Enigmatic, misunderstood, and infinite; those three words are all encompassing when considering the life and works of Henry Quain. His writings were commonly viewed as confusing with no real storyline or definitive ending, and some of his works were described as being filled with “ careless plotting” (pg 109, Borges). It is rather interesting to learn that Quain was also the author of the short story “Circular Ruins”. This short story is omniscient of his past writings, and many themes that are present in his other works can be found in “Circular Ruins”. The format that it is presented in is unique; however this uniqueness is a result of the fact that “Circular Ruins” is really a portion taken from another story. This affects how the short story is understood and interpreted.
In the “Circular Ruins” the sorcerer discovers that the life that he is living is not a reality. This plot twist is very similar to the one that Quain employed in his two act comedy April March. Just like the main character in this play, the sorcerer is living in a world that can be described as just a figment of his vivid dreams and imagination. Events that occur in “Circular Ruins” are as “implausible and improbable” as some of the details mentioned in April March. And in both works, the main characters are the only ones who seem to be aware of their altered imagined states. This can be attributed to the fact that Quain believed that the highest form of pleasure that could be taken from reading literature was “the pleasure of the imagination” (pg 111, Borges). Quain also thought that “not everyone was capable of experiencing that pleasure” (pg 111, Borges). This is extremely significant to “Circular Ruins” as the imagination of the sorcerer is essential to him reaching his goal “to dream a man” (pg 97, Borges). It is stated that the sorcerer “perceived it, he lived it,” when imagining his phantasm (pg 98, Borges) Without this vivid imagination, the sorcerer certainly would not have been able to imagine every single aspect of his phantasm from the “countless hairs of the body” all the way down to its beating heart. In a way, it can be inferred that Quain is implying that without an imagination, one is incapable of living.
“Circular Ruins” is different from many of Quain’s writings for the sheer fact that it has a recognizable start and finish. Though the ideas of immortally and a life that “the gods and demiurges had chosen” as infinite are toyed with, the short story does come to an abrupt end in a literal and figurative manner once the protagonist realizes that “he, too, was but appearance, that another man was dreaming him” (pg 100, Borges). Another issue that I believe influences this “abrupt ending” is the fact that “Circular Ruins” is merely an “extract” from Quain’s story “The Rose from Yesterday”. This is compared to many of Quain’s other stories where there are “infinite stories, [and] infinite branches” for the plot to twist and maneuver through. Instead, the plot in “Circular Ruins” can be picked up quite easily. There are no alternate endings for one to imagine or accidently stumble upon. It can be assumed that “Circular Ruins” may either be a separate standing idea within “The Rose from Yesterday” or just a tale that is meant to feed into or enhance another story.
Another Quain theme used in the “Circular Ruins” is the use of retrospective events to shed light on hidden situations or ideas. Several of Quain’s stories function in a way that the events are not told in chronological order. Instead they are arranged in ways that best enhances “the strange book’s peculiar flavor” (pg 110, Borges). This manner of writing makes the reader reconsider what they have just read, causing them to look back over “pertinent chapters” and come to a correct conclusion (pg 108, Borges). This theme is not initially present in “Circular Ruins”, and there are no events that would alert the reader to stop and go back to previous events in the story. It is not until very end that it is blatantly stated that all the events that had taken place up until that point had already occurred before. The line, “For that which had occurred hundreds or years ago was being repeated now”, serves as a startling wake up call to not only the reader, but also the sorcerer who is about to walk into the burning sanctuary, finally awakened from his oblivious slumber (pg 100, Borges).