7.2 “El Sur” – Jorge Luis Borges

9 min readjanuary 30, 2023

Kashvi Panjolia

Kashvi Panjolia

AP Spanish Literature 💃🏽

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"El Sur" is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, first published in 1953. In this discussion, we delve into various aspects of the text, including its themes of nationalism, regionalism, and the concept of machismo. We also explore how the interplay of time and space creates a dreamy atmosphere, and analyze the ambiguity within the story.

🔍 Context Behind "El Sur"

👨 Author Background

Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentine writer, poet, and librarian. He is considered one of the most important writers of the 20th century and is best known for his imaginative, fantastical, and often philosophical short stories. Borges's contributions to the field of magical realism (realismo mágico) and his imaginative style have made him an important figure in Latin American literature and have earned him numerous accolades, including the international literary award for his lifetime achievements, the Cervantes Prize.

📜 Historical Context

"El Boom latinoamericano" was a literary movement characterized by the international recognition and success of Latin American writers, who produced groundbreaking and innovative works that captivated readers worldwide. These writers broke away from traditional literary conventions and introduced a fresh and unique voice to the literary world.
Jorge Luis Borges is a key figure associated with this movement, along with other authors like Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez. The works of the Boom writers often featured elements of magical realism, a narrative technique that blends magical or fantastical elements with everyday reality. This fusion of reality and fantasy allowed the authors to explore complex social, political, and historical issues in a unique and imaginative way. The settings of their novels were frequently Latin American countries, providing rich cultural and historical backdrops for their stories.

🧠 Need to Know About "El Sur"


Juan Dahlmann: Juan is the central character of the story. He is a librarian who considers himself profoundly Argentinian and is deeply connected to his ancestral ranch in the South. Juan is portrayed as a romantic and nostalgic individual—he lives a boring life in the city but has a desire to live out the romantic life his maternal grandfather lived. He undergoes a series of physical and emotional hardships, culminating in a fateful encounter that leads him to confront his destiny.
The Gaucho: A gaucho is a skilled horseman of the Argentine plains. In this story, the gaucho is an old man in the general store and inn where Juan stops during his journey. He is described as dark, dried up, diminutive, and situated outside of time, representing a symbol of the South. The gaucho plays a pivotal role in the story when he unexpectedly throws a knife at Juan, seemingly guiding him toward his destiny.
A statue of a gaucho. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Countrymen: These are the country louts at the general store and inn who provoke and mock Juan. They exhibit aggressive and disrespectful behavior towards him, culminating in a challenge to a knife fight. Their actions propel Juan into a situation where he must defend his family name, confront his fears, and embrace his fate.

🤔 Literary Devices and Techniques

"El Sur" by Jorge Luis Borges employs several literary devices and techniques, including:
  • Image/Imagen: Many vivid descriptions of the countryside are included in this story, such as "Vio casas de ladrillo sin revocar, esquinadas y largas, infinitamente mirando pasar los trenes; vio jinetes en los terrosos caminos; vio zanjas y lagunas y hacienda; vio largas nubes luminosas que parecían de mármol, y todas estas cosas eran casuales, como sueños de la llanura."
  • Omniscient Narrator/Narrador Omnisciente: The third-person omniscient point of view creates a sense of detachment between the narrator and the characters. This distance can lend a certain air of authority and reliability to the storytelling, as the narrator can provide an objective overview of the events without being influenced by personal biases.
  • Ambiguity/Ambigüedad: The dream-like nature of the narrative invites multiple interpretations and allows for different understandings of the events and their meanings, like how many people believe Juan dreamt going to the ranch. Even the significance of the gaucho's actions, the purpose of the knife being thrown to Juan, or the exact symbolism behind the ancestral ranch can all be subject to varying interpretations.
  • Foreshadowing/Prefiguración: The narrative repeatedly emphasizes Juan's longing for his ancestral ranch in the South. This foreshadows his eventual journey to the South and suggests that this journey will be significant in shaping his experiences and potentially his fate.
  • Plot/Trama: The plot revolves around Juan's journey, both physically and emotionally, as he grapples with his identity, experiences hardships, and confronts uncertain and potentially life-altering situations.
  • Splitting/Desdoblamiento: Juan has two heritages, his Germanic side and his Argentinian side, that contribute to his identity. This internal conflict between his two lineages results in a split in his sense of self and influences his choices and actions. Also, the process of convalescence and his journey to the ranch can be seen as a symbolic doubling or splitting of his identity, with the possibility of a new self emerging from his experiences.

📖 Summary of “El Sur"

Johannes Dahlmann, a minister in the Evangelical Church, arrived in Buenos Aires in 1871. In 1939, his grandchild, Juan Dahlmann, worked as a secretary in a municipal library and considered himself deeply Argentinian. He had a strong connection to his Argentinian roots, particularly through his maternal grandfather, Francisco Flores, who died in battle against indigenous Indians. Juan, influenced by his Germanic blood, embraced his romantic ancestry and the heroic death of his forefather.
Despite living in the city, Juan longed for his ancestral ranch in the South, which he had managed to save. The memories of the balsamic eucalyptus trees and the rose-colored house filled his mind. However, his duties and circumstances kept him from visiting the ranch. His longing for it intensified over the passing years.
One day, Juan acquires a copy of Weil's edition of One Thousand and One Nights. Excited to examine his find, he rushes up the stairs but is accidentally injured by a door frame. Although he manages to fall asleep that night, he wakes up with a heightened sense of pain and a bittersweet awareness of the world around him. Fever consumes him, and the illustrations in One Thousand and One Nights take on nightmarish qualities. 😧
Image courtesy of Public Books
As Juan's health deteriorates, doctors transfer him to a hospital for further treatment. Although hopeful for a change of scenery, Juan's experience there proves to be even more torturous. The pain, solitude, and anticipation of horrible nights consume him.
Eventually, the surgeon informs Juan that he is healing and will soon be able to go to his ranch for convalescence. The news brings him joy and a renewed sense of purpose. The promised day arrives, and Juan embarks on a train journey toward his ranch. As he travels, he rediscovers the familiar sights of Buenos Aires, relishing the beauty and familiarity of his surroundings.
The train carries him deeper into the South, where the landscape transitions into suburbs and then into vast plains. The changing scenery captivates him, and he savors the experience of being alive. The train ride is interrupted when the inspector informs him that he will be dropped off at an earlier station due to a misunderstanding. Undeterred, Juan accepts it as a small adventure. 🧳
Upon arriving at the desolate station, Juan realizes there is no immediate means of transportation to his destination. He decides to walk to a nearby general store and inn. Along the way, he breathes in the scent of clover and takes in the fading beauty of the day. The general store's worn appearance and the presence of horses evoke a sense of nostalgia in him.
Inside the store, Juan notices a group of country workers and an old gaucho sitting silently. As he enjoys his meal and wine, he becomes the target of provocation from the workers, who throw spitballs at him. Juan is about to leave the store to avoid conflict, but when the owner says his last name, Dahlmann, Juan considers the situation as a personal attack and an attack on his family name. He decides to engage in the conflict.
In a surprising turn of events, one of the workers challenges Juan to a knife fight. As tensions escalate, the old gaucho in the corner unexpectedly tosses a knife to Juan. Feeling an inexplicable connection to the South and a sense of destiny, Juan accepts the challenge. With the knife in his hand, he steps out onto the plain, ready to face whatever fate awaits him.

🔗 Themes in "El Sur"

➡️ Las sociedades en contacto

There are two main societies in this story: the North and the South. The North is where Dahlmann lives and works as a secretary of a municipal library, which is not the most exciting job. There is a city in the North where Dahlmann lives and is taken to a hospital in, described as practical, unemotional, and serious. The North represents Juan's Germanic heritage in this way. The South, however, is described as full of natural elements, romantic, and mysterious, like Juan's Argentine heritage.
Image courtesy of Rawpixel.

🇦🇷 El nacionalismo y el regionalismo

In terms of nationalism, Juan has a deep sense of pride for his Argentinian heritage, and appreciates Argentinian culture and history. His nationalism is voluntary, not forced, because even though he lives in the city, he actively nurtures his sense of nationalism through his appreciation for Argentinian literature and music. The ancestral ranch in the South is a symbol of Juan's Argentinian heritage in this text since Juan idolizes the ranch and is very attached to it.
The text vividly depicts the landscapes and atmosphere of Buenos Aires and the South. The descriptions of balsamic eucalyptus trees, the plains, and the countryside evoke a strong sense of regional identity and create a distinct regional atmosphere. Also, the gaucho embodies the essence of the South and acts as a guide for Juan as he navigates through his journey.

👨 El machismo

The concept of machismo means a strong or exaggerated sense of masculinity. The violent men at the general store engage in aggressive behavior and try to assert dominance through violence. Machismo, rooted in notions of toughness and physical prowess, is embodied in this confrontation. Juan's decision to accept the challenge to the knife fight can be seen as influenced by societal expectations of machismo. Despite the inherent danger and his lack of experience in such confrontations, Juan feels compelled to engage in the fight, potentially driven by notions of honor and the need to prove his masculinity.

⌛ La relación entre el tiempo y el espacio

The text utilizes the relation between time and space to create a dreamy atmosphere by blurring the boundaries between reality and imagination. The descriptions of landscapes, such as the balsamic eucalyptus trees, the vast plains, and the South, evoke a sense of timelessness and create a dreamy ambiance. These settings, with their ethereal quality, serve as backdrops that transcend specific moments in time. Magical realism is also employed in this story. For example, the gaucho's unexpected throwing of a knife to Juan can be seen as a magical or surreal event that blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy.

🌟 Significance of "El Sur"

Borges is widely regarded as one of the most important writers of the 20th century and is considered a seminal figure in Latin American literature. "El Sur" is considered one of his most iconic works and has had a lasting influence on the genre of magic realism. Borges's work is known for its exploration of philosophical and theoretical ideas, and "El Sur" is no exception. The story's themes of identity, reality, and perception continue to resonate with readers and have inspired numerous literary and cultural debates.
"El Sur" contains elements such as nationalism, regionalism, the concept of machismo, the dreamy atmosphere created through the interplay of time and space, ambiguity, foreshadowing, and the implementation of desdoblamiento in the protagonist's character.

✍️ Comparative Works

This text can be compared to "La siesta del martes" by Gabriel García Marquez and "No oyes ladrar los perros" by Juan Rulfo. All three of these works were created during El Boom latinoamericano, and both "El Sur" and "La siesta del martes" fall under the genre of magical realism. Also, both "El Sur" and La casa de Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca contain foreshadowing and the concept of machismo. This text can also be compared to "El hijo" by Horacio Quiroga since both works are centered around desdoblamiento and ambiguity.

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