The Circular Ruins by Jorge Borges: Summary & Analysis

The Circular Ruins by Jorge Borges: Summary & Analysis
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  • 0:00 Background: Borges &…
  • 1:10 Plot Summary
  • 2:51 Story Analysis
  • 3:19 Reality & Idealism
  • 3:48 Creation & Cycles
  • 4:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Diedra Taylor

Diedra has taught college English and worked as a university writing center consultant. She has a master's degree in English.

This lesson takes you into the fantasy writing of Argentine author and translator Jorge Luis Borges. You will discover the philosophy of idealism, and see new ways of perceiving reality.

Background on Borges and 'The Circular Ruins'

Jorge Luis Borges was a fiction writer, poet, and essayist from Argentina. He wrote and read in both English and Spanish and was familiar with French and German as well. He is best known for his fantastical short stories, which he began really concentrating on after a head injury and subsequent blood poisoning. It was almost like the brush with death freed him to write what he really wanted.

Borges was not well-known during his lifetime, nor was his writing. Although his parents were educated and they were a middle-class family, he did not have many qualifications for a job. Throughout much of his life, he earned his living by writing, editing, translating, and lecturing.

'The Circular Ruins' is a fantasy short story that delves into the material of reality. Though some critics have called the work horrifying, it fits with the philosophical background of many of Borges's works. In this story, as in others, he implements the philosophy of idealism. The simplest way to define philosophical idealism is that the perception of reality depends upon the mind rather than external objects. That is, the mind shapes reality.

Plot Summary

Have you ever tried to describe a dream to someone, only to find that what seemed perfectly logical while sleeping was indescribable by the light of day? That's kind of what it's like to try to summarize 'The Circular Ruins.' The story is a dream within a dream.

At its most basic level, we see a man. He is variously described as 'the taciturn man,' 'the grey man,' 'the stranger,' 'the wizard,' 'the dreamer,' and just 'the man.' We never learn his name. The man crawls from his boat to the ruins of a circular temple that had been burned. At the top of the temple is a statue that cannot quite be made out - it's either a tiger or a horse.

He proceeds to fall asleep and dream. Throughout the story, he remains living at the temple and dreaming frequently. In his dreams, he is creating a man. After failing to do so, he pleads with the icon at the top of the temple, and he is answered in a dream. In the dream, the god in this statue tells him that it is called Fire. It would help the man to bring his creation to life, and only Fire and the man would know that this man was not real. Painstakingly, after years of effort, he finally succeeds at creating a man from his dreams and bringing him into reality.

He releases the created man into the world (after destroying his memories of being trained), and the first man hears rumors that his 'son' can walk through flames. He understands that this is because Fire knows the man is not real. Although the man fears his son may discover the truth, he feels that his purpose is fulfilled. When a fire comes to his temple, he embraces death. Instead, he finds that he, too, can walk through flames unharmed and was created from dreams.

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