"Pierre Menard, Author of the 'Quixote'" Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges, 1951
Jorge Luis Borges, 1951. Flickr user Levan Ramishvili

Written by experimental author Jorge Luis Borges, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" does not follow the format of a traditional short story. While a standard 20th-century short story describes a conflict that builds steadily towards a crisis, climax, and resolution, Borges's story imitates (and often parodies) an academic or scholarly essay. The title character of "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is a poet and literary critic from France-and is also, unlike a more traditional title character, dead by the time the story begins.

The narrator of Borges's text is one of Menard's friends and admirers. In part, this narrator is moved to write his eulogy because misleading accounts of the newly-deceased Menard have begun to circulate: "Already Error is attempting to tarnish his bright Memory… Most decidedly, a brief rectification is imperative" (88).

Borges's narrator begins his "rectification" by listing all of "the visible lifework of Pierre Menard, in proper chronological order" (90). The twenty or so items on the narrator's list include translations, collections of sonnets, essays on intricate literary topics, and finally "a handwritten list of lines of poetry that owe their excellence to punctuation" (89-90). This overview of Menard's career is the preface to a discussion of Menard's single most innovative piece of writing.

Menard left behind an unfinished masterpiece which "consists of the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of Part I of Don Quixote and a fragment of Chapter XXII" (90).

With this project, Menard didn't aim to merely transcribe or copy Don Quixote, and he didn't attempt to produce a 20th-century updating of this 17th-century comic novel. Instead, Menard's "admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided-word for word and line for line with those of Miguel de Cervantes," the original author of the Quixote (91).

Menard achieved this re-creation of the Cervantes text without really re-creating Cervantes's life. Instead, he decided that the best route was "continuing to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard" (91).

Although the two versions of the Quixote chapters are absolutely identical, the narrator prefers the Menard text. Menard's version is less reliant on local color, more skeptical of historical truth, and on the whole "more subtle than Cervantes's" (93-94). But on a more general level, Menard's Don Quixote establishes and promotes revolutionary ideas about reading and writing. As the narrator notes in the final paragraph, "Menard has (perhaps unwittingly) enriched the slow and rudimentary art of reading by means of a new technique the technique of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution" (95). Following Menard's example, readers can interpret canonical texts in fascinating new ways by attributing them to authors who didn't actually write them.

Background and Contexts

Don Quixote and World Literature: Published in two installments in the early 17th century, Don Quixote is regarded by many readers and scholars as the first modern novel.

(For literary critic Harold Bloom, Cervantes’s importance to world literature is rivaled only by Shakespeare’s.) Naturally, Don Quixote would have intrigued an avant-garde Argentine author like Borges, partially because of its impact on Spanish and Latin American literature, and partially because of its playful approach to reading and writing. But there is another reason why Don Quixote is especially appropriate to “Pierre Menard”—because Don Quixote spawned unofficial imitations in its own time. The unauthorized sequel by Avellaneda is the most famous of these, and Pierre Menard himself can be understood as the latest in a line of Cervantes imitators.

Experimental Writing in the 20th Century: Many of the world-famous authors who came before Borges crafted poems and novels that are built largely of quotations, imitations, and allusions to earlier writings.

T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land—a long poem that uses a disorienting, fragmentary style and draws constantly on myths and legends—is one example of such reference-heavy writing. Another example is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which mixes bits of everyday speech with imitations of ancient epics, medieval poetry, and Gothic novels.

This idea of an “art of appropriation” also influenced painting, sculpture, and installation art. Experimental visual artists such as Marcel Duchamp created “ready-made” artworks by taking objects from everyday life—chairs, postcards, snow shovels, bicycle wheels—and putting them together in strange new combinations. Borges situates “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” in this growing tradition of quotation and appropriation. (In fact, the final sentence of the story refers to James Joyce by name.) But “Pierre Menard” also shows how an art of appropriation can be taken to a comical extreme and does so without exactly lighting earlier artists; after all, Eliot, Joyce, and Duchamp all created works that are meant to be humorous or absurd.

Key Topics

Menard’s Cultural Background: Despite his choice of Don Quixote, Menard is a mainly a product of French literature and French culture—and makes no secret of his cultural sympathies. He is identified in Borges’s story as a “Symbolist from Nîmes, a devotee essentially of Poe—who begat Baudelaire, who begat Mallarmé, who begat Valéry” (92). (Though born in America, Edgar Allan Poe had an enormous French following after his death.) In addition, the bibliography that starts off “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” includes “a study of the essential metrical rules of French prose, illustrated with examples taken from Saint-Simon” (89).

Oddly enough, this ingrained French background helps Menard to understand and re-create a work of Spanish literature. As Menard explains, he can easily imagine the universe “without the Quixote.” For him, “the Quixote is a contingent work; the Quixote is not necessary. I can premeditate committing it to writing, as it were—I can write it—without falling into a tautology” (92).

Borges’s Descriptions: There are many aspects of Pierre Menard’s life—his physical appearance, his mannerisms, and most of the details of his childhood and domestic life—that are omitted from “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. This is not an artistic flaw; in fact, Borges’s narrator is fully conscious of these omissions. Given the opportunity, the narrator consciously backs away from the task of describing Menard, and explains his reasons in the following footnote: “I did, I might say, have the secondary purpose of drawing a small sketch of the figure of Pierre Menard—but how dare I compete with the gilded pages I am told the Baroness de Bacourt is even now preparing, or with the delicate sharp crayon of Carolus Hourcade?” (90).

Borges’s Humor: “Pierre Menard” can be read as a send-up of literary pretensions—and as a piece of gentle self-satire on Borges’s part. As René de Costa writes in Humor in Borges, “Borges creates two outlandish types: the adulating critic who worships a single author, and the worshiped author as a plagiarist, before ultimately inserting himself into the story and rounding things out with a typical self-parody.” In addition to praising Pierre Menard for questionable accomplishments, Borges’s narrator spends much of the story criticizing “Mme. Henri Bachelier,” another literary type who admires Menard. The narrator’s willingness to go after someone who is, technically, on his side—and to go after her for rather obscure reasons—is another stroke of ironic humor.

As for Borges’s humorous self-criticism, de Costa notes that Borges and Menard have strangely similar writing habits. Borges himself was known among his friends for “his square-ruled notebooks, his black crossings-out, his peculiar typographical symbols, and his insect-like handwriting” (95, footnote). In the story, all of these things are attributed to the eccentric Pierre Menard. The list of Borges stories that poke gentle fun at aspects of Borges’s identity—“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, “Funes the Memorious”, “The Aleph”, “The Zahir”—is considerable, though Borges’s most extensive discussion of his own identity occurs in “The Other”.

A Few Discussion Questions

  1. How would “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” be different if it centered on a text other than Don Quixote? Does Don Quixote seem like the most appropriate choice for Menard’s strange project, and for Borges’s story? Should Borges have focused his satire on a totally different selection from world literature?
  2. Why did Borges use so many literary allusions in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”? How do you think Borges wants his readers to react to these allusions? With respect? Annoyance? Confusion?
  3. How would you characterize the narrator of Borges’s story? Do you feel that this narrator is simply a stand-in for Borges, or are Borges and the narrator very different in major ways?
  4. Are the ideas about writing and reading that appear in this story totally absurd? Or can you think of real-life reading and writing methods that recall Menard’s ideas?

Note on Citations

All in-text citations refer to Jorge Luis Borges, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", pages 88-95 in Jorge Luis Borges: Collected Fictions (Translated by Andrew Hurley. Penguin Books: 1998).