Jorge Luis Borges

The Aleph and Other Stories

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The Aleph and Other Stories Summary

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The Aleph and Other Stories (Spanish: El Aleph) is a 1949 collection of short stories by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most important literary writers. The collection’s 17 stories incorporate many fantastical elements. Labyrinths are a recurring motif, and the collection explores the concept of infinity from several different angles.

In the collection’s first story, “The Immortal,” the storyteller reports on a narrative he has discovered which purports to have been written by a Roman soldier, Marcus Flaminius Rufus. While on duty in Egypt, Rufus encounters a dying man who tells him that in a place called the City of the Immortals, there is a river whose waters confer immortality on the drinker. Rufus sets out in search of the city and finds it: a hideous labyrinth inhabited by troglodytes. Rufus becomes involved in a number of historical events, until he finds a spring whose waters remove his immortality.

In “The Dead Man,” Benjamín Otálora has committed murder and must flee Argentina. He sets out for Uruguay, where he falls in with a band of smugglers lead by Azevedo Bandeira. Otálora gradually becomes obsessed with possessing Bandeira’s treasures: his horse, his saddle, and his “woman.” One day, Otálora is injured in a skirmish and he seizes his chance: taking Bandeira’s horse and bloodying its saddle, he rides back to camp and sleeps with the leader’s woman. He believes he has gotten away with it until on New Year’s Eve at midnight, Bandeira summons his woman and forces her to kiss Otálora. As Bandeira’s bodyguard raises his pistol to execute Otálora, Otálora realizes that he has been set up. Bandeira always intended to kill him, and he allowed Otálora to enjoy his possessions because he saw Otálora as already dead.

“The Theologians” is a dialogue between two Christian writers, each competing to impose their idea of Christian orthodoxy on a narrative about the history of heresy.

“The Story of the Warrior and the Captive” compares the historical figure of Droctulft, a Lombard barbarian who defected to fight for the Byzantine empire, with a woman who Borges’ grandmother once met in Argentina. The woman had been abducted in her youth by an indigenous tribe. Borges’s grandmother offers to rescue the woman and her children from the tribe, but the woman insists that she is happy in her new life.

“A Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829-1874)” opens with the death of Tadeo’s father. Tadeo grows up to be a gaucho. Later he murders a man for making fun of him and is sentenced to fight in the army. One night he is sent to capture a wanted man. When he corners the man, he decides not to kill him but to join him instead. The wanted man is fictional Argentine folk hero Martin Fierro.

In “Emma Zunz,” the title character learns that her father has committed suicide. She blames Aaron Loewenthal, the owner of the mill where her father worked, who framed Emma’s father for embezzling funds actually appropriated by Loewenthal himself. Emma goes to the docks and deliberately approaches a sailor she finds physically repulsive for sex. Afterwards, she goes to Loewenthal’s office and, after wavering briefly, shoots him with his own revolver. Then she calls the police and tells them that Lowenthal raped her and she killed him in self-defence. Because she feels real shame on account of her encounter with the sailor, the police are convinced of her innocence.

“The House of Asterion” re-tells the Ancient Greek story of the Minotaur from the monster’s point of view. Asterion is a proud and pitiably lonely creature who spends much of his time speculating about the cosmological meaning of his labyrinthine home. The story ends with Asterion’s killer Theseus reporting to his lover Ariadne that “The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.”

In “The Other Death,” a man who has spent his life ashamed of his cowardice in battle indulges in deathbed fantasies of courage. These fantasies are powerful enough to alter the historical record.

Borges imagines the biography of a concentration camp guard in “Deutsches Requiem.” Otto Dietrich zur Linde is born into the German nobility. He feels contempt for the Nazis he encounters, but he joins the SS, feeling that with the contribution of men like himself, the Nazi Party can bring about a glorious future for the world. He loses his leg during the invasion of Czechoslovakia and is appointed subdirector of the Tarnowitz concentration camp. After the war, he is tried for crimes against humanity and refuses to offer a defense. Contemplating his imminent execution, he realizes he feels no fear or self-pity.

In “Averroës’ Search,” Borges examines the difficulty the great Islamic scholar Averroës must have had in comprehending Aristotle’s Poetics, which he translated into Arabic. Aristotle’s book is about theater, but Averroës’ culture does not have theatrical performance. Averroës observes children playing imaginative games and he hears a traveller describe a European theatrical performance, but in the end, he fails to realize that Aristotle’s descriptions of comedy and tragedy refer to performance rather than written literature.

In “The Zahir,” a writer who resembles Borges acquires a 20-cent coin which turns out to be a “zahir,” an object which creates an obsession in whoever sees it. After a digression on the history and symbolism of coins, the writer decides to get rid of the zahir by using it to buy a drink in a bar he doesn’t know. However, he is unable to forget the zahir. Soon, he recognizes, he will lose touch with reality, but he is resigned to his fate: from his point of view, he is simply stepping from one dream to another.

An Aztec priest, Tzinacán, narrates “The Writing of the God.” He has been imprisoned by conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, and in the next cell is a jaguar. Tzinacán searches in the jaguar’s fur for a divine text which will make him all-powerful. While searching, he falls asleep and dreams he is drowning in sand. He wakes to a vision of a wheel of fire and water, and afterwards he can read the jaguar’s fur. The text has the power to release Tzinacán and set the jaguar on Alvarado. But the narrator decides not to recite it, because he no longer identifies with Tzinacán or sees any need to release him.

Two Englishmen, Dunraven and Unwin, visit a labyrinth in Cornwall, England. While they are there, Dunraven tells his friend the story of “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth.” Al-Bokhari, an Arabic chieftain, builds a labyrinth to protect himself from the ghost of his murdered cousin Zaid. In the end, Zaid’s spirit gets to al-Bokhari and kills him. Unwin declares that Dunraven’s version is not the truth. In Unwin’s version, Zaid steals al-Bokhari’s fortune and builds the labyrinth in the hope of luring the chieftain in order to kill him, which he eventually does.

In “The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths,” a Babylonian king orders the construction of a labyrinth, in which he later entraps an Arabic king, just for the sport of it. When the Arab gets out, he swears he will entrap the Babylonian in a labyrinth of his own. The Arab king attacks and captures the Babylonian king. He takes him into his “labyrinth,” the desert, where he abandons the Babylonian to wander until he dies.

An Argentinian gangster is in hiding in “The Wait.” He dreams of his assassins’ arrival in his bedroom so often that when they do arrive, he turns over and goes back to sleep.

In “The Man on the Threshold,” a man called Glencairn is sent to pacify a city in British India, which he achieves by violent means, before mysteriously disappearing. The narrator sets out to find him, eventually hearing the story of the “tyrant’s” death and seeing his mutilated corpse.

“The Aleph” is another story narrated by a version of Borges himself. He encounters an untalented poet, Carlos Argentino Daneri, who is engaged in writing an epic poem which describes the entire planet in exact detail. When Daneri’s house is threatened with demolition, Daneri protests to Borges that he needs his house for his poem, because in his basement he has an “aleph.” Borges believes the poet is insane, but he investigates the cellar and finds the aleph, a small sphere through which it is possible to see the whole universe from every angle, at life size. Despite having seen it, Borges pretends to have seen nothing, hoping that Daneri will doubt his own sanity. He concludes by noting that Daneri’s house was demolished, but that the poet went on to win a prestigious poetry award anyway. He mentions another aleph in which all the world’s sounds can be heard.