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Themes

A great deal of this story is devoted to creating a spatial metaphor for time. In other words, Borges is trying to take an abstract, non-visual idea – time – and make a visual model for it. In fact, that's what "the garden of forking paths" is. It's a metaphor, or model, to help us envision the infinitely diverging, spreading network that Ts'ui Pen imagines time to be. And the issue of the infinite is another major theme in Borges' work.

As crazy as this all may sound, this model is considered a viable way of seeing the universe – thanks to Einstein, Schrodinger and his cat, and the quantum physicists who followed in their footsteps. [BTW, in 1957 a physicist name Hugh Everett III came up with the "many-worlds interpretation" of quantum physics, but Borges' story portrayed the same idea in 1941. You can read more about it here.]

Questions About Time

  1. How does Ts'ui Pen's model of time work? Is it possible to draw a model of time as it progresses within the narrative? What are some of the points where an alternate reality might branch off? (For example, Madden might have missed Yu Tsun's train... or he might have made it.)
  2. In what sense is time infinite in the story? On the other hand, in what sense is it limited? Does Yu Tsun experience both of these aspects of time? When and where is he when he has these impressions?
  3. What are the signs within the narrative that Yu Tsun has come to accept his ancestor's idea of the way time works? Did Yu Tsun already have some of the same ideas before he was presented with Ts'ui Pen's work?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Yu Tsun's unwavering belief in destiny is at odds with his ancestor's model of time. If all possibilities will happen in an infinite series of times, then there can be no such thing as destiny.

Yu Tsun's unwavering belief in destiny is fully compatible with Ts'ui Pen's model of time. If all possible events must happen in one time or another, then the events of his particular time are fated to happen, since they do not happen in any other time.

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