Writing Assignment on
Jorge Luis Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths"

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There are at least three levels at which the idea of a labyrinth enters Borges' story "The Garden of Forking Paths."  One is the mystery elucidated by the sinologist Stephen Albert, concerning the work composed by the narrator's ancestorTs'ui PÍn.  A second concerns the world that the narrator (the spy, Dr. Yu Tsuan) concludes that he exists in.  The third involves the relationship between that world and the world of standard history shared by the readers of the story as a whole, as pointed to by the passage from Capt. Liddel Hart's History of World War I, with which the author (masquerading as an anonymous editor/commentator) frames the rest of the narrative, namely, Dr. Yu Tsuan's confession.

Focusing on the second of these levels, write on one of the following topics:

Topic A.  In an interview with Roberto Alifano, Borges tells how as a youngster he came across the concept of a labyrinth, and what fascinated him about it:

I discovered the labyrinth in a book published in France by Garnier that my father had in his library.  The book had a very odd engraving that took a whole page and showed a building that resembled an amphitheater.  I remembered that it had cracks and seemed tall, taller than the cypresses and the men that stood around it.  My eyesight was not perfect -- I was very myopic -- but I thought that if I used a magnifying glass, I would be able to see a minotaur within the building.  That labyrinth was, besides, a symbol of bewilderment, a symbol of being lost in life.  I believe that all of us, at one time or another, have felt that we are lost, and I saw in the labyrinth the symbol of that condition.  Since then, I have held that vision of the labyrinth.

In the first half of your essay, show how Dr. Yu Tsuan's situation reveals itself to be a labyrinth.  (Here you are permitted to organize your demonstration chronologically.)  Conclude your essay by reflecting on how the protagonist of the story ultimately responds to his situation:  to what degree does he regard himself as being "lost in life"?  to what degree does he not to regard himself as being lost in life?  (This second part of your essay will need to be organized in an expository manner.)  Is the reader expected to share his assessment, or to differ with it?  Explain.

Topic B.  Later in the same interview we find the following exchange

Altifano:  Do you conceive the image of losing ourselves in a labyrinth as a pessimistic view of the future of mankind?

Borges:  No, I don't  I believe that in the idea of the labyrinth there is also hope, or salvation; if we were positively sure the universe is a labyrinth, we would feel secure.  But it may not be a labyrinth.  In the labyrinth there is a center:  That terrible center is the minotaur.  However, we don't know if the universe has a center; perhaps it doesn't.  Consequently, it is probable that the universe is not a labyrinth but simply chaos, and if that is so, we are indeed lost.

Altifano:  Yes if it didn't have a center, it wouldn't be a cosmos but chaos.  Do you believe that the universe may have a secret center?

Borges:  I don't see why not.  It's easy to conceive that it has a center, one that can be terrible, demonic, or divine.  I believe that if we think in those terms, then unconsciously we are thinking of the labyrinty.  That is, if we believe there is a center, somehow we are saved.  If that center exists, life is coherent.  There are events which surely lead us to think that the universe is a coherent structure.  Think, for example, of the rotation of the planet, the seasons of the year, the different stages in our lives.  All that leads us to believe that there is a secret center of the universe, as you have suggested, that there is a great architect who conceived it.  But it also leads us to think that it may be irrational, that logic cannot be applied to it, the the universe is unexplainable to us, to mankind -- and that in itself is a terrifying idea.

There are lots of ideas to explore here.  Develop one of the following:

  Consult the Study Guide to this story before attempting this writing assignment.

  You may also wish to review the general instructions on writing assignments.

  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to lyman@ksu.edu .

      Contents copyright © 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

  This page last updated 28 March 1999.