By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Emma Zunz’ is a short story by the Argentine master of the short story, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). This story is a revenge tale, in which the titular Emma Zunz avenges the death of her father, who dies after an overdose of a drug administered in hospital. You can read ‘Emma Zunz’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Borges’ story below.
‘Emma Zunz’: plot summary
Emma Zunz is a young woman of eighteen years old, working at a textile mill. One day she gets home and discovers, via a letter, that her father has died in hospital, after accidentally taking an overdose of a particular drug. Emma wonders if her father deliberately took his own life and the letter is merely a polite cover-up for this fact.
With her mind plunged into chaos by her father’s death, Emma Zunz begins to recall various memories of her father, and one memory comes to her mind more vividly than any other: how her father had been arrested for embezzlement some years earlier, and how he had told her once that he suspected a manager of the mill, Aaron Loewenthal (who is now one of the mill’s owners), was the true thief. Emma resolves to kill Loewenthal out of ‘revenge’ for her father’s ruin.
His true name was Emmanuel Zunz, but he had been known as Manuel Maier – we surmise that he changed his name after his reputation was destroyed following his dismissal and arrest for embezzlement.
There are rumours of an imminent workers’ strike at the factory. Emma contacts Loewenthal, telling him that she has information about it. They arrange to meet. In the afternoon leading up to the meeting, Emma wanders around, visits several bars, and then finds a man (she doesn’t know whether he is Swedish or Finnish, and they don’t speak the same language) who is willing to take her off somewhere for sex.
While being intimate with the man, Emma almost loses her nerve over the killing of Loewenthal which she’s planned. As she is engaged in intercourse with the man, she imagines her father and mother doing the same thing, and is disgusted by the thought. However, she finishes the encounter and goes to meet Loewenthal at the factory.
When Emma Zunz is confronted with Loewenthal, she finds her emotions getting the better of her, and he goes to get her a glass of water. While he’s out of the room, she takes his revolver from out of his desk and shoots him when he returns. She tells the police that Loewenthal was abusing her and that she killed him in self-defence.
‘Emma Zunz’: analysis
Borges’ story is one of his most strikingly psychologically acute, in that Emma’s revenge is carried out for one reason but the reasons she publicly gives for her crimes are quite different. She remains true to her emotions, but parts company with the facts, in order to exact her revenge. The story is one of Borges’ most powerful explorations of what we mean by ‘truth’. As so often in Borges’ fiction, many details threaten to come apart as we tug on one thread of the elaborate carpet he has woven (all in just a few pages).
And there are numerous details in ‘Emma Zunz’ which we cannot pin down with absolute certainty. Did Emma’s father take his own life, or should we take the contents of the letter at face value? Given Emma’s only casual acquaintance with the truth – she is happy to bend the facts in pursuit of her own ‘truth’ – we are tempted to assume that her father’s death was a genuine accident, and that Emma is unable to face this horrible fact, actually preferring to believe that he was led to end his life himself.
Why? Because that then means she can search for a cause of his despair and ruin, and she locates this in the memory of her father’s suspicion that Loewenthal was the true thief and that her father had instead been unfairly charged for Loewenthal’s crime, losing his livelihood in the process.
But of course a father is likely to protest his innocence to his own daughter, rather than have her feel ashamed of him. If he was the true thief, it makes sense that he would choose to pin the blame on someone else, a fellow manager at the mill perhaps, and a rival or even an enemy within the company.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the events of the story take place, we are told, in 1922, when Emma is eighteen (almost nineteen); in 1916, when her father’s arrest and subsequent ruin took place, she would have been just twelve years old, so her father may well have assumed his daughter would not go out and seek revenge on a rival he had accused.
But his death – whether a genuine mistake or a deliberate act – sets Emma on a path of grief which leads her to seek drastic revenge for what happened.
Although in some ways different from his more famous stories such as ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, ‘The Library of Babel’, and ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, ‘Emma Zunz’ nevertheless contains some characteristic features of Borges’ fiction. For instance, when Emma Zunz learns of her father’s death – which, typically, arrives in the form of a written text, a letter from the hospital – she realises immediately that his death would go on happening, endlessly, as she replayed it in her mind. Borges’ characteristic interest in the infinite is thus woven into this personal tragedy.
And just as her father’s death arrives to her via a letter, so Emma’s own decision to exact revenge upon Loewenthal is arrived at via a series of memories involving texts: the ‘warrant for arrest’, the ‘poison-pen letters’, and the ‘newspaper’s account’ of the case involving the theft of the money.
Similarly, Emma’s fatal decision to pursue revenge against Loewenthal is signified by her action of taking the doctor’s letter – informing her of her father’s death – and tearing it up: a symbol of her determination to rewrite facts and pursue her own narrative (she had earlier hidden the letter in a drawer, a symbol of her desire to conceal the facts from herself: out of sight, out of mind).
‘Emma Zunz’ is thus a revenge tale where the very motive for the protagonist’s revenge is called into question. Borges reminds us that, especially in moments of heightened emotion, such as when we are grieving for someone we have lost, we seek to take control of the ‘narrative’ of events in all sorts of desperate ways.
Emma so badly needs to believe that Loewenthal is guilty so she can achieve closure for her father’s death, but believing that he is an evil villain whose actions destroyed her father also means she can continue to believe her father was an innocent, wronged man, when it may be that Loewenthal is the truly wronged party.
In this connection, we might recall the moment when Emma Zunz (and note how her father’s original name, Emmanuel Zunz, is echoed by her own, suggesting a close kinship between father and daughter – but also, perhaps, a similar fondness for engineering a narrative to benefit themselves?) is in bed with the Scandinavian man from the bar and thinks of her father doing the same thing with her mother.
She needs to believe her father is innocent, but such an image fills her with doubt, although it is expressed through this highly inappropriate Freudian moment, a kind of primal scene, where she pictures her father not as the sweet man she knew but as like any other, even this stranger whose nationality she doesn’t even know.
‘Emma Zunz’ is, then, in the last analysis, a troubling story but also a typically ingenious one, in which Borges takes a fairly traditional revenge plot and pokes holes in the protagonist’s motives, reasoning, and even soundness of mind.