Death and the Compass Themes -

Death and the Compass

by Jorge Luis Borges

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800

The Desire for Symmetry

Symmetry—and the pursuit of symmetry—is central to the plot of “Death and the Compass.” It is symmetry which drives Red Scharlach, the villain and ultimate orchestrator of Lönnrot’s demise, to kill Lönnrot as he does. Some time ago, Lönnrot killed Scharlach’s brother and injured Scharlach, sending him into a delirious labyrinth of pain. Now Schlarch seeks to create a symmetry of suffering by entrapping Lönnrot in a convoluted plot and ultimately killing him.

It is Lönnrot’s love for symmetry, and his capacity to find patterns, that leads Lönnrot to fall into Scharlach’s trap. As he studies the pattern of the crimes so far committed, Lönnrot observes that they reflect a tripartite symmetry across time and space. He recognizes, because of this drive to seek symmetry, that the fourth crime must take place at the villa of Triste-le-Roy. Lönnrot himself is the final victim, and his death completes the quadriform symmetry of Scharlach’s plot.

Although Lönnrot fails to predict his death, he does detect something sinister in the plot’s symmetry, even while he does not understand it. When he enters the house at the end of the story, he notes that it abounds with “superfluous symmetries and maniacal repetitions,” with each statue being mirrored by another. It is the symmetry of the house, Lönnrot feels, which causes him to feel that it is enormous and maze-like; its symmetry makes him struggle to find his way, even though the symmetry of the crimes plotted by Scharlach have served as a “compass” for him. In one circumstance, symmetry guides; ultimately, however, symmetry entraps.

Deception and Two-Facedness

In “Death and the Compass,” all is not as it seems. Indeed, the story heavily relies upon the deceptive nature of the trap Scharlach has set for Lönnrot. Although Lönnrot feels that the solution to his problem is so “crystalline” that he is embarrassed not to have understood it earlier, even this transparency is proven to be an illusion. Throughout the story, there are clues which hint at the deceptive nature of the scheme Lönnrot is working to uncover.

One of these clues is the repeated use of masks and other forms of disguise. When Gryphius-Ginzberg is met at the Liverpool House by two harlequins, their driver is wearing a bear mask. The two harlequins themselves are fully disguised in masks and festive costumes. They are presenting themselves as fools, an act which serves to divert attention from the reality of what is happening. When investigating the scene at the Liverpool House, Treviranus says, “And what if all this business tonight were just a mock rehearsal?” Treviranus is correct in intuiting the mockery and deception at hand, albeit in ways he does not understand.

Later in the story, it is revealed that the masked Gryphius-Ginzberg is in fact Scharlach concealed by two layers of disguise. Driven by fury and his desire to avenge his brother, he has allied himself with “odious, double-faced Janus.” To exact his revenge, Scharlach creates a world of false patterns and appearances and places Lönnrot at the center of it. Lönnrot succeeds in tracing the plot’s patterns and finding the solution to the maze which has been set for him. But he fails to recognize until he reaches its center that he is not solving a puzzle, but falling into a trap.

Jewish Mysticism and Numerology

This story is permeated with an air of mystery and the unknown, a quality that is developed through the use of Jewish mysticism and numerology. The patterned plot at the heart of the story points to the secret hundredth name of God, as...

(This entire section contains 800 words.)

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well as to the number three, which holds significance in Jewish scholarship.

Jewish thought is presented as something secret and other. Lönnrot, whose name denotes a Scandinavian heritage, seems to understand Judaism less as the lived experience of a group of people than as a system of esoteric thinking. Lönnrot takes to studying the rabbinical texts he finds at the site of the first murder because he believes they represent the key to unlocking this mystery. Scharlach leverages this very attitude of Jewish mysticism as something mysterious and different. He assumes the guise of a murderer seeking to uncover the name of God, for he knows Lönnrot will view the sequence of murders as a puzzle to be solved.

In Lönnrot’s encounter with Scharlach at Triste-le-Roy, he stills thinks that Scharlach is driven by mystical aims. He asks, “Scharlach, are you looking for the Secret Name?” Only when Schlarch reveals his comparatively earthly plot does Lönnrot understand that the intimations of mysticism have been mere props in a revenge tale.