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Borges’ “The Circular Ruins” and “The Library of Babel” Essay

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Updated: Jan 29th, 2021

Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories delve fearlessly into the realm of the fantastic, while never losing sight of the most basic questions that have concerned human beings since the origins of literature – what is reality? What is humanity? What does it mean to be alive? The author appears especially fascinated with the insight offered by dreams as a method of unraveling the fabric of reality and performing a revelatory function for the dreamer.

A common theme of Borges – explored liberally in the short story The Circular Ruins – is the bursting of assumptions concerning one’s core nature. Another common theme that the short story The Library of Babel illuminates is the quintessential nature of the universe itself. This essay continues the study of Borges with emphasis on these two stories, the theme of dreams and the nature of reality, and the author’s speculative fiction as well as his assertions as to what makes us human.

In The Circular Ruins Borges introduces the reader to a silent “gray” man who sets up camp near some prehistoric circular ruins and begins his work (Borges 45). Borges explains that the “purpose which guided him was not impossible, though supernatural. He wanted to dream a man; he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality” (Borges 46). Immediately the reader is full of questions yet compelled to continue reading without receiving any answers.

Borges’ style of writing is so simple and so direct that the outlandish task the gray man chooses for himself seems almost plausible. Unfortunately, almost immediately the mysterious gray man encounters a bout of protracted insomnia which interferes with his creative endeavor. The gray man then undertakes a ritualistic approach under the watchful eye of the full moon, finally falling asleep and dreaming of a human heart. “He dreamed that it was warm, secret, about the size of a clenched fist, and of a garnet color within the penumbra of a human body as yet without face or sex” (Borges 48). Slowly over multiple dreams the gray man forms the whole man, though he continues to be haunted by a feeling of déja vu.

Years pass, and the gray man learns of a man who can walk through fire unharmed. Knowing it is his son, the gray walks into the fire himself, not wanting to humiliate his offspring with the knowledge that he is someone else’s imaginings. Yet when the fire has no effect on his flesh, he learns that he too has been dreamed, and his memory erased. Critic Pérez understands the gray man’s activities in The Circular Ruins as suggestive of the “situation of the writer and process of creating a text. As the author struggles to “procreate” or “give birth” to the characters, some are discarded and others developed, and eventually the finished product appears.

The result, in some instances, is a reflection of the author who in turn has a similar parallel relationship with his God…who, Borges implies, might in turn have his own God, and so on ad infinitum” (Pérez 3). Rather, the story speaks directly to the human process of inventing the self. Borges’ gray man is like any of us: his creation of an offspring and the time and care he invests in his offspring over many years gives him a purpose, an identity and a goal. Using the metaphor of the dreamer, Borges’ story illustrates the human journey of creating meaning within a universe that supports multiple interpretations, none of which are absolute.

In the short story The Library of Babel, Borges employs the metaphor of a vast library to serve as the setting for the universe. The mammoth collection contains infinite galleries and infinite stacks of books overseen by armies of librarians. The thankless task of these librarians is wander through the endless galleries in a futile attempt to locate specific pieces of information.

The ultimate goal of the librarians is to collate the information into an ultimate truth – the truth underpinning the meaning of life – yet this monumental task is compounded by the fact that the library itself constantly changes, and has been changing since its inception. “It is true that the most ancient men, the first librarians, used a language quite different from the one we now speak; it is true that a few miles to the right the tongue is dialectical and that ninety floors farther up, it is incomprehensible” (Borges 53).

Though the librarians originally “hoped that a clarification of humanity’s basic mysteries — the origin of the Library and of time — might be found” the sheer size of the collection dwarfs comprehension (Borges 55). Vannatta calls attention to the predicament of “the librarians who haunt their carrels” (Vannatta 2). Like the reader, and in essence all of humanity, Borges’ librarians are simply trying to make sense of things and answer some very basic questions: “Where are we? Why are we here? What is here? How do we know what we know?” (Vannatta 2).

Borges’ depiction of a hopelessly disorganized library provides a poignant and wry portrait of the universe that remains stubbornly inaccessible to its inhabitants. In Vannatta words, “one senses more than anything else the total futility of the librarians’ pursuits” (Vannatta 2). A darkly ironic ending offers a passing observation from the narrator that the rate of suicide amongst the librarians has been climbing rapidly in recent years, and he shares his belief “that the human species — the unique species — is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret” (Borges 58).

In The Library of Babel, Borges celebrates the mystery of the universe by refraining from offering any form of solution or interpretation that might ease the reader’s mind. Rather, after reading the story we feel more empathy with the befuddled librarians, which may indeed be the author’s point.

Both The Circular Ruins and The Library of Babel remain quintessential Borges short stories in that each one ends without a sense of closure, and as Vannatta describes, “as is always the case with Borges, by the end we are no more—indeed, far less—certain than we were at the beginning” (Vannatta 2). As an author Borges set about to interrupt core assumptions about the nature of reality and the nature of being human, and rather than provide alternative explanations or meanings, his stories sit squarely in confusion, and resist assigning meaning, even as they question the fundamental trappings of reality. In essence, Borges’ work generates meaning in non-meaning.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Circular Ruins.” Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. Eds. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1964. Print.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Library of Babel.” Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. Eds. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1964. Print.

Pérez, Genaro J. “The Circular Ruins: Overview.” Reference Guide to Short Fiction. Ed. Noelle Watson. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. Web.

Vannatta, Dennis. “The Library of Babel: Overview.” Reference Guide to Short Fiction. Ed. Noelle Watson. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. Web.

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IvyPanda. "Borges' "The Circular Ruins" and "The Library of Babel"." January 29, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/borges-the-circular-ruins-and-the-library-of-babel/.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Borges' "The Circular Ruins" and "The Library of Babel"." January 29, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/borges-the-circular-ruins-and-the-library-of-babel/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Borges' "The Circular Ruins" and "The Library of Babel"'. 29 January.

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