The Garden of Forking Paths
by Jorge Luis Borges
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The image of the labyrinth is a favorite of Borges, appearing not only here but in many of his other stories. As the title figure of "The Garden of Forking Paths," however, we'd say that this is the paramount example in his work. (Not sure what a labyrinth is? Click here.)
The Borgesian labyrinth, like the object itself, is an idea that you can get lost in for hours. It appears in so many layers within the story that its symbolic meanings are as infinite as the forking paths of Ts'ui Pen's novel. The labyrinth is a physical setting, evoked in the gardens surrounding Ts'ui Pen's Pavilion of the Limpid Sun, the "symmetrical gardens" and childhood playground of the protagonist, and the series of forking paths leading to Dr. Albert's own pavilion. But the labyrinth is also an imagined setting, taking shape in Yu Tsun's mind as an infinite "maze of mazes" encompassing past and future and extending to the stars (19).
Ts'ui Pen's novel is also a labyrinth, consisting of infinite endings that bifurcate (fork) to create parallel and alternate narratives. As Dr. Albert describes the novel, it becomes clear that the book – and therefore the labyrinth – is an allegory for time itself.
And then, in that final Borgesian twist that takes his stories from pretty-interesting to blow-your-mind-amazing, the labyrinth-as-novel-as-time-allegory invades the very structure of the story we are reading, causing invisible figures from alternate universes to "pullulate," or sprout, before the protagonist's eyes.
This pullulation makes us stop and think – could this story itself be a labyrinth? Doesn't it contain plenty of references to outside or invisible figures – for example, the invisible Chief, the missing first two pages of Dr. Yu's deposition, the anonymous manuscript editor, and the rest of Ts'ui Pen's letter? We can't see any of these figures within the story, but they send our imaginations down forking paths, causing us to picture all the narratives that had to converge in order to produce the story as it stands. The labyrinthine idea is even reflected in the language of the story itself. (See our discussion of this in the section "Writing Style.")
Did Borges just blow your mind? Yeah, we thought so.