The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges: Literary Analysis

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Various commendable authors have contributed to the world’s collection of classic literature. There are so many ways in which a piece of literature can be considered a classic; there is no particular or specific formula. A classic can be a combination of memorable characters, an author’s distinct style, an original theme, and many others. There is only one thing that is common among all classics—the fact that they all have succeeded many generations and thus, have transcended time.

Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinian author, gave to the world one of the most original classics of all time, “The Garden of Forking Paths.” The combination of its engrossing style of magical realism, its complicated narrative structure, and its constantly relevant theme of time makes “The Garden of Forking Paths” one of the most significant pieces of literature.

The style of “The Garden of Forking Paths” is magical realism. Magical realism, as defined by Rogers, is a style in literature that “is trying to convey the reality of one or several worldviews that actually exist, or have existed.

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Magical realism is a kind of realism, but one different from the realism that most of our culture now experiences” (Rogers). Borges produces an engrossing style of magical realism through the maze of clues and circumstances that he weaves into the tale; he forms a connection between the seemingly unrelated clues and circumstances through a different concept of time. He creates the world of magical realism in “The Garden of Forking Paths” by combining the ordinary and the mysterious: Borges provides clues of the connection between Yu Tsun’s present circumstances and the mysterious labyrinth of his ancestor, Ts’ui Pen.

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For example, Yu Tsun finds Dr. Stephen Albert’s house by always turning to the left—a common technique in finding the way through a labyrinth. He exposes a new kind of reality through Stephen Albert’s revelation of the meaning of Ts’ui Pen’s labyrinth. Davis expresses that through the style of magical realism, Borges “tantalizes us with the possibility (…) that reality—for the artist at least—is an act of the imagination” (648). In the case of Ts’ui Pen’s labyrinth, the reality is the collection of different futures which is created by man’s imagination of the many possible outcomes that can occur as a result of choosing each of the several alternatives—the meaning of Ts’ui Pen’s Garden of Forking Paths.

The magical realist style of the tale develops into a complex narrative structure. The complexity of the plot is mainly rooted from Yu Tsun’s belief in the direct and immediate connection between the past and the future; his reflections on the decisions that he make in the present is meant to foreshadow the future. The narrative takes place in the mind of Yu Tsun; the foreshadowed future evolves and shifts along with each decision that Yu Tsun makes. When at first he does not have a plan, he imagines that the future holds only his inevitable death; but as he formulate a plan, he becomes convinced of the possible success of his mission to send a message to Germany. For every decision that he makes and every action that he takes, Yu Tsun evaluates and recognizes its significance in the success of his mission; he imagines that each is a factor to the final outcome: the “slightest of victories foreshadowed a total victory” (Borges 654). In his article, Weed suggests that part of what makes the story’s narrative structure labyrinthine is its inconsistent valuation of time:

The main character is in mortal danger, must flee, and has daring plan. And yet he constantly digresses into philosophical speculation. After a hurried escape by train, the tone of the narration abruptly changes: after seven pages of frantic activity, suddenly Yu Tsun, who previously had no time whatsoever, suddenly has time to daydream about fantastic labyrinths, and to discuss theories of time with a certain sinologist. In fact, Yu Tsun tells us, his train ride has only gained him forty minutes, but the change in the tone of the narration, or in the spy's state of mind, makes those forty minutes extend, as if time itself had slowed down, until the abrupt reappearance of the spy-catcher, Richard Madden, breaks the spell. (“A labyrinth of symbols exploring ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’”).

The reality of the urgency is only created by Yu Tsun when he believes in it; it is when he stops to think that the urgency dissipates and the available time seems to increase. This agrees with what Davis noted about Borges’ style: Borges suggests to the reader that reality is only a product of one’s mind, of one’s imagination—just as the speed of time in the narrative is evidently a product of Yu Tsun’s mind.

Borges’ central theme of time is relevant throughout all generations; it is a theme that does not easily become obsolete and inapplicable—a theme which contributes significantly into making a classic. “The Garden of the Forking Path” emphasizes the significance of time. Ironically, the story opens with Captain Lidell’s remark about the insignificance of time—an opinion proven wrong by the significant role of time throughout the rest of the story. In the story, Yu Tsun recognizes the significance of time. Yu Tsun is convinced of the importance of even forty minutes as he thought: “The duel had already begun and that I had won the first encounter by frustrating, even if for forty minutes, even if by a stroke of fate, the attack of my adversary” (Borges 654). He reflects that “everything happens to a man precisely, precisely now. Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen”; in this passage, Yu Tsun recognizes the importance of time in the present and the decisions that are made during this time (Borges 653). Although, he firmly believes that a man “ought to impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past,” through the decisions that one makes, he also knows that actions in the present, now, are what really matter and which ultimately determines the fate of a man—just as his previously made decision to shoot Stephen Albert mattered less than his actual act of shooting him.

The distinct style of magical realism, the complex narrative structure, and the theme of time all contribute to making “The Garden of Forking Paths” into a significant piece of literature. It is the fact that Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” continues to hold a significant place in the constantly changing world of literature is what now makes it a classic—a tale that transcends time.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges: Literary Analysis. (2024, Feb 02). Retrieved from

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