Study Questions for Two Stories by Jorge Luis Borges

The assigned stories by Borges were first published in Spanish in the early 1940s; specific publication information appears in the SQ entry for each story. The versions that you have were published in 1964 in the collection Labyrinths and were translated by one of the editors, James E. Irby or Donald A. Yates. Borges was born in 1899 in Buenos Aires, Argentina and died in 1986 in Geneva Switzerland. When he was around 39 years old, he suffered a head injury that left him unable to speak and nearly killed him. As he recovered from this event, he began one of his most fertile periods of literary production, including the creation of the assigned stories. Beginning around 1920, his eyesight began to progressively fail due to a hereditary condition, and he became completely blind by 1955, when he continued to produce fiction and poetry, often eliding the difference between the two literary forms by dictating his work to his mother and to secretaries or friends. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, he collaborated with another Argentinean author, Adolfo Bioy Casares, to produce a series of detective stories under the pseudonym, H. Bustos Domecq. Critics often claim that his work has a dreamlike quality governed by Borges's own system of symbols that provoke in us an intellectual exercise, while others associate the mythical or legendary tone of some of his stories to magical realism. For each story, consider the following issues:

  1. Who narrates the story? What kind of narrator is it?
  2. What is the setting of the story? What country, city, specific location, time period, etc? How realistic is the setting?
  3. To what genre [SF, mystery, detection, fantasy, or even myth or legend] does the story belong

"Death and the Compass" [First published in Sur in 1942; First English publication in New Mexico Quarterly in 954]

  1. In what ways does this story both conform to our generic expectations for a murder mystery and subvert those expectations?
  2. How does the story's first paragraph enact a "proleptic" move, a gesture that reveals some part of the mystery's resolution in initial information provided to the reader by jumping to the end?
  3. In what ways is Lonnrot a typical detective like Poe's C. Auguste Dupin or Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes? What deficiency causes him to fail?
  4. Are we able, like readers of most conventional mysteries, to anticipate the next stages of the investigation through provided clues?
  5. Who finally solves the case? Which character presents the explanation of the solution to the series of murders and how does this event subvert our generic expectations?

"The Garden of Forking Paths" [First published in Sur in 1941; First English publication in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1948]

  1. How does the title of this story encapsulate its plot and even its "meaning"?
  2. Who narrates the story? How would you define and characterize this narrator? How many narrative voices are there?
  3. Who is Dr. Yu Tsun and what is his relation to the story's conflict and plot?
  4. How would you characterize Dr. Stephen Albert and define his role in the story?
  5. Who is Ts'ui Pen and how is he important to the protagonist/narrator?
  6. After reading the story, how would you summarize it; what, exactly is the garden of forking paths?