24 pages 48 minutes read

Jorge Luis Borges

The Aleph

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1945

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Aleph”

“The Aleph” is the feature story in Jorge Luis Borges’s collection The Aleph and Other Stories, which was originally published in Spanish in 1945 and revised in 1974. The collection and story are both dedicated to Borges’s fellow writer and friend Estela Canto. Borges was an Argentinian writer whose considerable influence slowly expanded to international readers in the 1950s and 1960s as translations of his work caught up with his output. Like much of his fiction, “The Aleph” is an example of the writer’s self-proclaimed “fantastic genre” and explores themes of Perception and Reality, Literature and Representation, and Space and Time.

This guide refers to the Penguin Classics edition of the story translated by Andrew Hurley and released in 1998. The story begins with epigraphs from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space”) and Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (“But they will teach us that Eternity is the Standing still of the Present Time, a Nunc-stans (as the Schools call it); which neither they, nor any else understand, no more than they would a Hic-stans for an Infinite greatness of place”) (118).

The story is narrated in first person by a fictionalized version of the author, implementing a literary device called autofiction. It starts with the death of Beatriz Viterbo, the narrator’s friend and love interest, who faced her mortal illness with dignity. Stricken by fear that time and nature will simply move on from her, Borges determines to consecrate himself to her. He visits her family on her birthday to pay his respects, a practice he intends to repeat annually. Gradually, he becomes a confidant of Beatriz’s first cousin Carlos Argentino Daneri, a man he describes as being full of “pointless analogies and idle scruples” (120).

Encouraged by the narrator’s offering of brandy, Argentino announces on one visit that he has been laboring on an epic poem titled The Earth, through which he “proposed to versify the planet” (122). He reads several pretentious passages aloud, followed by humorously self-aggrandizing analyses of each line and comparisons between himself and classical poets, making it clear, the narrator says, that his “work had lain not in the poetry but in the invention of reasons for accounting the poetry admirable” (122).

Argentino later invites Borges for a drink at a bar owned by his landlords, a setting seemingly as hollow as Argentino’s verse, described by the narrator as “relentlessly modern […] only slightly less horrendous than I had expected” (124). Argentino announces his intent to publish the first cantos of his poem. Fearing the purpose of their meeting might be to request an introduction for the volume, Borges is relieved when his confidant instead asks him to reach out to another writer friend to provide one. The narrator halfheartedly agrees; it is clear he has no intention of following through.

Months later, Borges receives a call from Argentino who says that his landlords, under the pretext of extending the bar, are going to tear down his house. He confides to the narrator the reason for his fear: in his cellar is the source of his poetic inspiration, a mysterious item called the Aleph, described as “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist” (127). Argentino has no intention of giving it up. Borges, malignantly delighted by the absurd claim, decides to pay a visit and see for himself.

At the Viterbo house, Borges is overcome with grief over a portrait of his beloved Beatriz, audibly addressing the image when Argentino walks into the room and offers a drink. The two men make their way to the cellar, where the narrator is instructed to lie down in the dark and behold the Aleph. Though he fears he has been poisoned and left for dead by Argentino, whom he is certain is ill-advised, Borges does as he is told. He then sees the very thing promised:

In that unbounded moment, I saw millions of delightful and horrible acts; none amazed me so much as the fact that all occupied the same point […] I saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk […] a spidery-web at the center of a black pyramid (130).

Most notably, the narrator briefly spies an “obscene” correspondence between Beatriz and her cousin that indicates a love affair between them.

Borges’s experience ends, and Argentino declares, “Serves you right, having your mind boggled, for sticking your nose in where you weren’t wanted” (131). As the narrator makes for the exit of the doomed house, he conceives his revenge—Borges pretends to have feigned his astonishment about the Aleph, acting as if it were a symptom of Argentino’s mental health condition. He patronizes Argentino, imploring him to retire to the country, saying, “peace and quiet, you know—was the very best medicine one could take” (131).

Yet Argentino has the last laugh, as revealed in a postscript to the tale: He goes on to win second place in the National Prize for Literature, while the narrator’s work does not receive a single vote. The story ends with Borges’s somewhat embittered dismissal of the Aleph as perhaps being merely a hoax and not the genuine article mentioned in historical texts. He muses that if he had seen the real Aleph through the fake one, he would have forgotten anyway, saying, “Our minds are permeable to forgetfulness; I myself am distorting and losing, through the tragic erosion of the years, the features of Beatriz” (133).