(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A drifter and former inmate of a mental hospital who cannot even remember his own name meets a strange naked woman in a wood. After they make love, she directs him to a cave where he climbs a rock face and discovers a chain festooned with mirrors, prisms, and lenses. Obeying some barely understood whim, he wraps the chain around his body. Drifting on, he travels to the midwestern city of Bellona where an apocalypse of some kind has occurred. As he enters the city, the drifter encounters a group of women who are leaving it. They give him a weapon known as an orchid, an arrangement of blades worn on a strap around the wrist.

On his first night in Bellona, the drifter meets Tak, a former engineer, who takes to calling him “kid” (during the course of the novel, he will be variously known as Kidd, the kid, or the Kid; readers never learn his real name). Tak introduces the Kid to a community of hippies living rough in the park. One of them, a harmonica-playing and independent-minded woman named Lanya, will become his lover. Lanya hands the Kid a notebook, the first words of which are the first words of Dhalgren. Whoever kept the notebook previously wrote on only one side of each page, so the Kid decides to keep the book and write his own poems on the facing pages.

For a while, the Kid has a job helping a family called Richards move their apartment. In the midst of the chaos and confusion that characterize the vastly depopulated Bellona, Mrs. Richards is desperately trying to hold onto her safe, middle-class lifestyle, but the cracks are clearly showing. The family becomes the first appreciative audience for the Kid’s poems.

The Richardses’ daughter, June, was the victim of what was either a rape or a consensual but violent sexual encounter with a large black man, George Harrison, on the very night of the apocalypse (there is a suggestion that the two events may have been in some way linked). June is now obsessed with George, who has become a celebrity in the city, but she is...

(The entire section is 826 words.)

Dhalgren Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

As Dhalgren begins, the narrator wanders through Bellona, which has been cut off from the rest of the country, in scenes which may convey either his impaired judgment or the city’s hallucinatory nature: an extra moon, landmarks and street signs shifting without warning, and time’s change, slowing and speeding at irregular intervals. In Bellona, distance and direction change without warning and other phenomena demonstrate the chaotic nature of this world: fires break out at random, the dense fog almost never dissipates, and buildings twist and collapse.

Even in this world of randomness, the inhabitants attempt to normalize their existence: a psychiatrist keeps office hours, people hold dinner parties, and a daily newspaper is produced. However, the world has broken down to the point where the only medium of exchange is gossip, not just about each other, but the world in which they live.

The narrator of Dhalgren, a drifter named various permutations of the word “Kid,” wanders the city, witnessing the struggle of its inhabitants with the necessity of survival, the forces of boredom, and even each other. Over the course of the book, he is acclaimed as a poet, labeled a sexual magnet, and proclaimed the leader of a gang, but continues drifting, saved from the burden of expectation by his amnesia. Beyond the many modernist strategies employed by Delany, the book represents a radical shift from the conventions of science...

(The entire section is 442 words.)