The Story’s Epigraphs
The two epigraphs that precede ‘‘The Aleph’’ serve as introductions to the story’s plot as well as short commentaries on its issues. The ﬁrst, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is said by the title character to his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: ‘‘O God! I could be bound in a nutshell, and count myself a king of inﬁnite space.’’ Hamlet’s meaning here is (as he later says), ‘‘There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.’’ By this logic, Hamlet argues that ‘‘Denmark’s a prison.’’ Here, however, Borges imagines Hamlet’s lament literally: how might a man in a nutshell call himself ‘‘a King of inﬁnite space?’’ Borges’s story responds to (if not answers) this question through the idea of the Aleph, for its existence in the story forces the reader to consider the proposition that there are an inﬁnite number of points in space and, therefore, that even a nutshell would contain an inﬁnite number of points. This is perhaps why the Aleph in Daneri’s basement is only an inch in diameter.
The second epigraph comes from Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan and suggests the impossibility of understanding what ‘‘an Inﬁnite greatness of Place’’ would be like. This impossibility, of course, is what the story attempts to address; the difﬁculty inherent in understanding inﬁnity is discussed by Borges before he begins his description of what he saw in the Aleph.
While ‘‘The Aleph’’ revolves around a fantastic element and plot, the setting is decidedly mundane: the streets and sights of Buenos Aires are depicted in unadorned language without romance, nostalgia, or wonder. Even more odd is that the Aleph is in a house like any other. Part of Borges’s reason for placing the Aleph in Daneri’s cellar has to do with the comic effect of the story: Daneri is a pompous fool (the likes of which Borges himself had undoubtedly met many times in literary circles), and the contrast of his lack of imagination with an object that lies beyond the bounds of imagination frustrates the narrator, who feels himself superior to Daneri (and thus bitter when reporting Daneri’s literary accolades at the end of the story). Similarly, placing the Aleph in Daneri’s cellar allows Borges to comically juxtapose the mind-blowing with the mundane, just as Daneri’s explanations for why his verse is so good is thought (by Borges) to be superior to the verse itself.
A second reason for placing the Aleph in an ordinary cellar is that doing so grounds the story in reality. By ﬁrst offering the conventions of a love story (‘‘On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died.’’), Borges lulls the reader into thinking that the story will be a relatively routine one about common human emotions and experience. However, when Daneri ﬁrst mentions the Aleph, the reader is jarred and must reconcile the seemingly ‘‘normal’’ plot (lamenting a lost love) and setting (a cellar) with Borges’s wild and unpredictable element. Thus, the setting works as a kind of literary sleight-of-hand, allowing Borges to distract the reader before revealing the Aleph and thus making the impact of the Aleph on the reader much greater that it may have been had the Aleph been described at the beginning.
David Galens – Short Stories for Students_ Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories (Volume 17)-Gale (2003)