Study Guide

The Library of Babel Death

By Jorge Luis Borges


Now that my eyes can hardly make out what I myself have written, I am preparing to die, a few leagues from the hexagon where I was born. (2)

When your narrator is a man on his deathbed, you know mortality is going to be a theme in the story.

When I am dead, compassionate hands will throw me over the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages, and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be infinite. (2)

Whoa, what a grave! Does this mean that there are bodies falling through the ventilation shafts all the time? Could you be sitting and reading a book in the Library while corpses fall past? Or are we just being a little morbid?

In order to grasp the distance that separates the human and the divine, one has only to compare these crude trembling symbols which my fallible hand scrawls on the cover of a book with the organic letters inside – neat, delicate, deep black, and inimitably symmetrical. (4)

The librarian's fallibility is a mark of his mortality. Contrast that with the perfection of the Library. One of these things is going to die, and the other will exist forever. Can you guess which is which?

In earlier times, there was one man for every three hexagons. Suicide and diseases of the lung have played havoc with that proportion. An unspeakably melancholy memory: I have sometimes traveled for nights on end, down corridors and polished staircases, without coming across a single librarian. (Footnote 2)

All right, it's clear we're not just talking about the mortality of one individual here. We're talking about the mortality of the entire human race.

These pilgrims squabbled in the narrow corridors, muttered dark imprecations, strangled one another on the divine staircases, threw deceiving volumes down ventilation shafts, were themselves hurled to their deaths by men of distant regions. (8)

Well, that's one way to go – murder. The Library, despite being orderly and structured to the extreme, is still the setting for messy human conflict and violence.

If the honor and wisdom and joy of such a reading are not to be my own, then let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my own place be in hell. Let me be tortured and battered and annihilated, but let there be one instant, one creature, wherein thy enormous Library may find its justification. (12)

The narrator's metaphysical beliefs hint at his understanding of his own mortality. He is going to suffer and die, but whomever he's praying to will live on forever.

Methodical composition distracts me from the present condition of humanity. The certainty that everything has already been written annuls us, or renders us phantasmal. (14)

The narrator starts to get at why everybody's been feeling suicidal lately. Does the fact that everything has already been said make human life redundant?

Epidemics, heretical discords, pilgrimages that inevitably degenerate into brigandage have decimated the population. I believe I mentioned the suicides, which are more and more frequent every year. (14)

It seems as though <em>ideas</em> are the greatest cause of death in the Library – either people are fighting and killing each other over them, or people are killing themselves for philosophical reasons.

I am perhaps misled by old age and fear, but I suspect that the human species – the <em>only</em> species – teeters at the verge of extinction, yet that the Library – enlightened, solitary, infinite, perfectly unmoving, armed with precious volumes, pointless, incorruptible, and secret – will endure. (14)

Once again the narrator compares the fragility and impermanence of human life with the permanence of the Library.

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