The aliens of "Useful Phrases" are an enigma. It's not clear who they are or what they want (or even how to identify them). Wolfe is examining the concept of alienation—in this case, cultural and personal alienation—by using actual aliens. What does he achieve by pursuing this strategy?

By using aliens in examining the concept of alienation, Wolfe encourages the reader to question their assumptions about exclusion and belonging. Those who speak the language in the phrase-book for “visitors to Earth” must be aliens. The narrator’s insatiable drive to learn the language, despite lacking anyone with whom to speak it, helps him identify with the aliens. The introvert’s obsession shows his alienation from his own society and his hopes that another, more welcoming community exists.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Gene Wolfe uses the idea of aliens as beings from another country or planet to explore the concept of alienation. Wolfe encourages the reader to question their assumptions about exclusion and belonging. He presents language as the key to identification and communication. Fascinated by the Tcove language, the unnamed narrator of “Useful Phrases” seeks to discover the location of the Tcove nation or society on terrestrial maps. His failure to find it as well as the “piteous visitors to Earth” referred to in the book’s title may imply that the language is spoken somewhere else than Earth.

The narrator is a bookish introvert who lives among books, not people. His interest turns into a possibly dangerous obsession. The more he delves into the foreign culture, the further distanced he becomes from his own society. Wolfe suggests that there are strong parallels between alienation from one’s customary social world and physical travel to another world. The narrator develops an increasingly strong affinity for the unidentified author(s) of the phrase book. His affinity for a different sphere is marked by the sentence he crafts and practices, notably his reference to the “crystal blossom of home.”

Wolfe’s decision to leave the ending ambiguous expands the story’s applicability to any situation in which an individual deeply feels their difference. The depth of the narrator’s concern for the aliens over his own species may make the reader wonder if the narrator has crossed from being alienated to becoming mentally detached from reality.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team