Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Difficulty of the Search for Meaning

The men who wander through the Library are looking for the book that will give them some meaning. They have questions, and most of them believe that someday they will pick up the book that will provide answers to those questions. This narrative exploration mirrors, in many ways, the search for meaning in the real world. One of the difficulties within the Library that the narrator explains is that many people end their own lives after years of searching for answers and not finding them. In the real world, the search for meaning is also difficult and occasionally overwhelming. Humans wants to feel as though their lives have a purpose and are in the uncomfortable position of having to learn what our purposes are. But unlike the Library, people have jobs and hobbies and friends that can provide small or large clues as to the purposes of their lives. Those in the Library have only the books and the hope that seems to diminish as time goes on. 

The narrator belongs to a group that feels as though the search is meaningful enough to dedicate a life to. Additionally, the text that makes up the story is a kind of homage to the fact of the Library, with all of its attributes and frustrations. The story itself provides the narrator with a certain amount of meaning. By explaining what the Library is and how it works to anyone else who may come along, the narrator provides support for others in the exhausting exercise that is the lifelong search for meaning in the Library.

The Dichotomy of Belief and Unbelief

The narrator believes that the Library, in its functionally infinite pages, is based in sense. He believes that there is an underlying order to the Library, even if that order is discernable only to the creator of the Library. The narrator also allows for the possibility of some “eternal traveler” that may someday be able to journey across the expanses of the Library and see the order, but he admits that he cannot perceive it. This confession gets to the core of belief. One believes even if one cannot see the whole of the order or pattern. It is enough that we have been told that it exists, or that we desire for it to exist. The work of belief is often looking for moments or pieces of information that support the idea of the larger order, and holding those up as evidence of the order.

Those who are not believers, the “infidels” that the narrator disdains, have been worn down by the sheer evidence against order. In their travels, the millions of pages of nonsensical type stand in contrast to the handful of words or phrases that they can read. Instead of seeing those lucid moments as evidence of an ungraspable order, they see them as what must inevitably happen if letters and spaces are endlessly recombined: mere coincidence. They are happy accidents, random blips of semi-comprehensible typography. As with the division between believers and unbelievers in the real world, the chasm between them is enormous.

Ineffability of the Infinite

One of the reasonable failures of imagination that humans have is that of imagining things in large numbers. Humans are animals, still young in their evolutionary lives. Yet humans have access to knowledge that provides more information than they can process and integrate. The Library of Babel is so large as to be incomprehensible. The narrator does his best to convey its enormity, but words are incapable of describing the size and scope of the library. It is literally, “[t]he universe (which others call the Library)...” as stated in the first sentence.  There is nothing beyond the Library, and no person can cross the breadth of it, or even begin to cross the distance, which is a narrative trick of Borges. 

The narrator can state that there are 25 orthographical symbols in Spanish. He can state that each hexagon has 20 bookshelves with 32 books of 410 pages apieces. These are sensible numbers that the reader can grasp. But it is when one considers the number of 410-page books that the random recombination of those symbols can fill, that perception falters. One count is that the number of books would be a 4680 digit number. This is an impossible number for humans to comprehend. However, the narrator clarifies that, while incredibly huge, the number is not infinite. This means that there are yet larger numbers than the “unlimited” number of books that he describes. The story is as much a lesson in logic and number theory as it is a work of imagination, illustrating that as sophisticated as humans believe themselves to be, there are limits to what they can conceptualize.