Jorge Borges: Short Stories

Jorge Borges: Short Stories Summary and Analysis of The Lottery in Babylon and The Library of Babel


These two allegorical tales, while not directly related, both ruminate on the metaphysics of our universe and their implication for the nature of being. The Lottery in Babylon recounts the history of a lottery corporation in Babylon that has grown to take responsibility for all chance and happenstance in every aspect of Babylonian life. The Library of Babel represents the universe as an infinite library and extends metaphysical implications from there.

Babylon's Lottery began as an innocent lottery, comparable to modern lotteries in that it offered monetary prizes for a select few with fortunate numbers. However, because this was unpopular, the lottery decided to introduce risk by instituting fines for those who drew unlucky numbers. This potential to either win or lose made the lottery more representative of the concept of chance, and more people played as a result.

Because many people did not wish to pay the fine and were subsequently sentenced to time in prison, the lottery eventually stopped publishing fines and began simply publishing the length of imprisonment. From this precedent, people began to think that monetary gain was not a gain of magnitude equal to the loss of one's freedom. The lottery subsequently began awarding positions of status, the opportunity to exact revenge on others, and so forth. The scope of its power expanded proportionately.

The Lottery grew into an entity which operated in secret, orchestrating all events through complex designs based on the chance drawings. Single events would revolve around the fortunate and unfortunate drawings of multiple participants. People would seek to gain influence over the Lottery at various secret locations rumored as points of communication with them, though the Lottery disavowed these forms of communication as a matter of liability. In this way, all events in the life of a Babylonian became the purported design of the Lottery.

In The Library of Babel, the universe is a Library of infinite adjoining hexagonal rooms. Each wall has five bookshelf, with each shelf holding thirty-two books, each book having four hundred and ten pages, each page having forty lines, and each line having roughly eighty letters (113). The rooms are uniform, and there are infinite rooms extending in all directions.

The man of the Library who acts as the narrator offers epistemic and metaphysical proofs based around the history of the Library. He grounds the proofs in two axioms: the library has existed from and will exist through eternity, for its perfection can only be the work of a god; and there are only 25 symbols used in all the library, counting 22 letters, a period, a comma, and a space (113). From these axioms, the totality of the library is derived: it contains all possible books, and there are no repeated books.

From these concepts, worldviews proliferated. Some people tried to destroy the books which they perceived as "worthless," though it was shown that all books were meaningful in some language or code. Some went in search of a "Book-Man" who had supposedly read the inevitable book that was a compendium of all others, thereby becoming like a god (116). Some threw themselves off the hexagonal vestibules in suicide, overwhelmed by the totality of the Library. The narrator takes comfort in the fact that, though the Library is infinite, there is not an infinite number of possible books, meaning that the disorder of books must on an enormous scale be periodic, and that in this great order there is infinite divinity (118).


What is salient about the story of the Lottery is the juxtaposition of chance with a determinism directly derived from the notion of chance. The Lottery's ultimate authority comes from its capacity to determine fate, and yet this capacity is based on chance. This means one of two things: either the Lottery does not function by chance and is riddled by corruption, or the corporation of the Lottery is actually no more powerful or important than chance itself.

In either situation, the important point to glean from this allegory is the proclivity of society and institutions to capitalize on the nature of life. Chance is an inevitable component of life, whether it is perceived as pure quantum randomness or the will of God too complex for humanity to comprehend or anticipate. The secret society of the Lottery takes advantage of that existential absolute and claims its authority; because no mortal man can hope to challenge metaphysics, no one can challenge the institution of the Lottery.

It could well be said that The Library of Babel is more relevant today than it was when Borges wrote it, because of the advent of the internet. In this story, the man of the Library makes a point of how any number of books destroyed by heretics is irrelevant in the greater scope of the library (116). Today, however, we have access to exponentially more information than ever before - information which can be useful or useless, accurate or inaccurate. How we perceive this information, and what we do with it, are choices with higher stakes than the destroyers of books in Borges' allegory.

The notion that the universe is a total Library, while daunting, can be a source of inspiration. All problems have a solution that exists somewhere, waiting to be found. Of course, there are also numerous wrong solutions and other problems to be had. Thus, we must be increasingly vigilant as we plunge further into the information age.