The Garden of Forking Paths

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"The Garden of Forking Paths"
Collection first edition
AuthorJorge Luis Borges
Original title"El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan"
TranslatorAnthony Boucher
Genre(s)Spy fiction, war fiction
Published inEl Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1941)
Ficciones (1944)
PublisherEditorial Sur
Media typePrint
Publication date1941
Published in English1948

"The Garden of Forking Paths" (original Spanish title: "El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan") is a 1941 short story by Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. It is the title story in the collection El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1941), which was republished in its entirety in Ficciones (Fictions) in 1944. It was the first of Borges's works to be translated into English by Anthony Boucher when it appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in August 1948.

The story's theme has been said to foreshadow the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.[1][2] It may have been inspired by work of the philosopher and science fiction author Olaf Stapledon.[1]

Borges's vision of "forking paths" has been cited as inspiration by numerous new media scholars, in particular within the field of hypertext fiction.[3][4][5] Other stories by Borges that express the idea of infinite texts include "The Library of Babel" and "The Book of Sand".[3]

Plot summary[edit]

The story takes the form of a signed statement by a Chinese professor of English named Doctor Yu Tsun who is living in the United Kingdom during World War I. Tsun is a spy for the German Empire who has realized that an MI5 agent called Captain Richard Madden is pursuing him, has entered the apartment of his handler Viktor Runeberg, and has either captured or killed him. Doctor Tsun is certain that his own arrest is next. He has just discovered the location of a new British artillery park and wishes to convey that knowledge to his German handlers before he is captured. He at last hits upon a desperate plan in order to achieve this.

Doctor Tsun explains that his spying has never been for the sake of Imperial Germany, which he considers "a barbarous country". Rather, he says, he did it because he wanted to prove to his racist masters that an Asian is intelligent enough to obtain the information needed to save their soldiers' lives. Tsun suspects that Captain Madden, an Irishman in the employ of the British Empire, might be similarly motivated.

Taking his few possessions, Tsun boards a train to the village of Ashgrove. Narrowly avoiding the pursuing Captain Madden at the train station, he goes to the house of Doctor Stephen Albert, an eminent Sinologist. As he walks up the road to Doctor Albert's house, Tsun reflects on his great ancestor, Ts'ui Pên, a learned and famous man who renounced his job as governor of Yunnan in order to undertake two tasks: to write a vast and intricate novel, and to construct an equally vast and intricate labyrinth, one "in which all men would lose their way". Ts'ui Pên was murdered before completing his novel, however, and what he did write was a "contradictory jumble of irresolute drafts" that made no sense to subsequent readers; nor was the labyrinth ever found.

Doctor Tsun arrives at the house of Doctor Albert, who is deeply excited to have met a descendant of Ts'ui Pên. Doctor Albert reveals that he has himself been engaged in a longtime study of Ts'ui Pên's novel. Albert explains excitedly that at one stroke he has solved both mysteries—the chaotic and jumbled nature of Ts'ui Pên's unfinished book and the mystery of his lost labyrinth. Albert's solution is that they are one and the same: the book is the labyrinth.

Basing his work on the strange legend that Ts'ui Pên had intended to construct an infinite labyrinth, as well as a cryptic letter from Ts'ui Pên himself stating, "I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths", Doctor Albert realized that the "garden of forking paths" was the novel, and that the forking took place in time, not in space. As compared to most fictions, where the character chooses one alternative at each decision point and thereby eliminates all the others, Ts'ui Pên's novel attempted to describe a world where all possible outcomes of an event occur simultaneously, each one itself leading to further proliferations of possibilities. Albert further explains that these constantly diverging paths do sometimes converge again, though as the result of a different chain of causes; for example, he says, in one possible time-line Doctor Tsun has come to his house as an enemy, in another as a friend.

Though trembling with gratitude at Albert's revelation and in awe of his ancestor's literary genius, Tsun glances up the path to see Captain Madden approaching the house. He asks Albert to see Ts'ui Pên's letter again. As Albert turns to retrieve it, Tsun draws a revolver, and declares his friendship before murdering him in cold blood.

Doctor Tsun is arrested, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death by hanging. However, he has "most abhorrently triumphed", as he has revealed to Berlin the location of the artillery park. Indeed, the park is bombed as Tsun goes on trial. The location of the artillery park was in Albert. Doctor Tsun had realized that the only way to convey that information was to murder a person of that name, so that the news of the murder would appear in British newspapers connected with his name.

In modern culture[edit]

  • In 1987 Stuart Moulthrop created a hypertextual version of "The Garden of Forking Paths". This name was given to relate the Gulf War setting of his novel and Borges: Victory Garden. This work is published as a hypertext by Eastgate[6] and is highly discussed in academic literature.[3]
  • In homage to the story, the TV series FlashForward made an episode entitled "The Garden of Forking Paths". In the episode, the character Dyson Frost referred to a map of the possible futures as his "Garden of Forking Paths".
  • Parallels have been drawn between the concepts in the story to the many-worlds interpretation in physics by Bryce DeWitt[7] in his preface to "The Many World Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics".[2]
  • Andrew Gelman references "The Garden of Forking Paths" to describe how scientists can make false discoveries when they do not pre-specify a data analysis plan and instead choose "one analysis for the particular data they saw."[8] The "Garden of Forking Paths" refers to the near infinite number of choices facing researchers in cleaning and analyzing data, and emphasizes the need for pre-analysis planning and independent replication, an especially relevant consideration in social psychology's recent replication crisis.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Moran, Dominic (2012). "Borges and the Multiverse: Some Further Thoughts". Bulletin of Spanish Studies. 89 (6): 925–942. ISSN 1475-3820.
  2. ^ a b The Many World Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, N. Graham and B. DeWitt eds., Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1973. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-08-25. Retrieved 2013-08-25.
  3. ^ a b c Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Nick Montfort, eds. The New Media Reader. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
  4. ^ Bolter, Jay David; Joyce, Michael (1987). "Hypertext and Creative Writing". Hypertext '87 Papers. ACM. pp. 41–50.
  5. ^ Moulthrop, Stuart (1991). "Reading From the Map: Metonymy and Metaphor in the Fiction of 'Forking Paths'". In Delany, Paul; Landow, George P. Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press.
  6. ^ "Eastgate: Victory Garden".
  7. ^ Biographical Sketch of Hugh Everett, III, Eugene Shikhovtsev
  8. ^ The garden of forking paths: Why multiple comparisons can be a problem, even when there is no “fishing expedition” or “p-hacking” and the research hypothesis was posited ahead of time, Andrew Gelman and Eric Loken

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