the book, the Annals of Tacitus, the young boy is reading? Why is the wounded soldier happy?

What is the meaning of the idea expressed by Yu Tsun that "everything happens to a man precisely, precisely now. Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen"? What is the significance of the emphasis on the present moment, the here and now? Is this related to the carpe diem ("seize the day") idea? How? How is the present effectively connected to the past and the future? How is the present associated simultaneously to choices, actions, and consequences? How is the present moment relevant to the idea of the "forking paths"? What is the symbolic meaning of forking paths when understood as a crossroads? What is a person confronted with when standing at a crossroads? What are the implications of a choice of road? May this be connected to the myth of Oedipus and its concerns with human choices and supposed predestination? What is suggested by the idea that "in all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts'ui Pên, he chooses-simultaneously-all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork"? What does it mean to make all choices at once? What view of life do such beliefs embody?

How does the philosophy of infinite forking paths contrast with the view that "the author of an atrocious undertaking ought to imagine that he has already accomplished it, ought to impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past"? What does Yu Tsun mean when he says "I forsee that man will resign himself each day to more atrocious undertakings; soon there will be no one but warriors and brigands"? How about the statement, "thus fought the heroes, tranquil their admirable hearts, violent their swords, resigned to kill and to die"? Who are those "heroes"? To what characters in the story do they correspond? How has Yu Tsun defeated himself by stating that "the future already exists"? How does such a philosophy of life differ from the theory of multiple realities and infinitely forking paths? What two opposing philosophies are presented in the story and embodied in such statements? Which one does Borges promote? Which one does he criticize?

How do the boys know that Yu Tsun is going to Stephen Albert's house? What sense does that create regarding Yu Tsun's journey? Is it predetermined in some sense? How exactly? In what sense? Why do they boys tell him "take this road to the left and at every crossroads turn again to your left?" What is the symbolic meaning of a left turn, given a right and left choice? What does it mean to always choose left? How is this related to the idea that the traditional solution to finding the center of certain labyrinths involves making continued left turns? How are such choices and methods connected to the nature and direction of human history? How are they related to the idea of a fixed fate?

What does Yu Tsun see and hear as he approaches Albert's house? Why does Yu Tsun consider Stephen Albert, "no less great than Goethe"? What is meant when Yu Tsun notices that Stephen Albert's face is somehow "unalterable…even immortal"? Why does he admire him so much? What is Albert's profession? What does that suggest about him? Is it significant that Albert takes an interest in and has a deep love for Chinese culture? How does he differ from men like Yu Tsun and Madden? Are Yu Tsun and Madden also knowledgeable of other cultures? To what purpose or effect do they put that knowledge? How does that differ from what Albert or Goethe do with their knowledge of the cultural other?

What is significant about the fact that Ts'ui Pên "renounced worldly power" to construct a labyrinth "in which all men would become lost"? What happens to Yu Tsun as he approaches Albert's house and ponders the significance of his grandfather's labyrinth? What happens to his sense of place/geography? His sense of time? What does he mean by acknowledging that "absorbed in these illusory images, I forgot my destiny of one pursued"? How are his perceptions altered by those visions? What do they allow him to overcome? What does Yu Tsun realize at Albert's house and how does it affect his position in, and his view of, the labyrinth of life?

What does Yu Tsun mean when he says,"I sensed that the Chief somehow feared people of my race -- for the innumerable ancestors who merge within me"? How about, "I felt about me and within my dark body an invisible, intangible swarming"? And "once again I felt the swarming sensation of which I have spoken. It seemed to me that the humid garden that surrounded the house was infinitely saturated with invisible persons"? Who are those persons? What invisible presences are felt here? What do they signify? How do they explain the mysterious coincidences featured in the story? How do they account for the hidden links between the characters? Are such presences at all related to Yu Tsun's peculiar last words regarding his "innumerable contrition and weariness"? What effectively dies with Stephen Albert? What did Yu Tsun unwittingly destroy when he shot him?

What is the significance of the garden image? What does it allude to? How is the idea of the garden connected to the visions and solutions offered by the story? Where do we see garden images in the story? What does Stephen Albert mean when he says to Yu Tsun, "you no doubt wish to see the garden?" What is the garden which Borges proposes to his readers? What does it look like? What does it symbolize? Is this garden similar to those seen in stories like Voltaire's Candide and Naguib Mahfouz's "Zaabalawi"?

What does Stephen Albert imply when he says, "to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were one and the same thing"? What does this imply about Ts'ui Pên's book? What is the relationship between Ts'ui Pên's garden of forking paths, his labyrinth, his book, and the rest of literature? How are fiction and the acts of creative writing and storytelling characterized in this story? What special powers and abilities does fiction have?

As a child, Borges' father used to entertain him by giving him riddles and logical paradoxes to solve. If this story is a riddle, what is its solution? Stephen Albert asks Yu Tsun, "in a riddle whose answer is chess, what is the only prohibited word?" To which Yu Tsun replies "The word is chess"? In Ts'ui Pên's story, the answer appears to be related to the idea of "Time." Is that also true of Borges's story? In Borges's story of infinitely forking paths, what is the prohibited word which is also the solution to its riddle?



Dr. Fajardo-Acosta gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Matthew Peckham in the creation of this page


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