Literature

A Summary and Analysis of Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’

‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, first published in the collection of that name in 1941, is one of the most famous stories by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Perhaps surprisingly given Borges’ reputation and the difficulties of categorising his work into a particular genre, this story was the runner-up in the Ellery Queen mystery fiction prize in 1948. But what is ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ about, besides being a mystery story?

You can read ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Borges’ story below.

‘The Garden of Forking Paths’: plot summary

A Chinese agent or spy named Yu Tsun narrates the story, which is supposed to be his confession written as he awaits execution for spying for the Germans during the First World War.

Yu Tsun has discovered that the spy ring in which he operates has been infiltrated by the enemy. He cannot communicate directly with the Germans, so has no conventional way of getting his information to them (such as the telephone). While he is on the run from a man named Richard Madden, Yu travels to the home of a man he does not know. He plucked the man’s name from the phone book, because it was the same as the crucial item of information he has discovered (the name of the town that is the location of a British artillery park in France).

As he journeys to the man’s home, Yu reflects upon his grandfather, who withdrew from public life in order to write a novel and to construct a labyrinth. Arriving at his destination, the home of Stephen Albert (a scholar of all things Chinese), Yu is surprised to discover that this stranger seems to have been expecting him. Albert takes Yu for a walk around the ‘garden of forking paths’ outside the house.

When they go inside the house, Albert tells Yu all about Yu’s grandfather, whose life Albert is something of an expert in thanks to his study of Chinese culture. He tells Yu that his grandfather, Ts’ui Pen, never managed to finish the novel he planned to write, but when he died he left behind a draft containing all of the various possible plot lines and discarded ideas. Albert has only read the draft because it was saved for posterity and then published, with Ts’ui Pen leaving a note declaring that he leaves the draft for ‘several futures’, and referring to the abandoned novel as ‘the garden of forking paths’. From this clue, Albert realised that the novel was the labyrinth Ts’ui Pen had sought to construct: the novel and the labyrinth were, in fact, one and the same.

So, although the novel appeared like an abandoned draft with lots of considered and rejected plot developments, this was deliberate: rather than have a protagonist choose one path and reject the others, he wanted to explore the idea of a protagonist being able to choose all possible ways forward, simultaneously. It is thus a novel in which every possible course of action plays out.

No sooner has Yu learnt – and struggled to digest – this revelation than Richard Madden, the man who is on his trail, appears, and Yu realises the game is up. He shoots and kills Albert, knowing that news of the man’s murder, and Yu’s involvement in it, will reach the Germans, who will realise that Yu is communicating to them the location of the artillery park: the town of Albert, in France. Yu ends his narrative by confirming that, because the town of Albert has just been bombed, he knows the Germans got his ‘message’.

‘The Garden of Forking Paths’: analysis

Borges had read a wide range of authors, and among the biggest influences on his fiction were Edgar Allan Poe (effectively the founder of the modern detective story) and G. K. Chesterton (of whose Father Brown mysteries Borges was a devoted fan). ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ is a mystery story, as well as a spy story, but also a story about the nature of plot itself, bearing the influence of Chaos theory and quantum mechanics.

In a way that prefigures the modern-day ‘narrative’ of computer and video games, where multiple paths through the game are possible, Ts’ui Pen’s novel doesn’t so much reject linearity – such a complete rejection would be possible, when we are still required to read forwards, turning one page at a time – as build simultaneity, and multiple possible outcomes, into its linear structure. In a way that echoes quantum theory and in particular, the concept of Schrödinger’s cat, characters are simultaneously dead and alive, having been killed off in one chapter only to turn up alive and kicking in the next. The idea is to create an infinite narrative containing every narrative possibility.

The best collection of Borges’ writings, Labyrinths (Penguin Modern Classics), is so named because the metaphor of the labyrinth recurs throughout so many of his works. A labyrinth is an apt metaphor for a detective story because both traditionally have only one correct ‘route’ through them, but surrounding this correct path (the way out of the labyrinth, the journey towards solving the crime or mystery) are many other tangents, red herrings, and false trails. As we read a detective story there will be other suspects whom we may believe to be guilty of the crime, only to discover that our suspicions were unfounded and another character is the guilty party.

So, to an almost metaphysical degree – ‘metaphysical’ in that it follows the idea underpinning metaphysical poetry of taking an extended metaphor and then running with it until it becomes practically absurd – ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ is an extended analogy between the maze and the novel, both of which, we are told early on, Ts’ui Pen wished to built or construct. However, they turn out to be one and the same. (Although Borges wrote in Spanish, he was bilingual and knew English very well, so it’s worth reflecting that the Chinese name of his maze-building author, Pen, suggests both a writing implement and a cage or prison for restricting people: not unlike a labyrinth, then, when we go back to classical myth and Daedalus’ construction of the original Labyrinth. Indeed, the idea of Daedalus as a cunning craftsman but also an avatar the writer or novelist is one that James Joyce had already explored when he named the protagonist of his 1916 novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus.)

‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ contains, then, two ‘gardens of forking paths’: a literal one (the one found in the garden of Stephen Albert) and a figurative one (Ts’ui Pen’s novel). This leads us to another question: is ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ itself a garden of forking paths? Just as Albert had to negotiate Ts’ui Pen’s ‘garden of forking paths’, Yu Tsun physically navigates Albert’s garden of forking paths, and now we, as readers, navigate Borges’ ‘Garden of Forking Paths’. And now you, dear reader, are navigating our navigation of Borges’ story, in the kind of seemingly infinite wall-of-mirrors effect that is a key characteristic of Borges’ work.

Image: by Adolf Hoffmeister, via Wikimedia Commons.