"The South" is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges about a man, Dahlmann, who is injured by bashing his head against a window, but makes an almost miraculous recovery after a long stint in hospital. He heads out to the countryside in the hope of convalescence, but is unwillingly embroiled in a knife fight with some locals. The implication at the end of the story is that he will not survive.

Although on the face of it there isn't much to this story, I get the feeling (not only because it's Borges, not even only because he's mentioned it as perhaps his best story) that it's absolutely soaked in symbolism and layers of meaning. But I lack the knowledge or intuition to puzzle out the deeper parts of the story, and am left fumbling in the dark. I got some extremely interesting answers to my previous question about the deeper meaning of another Borges story, so maybe I'll get lucky twice!

What is the deeper meaning or symbolism of "The South"?

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    'But I lack the intuition to puzzle out the deeper parts of the story', but you are Puzzling's top user! :) Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 12:12

2 Answers 2


While this does not answer the significance of the entire book, it focuses on a few key points.

The story is actually partially autobiographical.

In his early life, Borges worked in a library. In the year 1938, the same year his father died, he bumped his head on a window and nearly died of septicemia - blood poisoning. 'The south' was published in 1953, and the same thing happens to the protaganist.

The later description of the hospital relates to his own time in hospital. In this interview, Borges said that

"Then I spent a fortnight in a hospital. I had nightmares and sleeplessness – insomnia. After that they told me that I had been in danger, well, of dying, that it was really a wonderful thing that the operation had been successful."

And in the book it says about his time in the hospital:

‘His head was shaved, he was strapped with metal bands to a table, he was blinded and dizzied with bright lights, his heart and lungs were listened to, and a man in a surgical mask struck a needle in his arm.’

I have been looking for significance for the rest of the book, though as yet, haven't written anything up.

There have been several sites suggesting that the South represents 'Heaven' and the North 'Hell' - During his time in the hospital he suffers badly and is always wishing that he could return south to his home. Other sites also say he dreamed up a heroic death for himself, perhaps how he may have wanted to die, in the south, while in fact he dies on the operating table. This may be Borges thinking about what could have happened to himself had things gone different.



Note that has outlined by Beastly Gerbil, the protagonist is living through events based on Borges's on life: in his novel, the protagonist hits a recently painted door jamb, while in his autobiography, Borges hits a freshly painted open casement window. The reference to fresh paint seems to make no doubt of the biographical nature of the event.

The many political and literary references that populate the story always had me believe that this story was about the implication of writers in politics.

From a corner in the room, an old over-wrought gaucho (in whom Dahlmann saw a cipher of the Sur—that is, of his version of the Sur) threw him a naked dagger, which came to rest at his feet. It was as if the Sur had decided that Dahlmann should accept the duel.

Writers, Borges seems to make the case, do not get to choose when they fight or when they don't fight political power, but much the opposite.

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    Great perspective. This would seem to be supported by The End, which also features Martin Fierro, the source poem itself a political and social allegory.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 18:31

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