An Interpretation of Dhalgren

Ron Niquette

I ran across your web page while searching for references to Samuel R. Delany and Dhalgren. I read this book when I was about 23 (1974), so I can appreciate your comment about reading it when young. As it turns out, 23 was young enough for me <g>.

I don't think I've ever seen a review or other reference to Dhalgren anywhere. In fact, I've been wondering about the plot(s) on and off for the last 20 years. I equate Dhalgren with Moby Dick: there's something going on here, something important, but the meaning escapes me.

Earlier tonight I posted a BBN message about Dhalgren on the Sci-Fi Channel's Dominion/Authors discussion group. I've always had a theory about the plot and wanted to air it to see what would happen (I was careful to use a lot of apologies and disclaimers in the lead-in <g>).


My guess about the plot of Dhalgren may be wrong, but it involves the ending of the book and thus constitutes a *****SPOILER*****. If you want to try to hang tough and read the entire book without knowing the ending, DON'T READ ON!!!!!!!

Here are some recollections that lead into my guess about the plot(s):

  1. The first sentence in the book is actually a sentence fragment, ``to wound the autumnal city''. The last sentence in the book is also a fragment: ``I come down out of the hills to''. The plot appears to be recursive, albeit with apparently two different characters coming to ``wound the autumnal city'': The Kid (main character) and an oriental woman who is somehow associated with the Kid (she's the one coming into the city at the end).

  2. The Kid's hands are described as being scarred and/or bandaged. There are occasional references to a fire in an insane asylum, in which one of the patients beats down a door with his bare hands so the other patients can escape.

THE THEORY: the Kid and at least some of his acquaintences are the patients who escaped the fire. The Kid's hands are scarred because he was the one who beat the door down. The Kid and his fellow patients have filtered into the city and are living there as the plot ensues.


  1. We see the city through the Kid's eyes. Reality is distorted; time doesn't seem to be linear; bizarre celestial displays appear in the night skies (the moon approaches and recedes, and the phases don't occur in sequence; other planets and objects come and go, seemingly in random fashion); the daytime sky is dark and brooding (brown as I remember). I couldn't tell if the other characters were seeing the same things, but some of them seemed to.

  2. Near the end of the novel, the text is annotated in the margins. The annotations seem to be a parallel description of the same situation; but the annotations describe what seems to be a normal city. The sky is clear and blue. The buildings aren't run down. I think this is a suggestion that what the Kid sees isn't the reality that we see. This supports the idea that the Kid is somehow mentally ill.

  3. The other close acquaintences of the Kid all seem to have behavioural problems of some sort. Could they be the Kid's fellow patients? One of them confesses to ``shy kidneys'' in the presence of men, but not women (I think this was ``Tak''). Denny, part of a threesome with the Kid and ``Lanya'', is heterosexual but impotent, unless he's in a threesome with another male. The Kid alludes to numerous problems of his own, but his view of reality seems to be the major problem. There is one other possible problem (see below).

  4. The oriental women who ``comes down out of the hills'' at the end of the novel is mentioned frequently, but never seen. Of all the Kid's acquaintences, she seems to be missing until the very end of the novel. I believe that she and the Kid are different aspects or personalities of the same person. Thus, in addition to the distorted views of reality, the Kid and/or the oriental woman may suffer from multiple personality disorder. Hence both personalities enter the city, but may perceive it and the events in their lives in a totally different way (those margin annotations describing a different city?).

I know this is a stretch, and may be horribly wrong, but it's the best guess I have to date. In addition, there's a lot more going on in this novel than what I've described (obviously), so I may have missed the point entirely. What the hell, it's been 20 years since I read it. Anyone else have any ideas on this novel?

Back to the Delany Page.
Ron Niquette. Last modified at: Tue Oct 21 15:59:58 EDT 1997