Jorge Luis Borges


Jorge Luis Borges

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Ficciones Summary

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Ficciones (Fictions) is the most well-known collection of short stories written by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. Written between 1941 and 1956, the English language translation was published in 1962, the same year as Labyrinths, an unrelated collection of Borges’s short stories. Divided into two parts, The Garden of Forking Paths and Artifices, Ficciones featured fourteen short stories in the first edition and seventeen in the second edition. Most of the stories are narrated in the first-person, which is often Borges himself. Ficciones is listed as one of Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the first story in Part 1, “The Gardens of Forking Paths,” follows Borges and his friend Adolfo Casares as they search for the meaning of the word “Uqbar” in the Encyclopedia Britannica until they learn it is a country in Asia Minor. Borges studies the people and customs of the region, finding the Uqbar people do not use nouns in their language, and therefore, do not adhere to common sense reality.

In “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim,” a writer reviews the second edition of a book written by Indian lawyer Mir Bahadur Ali. The writer contends the second edition is inferior to the first despite selling far more copies in many languages. The writer concludes his summary by paraphrasing Farid Ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of Birds to highlight that, just as the 30 birds in that poem are, themselves, what they seek; Ali is the character of  “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim.”

“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is presented in the form of a literary critique of Pierre Menard, a fictional twentieth-century French scribe. Borges notes how Menard attempts to go beyond the translation of Don Quixote by immersing himself into the text so deeply, he nearly recreates it by reciting each line of original seventeenth-century Spanish. Menard is assigned to study authorship, originality, and plagiarism.

“The Circular Ruins” draws its title from chapter 4 of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. The story finds a man in a canoe rowing to shore and falling asleep due to exhaustion. The man dreams of teaching schoolchildren in a classroom, knowing that only one student he must handpick will benefit from the knowledge he has to offer. Before he can choose the student, the man discovers he can no longer dream.

“The Lottery in Babylon” entails the legendary tale of Babylon, in which every single action is governed by an all-inclusive lottery. Serving as a metaphor for the significance of chance and luck in life, the lottery becomes so ubiquitous that citizens begin to question if it ever existed in the first place. Much like the almighty Zeus, the metaphor extends to examine the company that runs the Lottery. Since its reach is so large, ordinary people are left to either accept its powerful omniscience or deny its existence altogether.

“An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain” is a fictitious essay examining major four works written by fictional author Herbert Quain. The works include The God of the Labyrinth, a detective story in which the conclusion of a crime is falsely determined; April March, a novel with nine disparate beginnings that wind backwards in time; The Secret Mirror, a stage play in which the first act features work done by characters in the second act; and Statements, eight tales purposely written to underwhelm the reader.

“The Library of Babel” concerns a universe shaped in the form of a vast library comprising large hexagonal rooms. Inside, the library contains the essentials for human survival and four walls containing every book written. Among the countless texts, the narrator explains that every conceivable permutation of a certain 410-page book must be present inside the library. In proving such, the narrator makes the case that too much information can become useless to the reader. This leads to librarian “Purifiers” destroying nonsensical books in search of the magical Crimson Hexagon volume.

“The Garden of Forking Paths” is formatted as a signed letter by Doctor Yu Tsun, a Chinese professor of English living in the UK during WWI. Tsun is a German spy who suspects his handler has been murdered and that he will be the next to die. To expose the location of the enemy and to avoid death, Tsun murders a fellow professor in cold blood so that the name of the location will be publicized in the newspaper.

The second part of the book is entitled “Artifices.” The first story, “Funes the Memorious,” tells of Ireneo Funes, a teenage boy in 1887 Uruguay. Borges learns that Funes has suffered a horse-riding accident that has left him crippled. However, Funes is also gifted – or cursed – with the newfound ability to remember absolutely everything. Funes dies at age nineteen from “congestion of the lungs.”

“The Form of the Sword” follows an unnamed Irishman living in Uruguay as he recounts his time in the Irish War of Independence. The Irishman tells of his partner, John Vincent Moon, who sold him out to the police. As payback, the Irishman says he chased Moon down and carved a moon-shaped scar across his face. In the end, the Irishman confesses that he was Moon all along.

“Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” follows Ryan, an Irishman writing a biography of Fergus Kilpatrick near the centennial of his death. Discovering Kilpatrick was murdered for informing British authorities, Ryan links the Shakespearean death-method to Nolan, a conspirator in charge of translating Shakespeare to Gaelic. After killing Kilpatrick, Nolan agreed to fake the Shakespearean connections to ensure the story becomes part of Irish history.

“Death and the Compass” follows detective Erik Lonnrot as he investigates a rash of mysterious murders that appear to be patterned after the Kabbalah. Lonnrot connects the murders with the four-letter Tetragrammaton, the unspeakable name of God, and his archenemy Red Scharlach. Scharlach captures Lonnrot, vowing revenge for arresting his brother, who died in jail. Lonnrot tells Scharlach that his Kabbalistic riddles are too complex before Scharlach kills him.

“The Secret Miracle” follows Jaromir Hladik, a playwright in Prague during the Nazi occupation of WWII. Arrested and accused of being Jewish, Jaromir is sentenced to death. Jaromir is obsessed with finishing his play, The Enemy, praying to God for one more year of life to complete it. On his death day, Jaromir is granted the “secret miracle” he prayed for and is given one year before death by firing squad. Jaromir finishes his play in one year and is subsequently executed.

“The Three Versions of Judas” is the final story, which starts as a critical essay on the works of fictional Swedish scribe Nils Runeberg. In Lund, Runeberg publishes two polemical volumes, Christ and Judas and The Secret Savior. Borges assesses the merits of each volume before Runeberg dies in anonymity, which, based on the controversial nature of his work, Borges believes is undeserved.
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