A Summary and Analysis of Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘The Waiting’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘The Waiting’ is a 1950 short story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). Alternatively known as ‘The Wait’, the story is about an unnamed man who flees to Buenos Aires who escape his enemy, a gangster named Villari. The story focuses on the man’s time spent waiting for Villari to catch up with him.

As with all of Borges’ stories, ‘The Waiting’ calls for closer analysis in order to appreciate its complexity and ambiguity. Before we come to the analysis, however, here’s a summary of the story’s plot.

‘The Waiting’: plot summary

The story is about an unnamed man who has fled to Buenos Aires in order to escape a man, a mobster named Alejandro Villari, who is out to kill him. The man is clearly trying to escape his past and avoid detection: he is annoyed with himself when he accidentally pays his cab fare with a Uruguayan coin, only for the cab driver to spot the error.

When he arrives at the house where he has rented a room as a lodger, the woman who owns the house asks him for his name, and he gives the name ‘Villari’, purely because he finds himself unable to think of another name to give as his alias. Initially, he doesn’t go out, but after several weeks he ventures out to the local cinema. He reads the newspaper every day but only the obituary section, to check to see whether Villari has died.

He realises that Villari may already have died, in which case the protagonist’s life is a ‘dream’. However, he isn’t sure whether such news would constitute a relief or a misfortune to him. He tries to live in the present, realising that all time immediately becomes the past. He suffers toothache one night, and goes to the dentist to have his tooth extracted. Another night, he thinks someone has pushed into him, and confronts the man. He is clearly on edge, waiting for Villari may catch up with him any day. He spend more time indoors, reading Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Every morning, at dawn, he has a recurring dream, in which Villari and two other men find him and attack him. At the end of the dream, he would take out his revolver and shoot the men. Then, one morning, he wakes to find Villari and another man in his room. He turns away from them, towards the wall, as though to go back to sleep, when the men shoot him.

‘The Waiting’: analysis

Although ‘The Waiting’ belongs to the genre of the gangster story, it also betrays Borges’ interest in the double: a theme he most fully explored in ‘Borges and I’. When he is put on the spot and his landlady asks for his name, the protagonist of ‘The Waiting’ gives the name of his pursuer, Villari. In doing so, he invites a comparison between the two men: between himself and his foe, between hunter and hunted.

All of this is made more noteworthy by the narrator’s readily taking up the name ‘Villari’ (without even putting the name into ‘scare quotes’) to refer to the story’s protagonist, and thus encouraging some form of parallelism or equivalence between Villari and ‘Villari’, between the story’s protagonist and its antagonist.

Curiously, in his recurring dream in which the real Villari tracks him down and attacks him, he is the one who opens fire on Villari, but on the morning when the real Villari arrives in his room, it is Villari, rather than the protagonist, who opens fire.

What’s more, Villari and his associate arrive at the time of day when the protagonist experiences his recurring dream: dream has given way to reality here, and the two ‘Villaris’ have swapped roles. If the protagonist’s dream suggests he vanquishes his foe, the reality will show the opposite to be the case.

So, as with many other Borges stories, the boundaries between reality and dream, or reality and illusion, are troubled: the story’s protagonist in effect ‘becomes’ Villari, just as he finds the line between dream and reality harder to draw. Even critics of the story tend to refer to Borges’ protagonist as Villari, referring to him by the alias he adopts rather than simply as ‘the unnamed man’ or ‘the protagonist’.

But if ‘The Waiting’ merges the protagonist with his assassin, Villari, it also merges dreams with reality. And these two mergings are, fittingly, themselves merged. Consider the moment when the protagonist speculates that Villari had already died ‘and in that case this life was a dream’. This life? Whose life? The life of Villari, or ‘Villari’?

If ‘Villari’, the protagonist, has already died – that is, the real Villari has caught up with him and exacted his revenge – then what the protagonist thinks of as life is indeed a ‘dream’ which he is dreaming in the afterlife. (Here we might link the story to the protagonist’s favourite reading matter, apart from the newspaper obituaries: Dante’s Divine Comedy, charting his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.) But the sentence is ambiguous: ‘Villari’ here may refer to the real Villari, who, if already dead, would render the protagonist’s life a blissful ‘dream’ because he is fearing imminent death for no reason.

Consider that dream the protagonist has, in which his assassin finally catches up with him. This showdown happens, in various dreams, at different locations: on the patio outside the house, or as the protagonist is leaving the cinema, for instance. But the dream always ends with the protagonist taking his revolver out of his bedside drawer and opening fire on his attackers. How can he retrieve his gun from his bedside table if he is outside the cinema, or out on the patio?

We are told that the noise of the revolver is what would wake him from his dream. Has he merely dreamt about taking his gun out and shooting the men, or is his dream so vivid that he actually reaches into the drawer and fires his fun every morning?

But of course, even more than Borges’ flirting with the theme of the double (something he would have studied in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, a key influence on his own writing), ‘The Waiting’ is a story about the theme of waiting. And waiting for what? For death, specifically: the story is, as Gene H. Bell-Villada observes in his astute analysis of Borges’ story (in his study, Borges and His Fiction), about waiting for the inevitability of death.

The protagonist’s death is no more inevitable than our own: it is just likely to be more immediate, since he is being hunted by the real Villari. But in a sense, as so often with Borges’ fiction, there’s a deeper allegory, or at least symbolism, at work in ‘The Waiting’. We are all that nameless protagonist, on some level, briefly adopting an identity and assuming a name before meeting our maker.


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