Jorge Borges: Short Stories

Jorge Borges: Short Stories Summary and Analysis of The Garden of Forking Paths and Emma Zunz


The Garden of Forking Paths and Emma Zunz are two of Borges' most iconic stories. Both are characterized by storytelling that resembles a labyrinth, in that the protagonists are guided by events which, though not apparently relevant to the main thrust of the story, end up coming together to lead to the story's conclusion in a way which hindsight suggests was inevitable.

The Garden of Forking Paths, the title story of Borges' eight-story collection, is an explanation of why, in World War I, an Allied assault on the Serre-Montauban Line was delayed from the 24th of July until five days later in 1916. This explanation comes in the form of a personal account of events by German spy Dr. Yu Tsun, which begins in media res and continues to the point of his arrest. The account chronicles his escape from Allied Captain Richard Madden, and his effort to warn the Leader of Germany of where the Allied forces are planning to strike.

Yu Tsun gets a head start on Captain Madden by fleeing by train; when he steps off the train, he confirms his location with a group of loitering boys, one of whom gives him directions to the home of Dr. Stephen Albert, presuming he wants to go there. He tells Yu Tsun that he will find it if he takes a left at every crossing, which reminds Yu Tsun of the strategy of how to find the central courtyard of a specific type of maze. This prompts Yu Tusn to pause in his flight to reflect, during which time he thinks of his ancestor, Ts'ui Pen, who famously stepped down from governing the province of Yunan in order to write an epic manuscript and build the ultimate labyrinth; yet, when he was killed by a foreigner thirteen years later, the manuscript was indecipherable and the maze could not be found. In a moment of meditation, Yu Tsun perceives all of time as a labyrinth, viewing himself as an abstract observer outside of time.

When Yu Tsun reaches Dr. Albert's house, the gatekeeper lets him in, presuming Dr. Albert invited him to see "The Garden of Forking Paths," a statement which strikes Yu Tsun because it was the name supposedly given by Ts'ui Pen to his labyrinth. Inside, Yu Tsun meets the Sinologist Stephen Albert, who explains that Ts'ui Pen's manuscript is the labyrinthine Garden of Forking Paths, because it is a riddle whose answer is time, and its chapters play out different possible futures as though they were different paths through the labyrinth. Yu Tsun, absorbing this and seeing Captain Madden arrive, shoots Dr. Albert and is arrested. Sentenced to hang, he is satisfied because he got the message to the Leader the only way he knew how: he killed someone with the name of the targeted city: Albert.

Emma Zunz chronicles the revenge taken by the title character when she receives word by mail that her father, Emmanuel, has committed suicide. She blames Aaron Loewenthal, the once-manager and now co-owner of the mill where her father worked, for his death. Her father was arrested for charges of embezzlement leveled against him by Loewenthal, and before he was taken to prison, he told Emma that it was really Loewenthal who had embezzled the funds and framed him. Because of this secret she has kept since that moment when he was taken away, Emma resolves to avenge his suicide.

She does not sleep that night, and spends the following day with her best friend, Elsa Urstein, and some other girls, at a women's health club. They speak of boys and, as usual, Emma expresses no interest though she is now 19. Emma and Elsa end up joining the club. Emma forces herself to sleep that night in preparation for her tasks the following day.

Emma first calls Loewenthal to suggest she has something to tell him regarding the strike currently taking place at the mill. She then goes to a bar near the docks to find the crew of the Nordstjärnan, a ship which she read would be docked in port that day. She deliberately chooses a man of short stature with a foul mouth to solicit for sex. He takes her to the back and has sex with her, an event she perceives as out of time except for a moment when she recognizes that this was what her mother and father did. She then dresses, goes to Loewenthal's office, and gives him names of workers she insinuates are involved in the strike. Her resolve to kill him wavers, yet she wants justice; he leaves to get her a glass of water, and returns to find her holding his revolver, at which point she immediately shoots him. She tries to explain to him the justice of her act, but he is already dead. She then calls the police and reports that Loewenthal lead her to his office under the pretense of the strike, raped her, and she subsequently killed him. It is believable because her shame and hatred were real, as well as her outrage - as the narrator says in closing, "all that was false were the circumstances, the time, and one or two proper names" (219).


The Garden of Forking Paths is one of the first instances of literature reflecting the notion of multiple possible futures and general timelines connected by events serving as nodes, where timelines converge and diverge. This is the labyrinthine structure underlying Ts'ui Pen's novel, and, the reader should note, is greatly reminiscent of the structure of Herbert Quain's April March. This conception of time as a labyrinth, through which Yu Tsun finds himself led to his ultimate fate, is very much in line with some modern quantum mechanical ideas about the structure of reality and potential alternate realities.

Regarding the structure of the story itself, the reader should note that the account of Yu Tsun begins in media res, and that the story following its conclusion (presumably, his execution) is "unreal, insignificant" (127). In this way, Borges has essentially trimmed the narrative to the time in between two of the above-described nodes. The labyrinthine path of choices down which Yu Tsun was led in the precise portion of the narrative presented was what led to the five-day delay in the Allied assault. This story is effectively a microcosm of the theory posited by Dr. Albert within it.

Now, consider the different possible dimensions and readings of Emma Zunz. As the final words of the story insinuate, all is ambiguous here because all the reader can be certain of are the sentiments of Emma. We do not even know if her father was really framed, for all we have is his testimony against Loewenthal's. One need only look at the premise of the story to see how precarious it is: Emma is trying to avenge a suicide, a concept which at its core is not particularly coherent. To make it coherent, one would have to interpret the suicide as an indirect murder, and such an act opens the door to the interpretive license with which Emma only becomes more liberal as the story progresses.

The tragic view of the story is that Emma, at her core, is a lost and helpless soul. She repeatedly has to steel her resolve and reaffirm her feelings; the ship wherefrom she finds her sexual target is named "North Star" in Swedish, implying what the narrator does more directly in other places: she is looking to disgust, revulsion, and malice in order to temper and guide the feelings she has over the loss of her father. Even when she lost the opportunity to demonstrate the justice of her design to Loewenthal, she carried it out. In the end, her interpretive license led her to be more vengeful than righteous, even supposing that her father spoke the truth (though her actions would certainly be closer to being balanced in terms of karma in that latter case).