Interpreting 'Suzanne Delage'

The many interpretations of a Wolfe story which remains a mystery.
fiction, criticism, Gene-Wolfe, bibliography
2009-02-232014-06-22 finished certainty: possible importance: 1

“Suzanne Delage” is a short story by the SF author , who is famous for his nov­els but is con­sid­ered by many crit­ics to be great­est in his short sto­ries. His nov­els are famous for their many mys­ter­ies, but his short sto­ries can be just as opaque. “Suzanne Delage” is a par­tic­u­larly good exam­ple because noth­ing about it seems espe­cially com­plex yet we are left com­pletely flum­moxed and uncer­tain if there is even a mys­tery to be solved at all.

The story

This is the story as it appears in the Endan­gered Species anthol­o­gy, which reprints it from Edges1; ital­ics are pre­served from the orig­i­nal:

As I was read­ing last night—read­ing a book, I should explain, which was oth­er­wise merely com­mon­place; one of those some­what polit­i­cal, some­what philo­soph­i­cal, some­what his­tor­i­cal books which can now be bought by the pound each mon­th—I was struck by a cer­tain remark of the author’s. It seemed to me at the time an inter­est­ing, if almost self­-ev­i­dent, idea; and after­ward, when I had turned the page, and many other pages, and was half through a new chap­ter bear­ing very lit­tle rela­tion to what had gone before, this idea found its way back into my con­scious­ness and there acted as a sort of fil­ter between my mind and the book until I put it down and, still think­ing, went up to bed. The idea which had so forcibly struck me was sim­ply this: that every man has had in the course of his life some extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ence, some dis­lo­ca­tion of all we expect from nature and prob­a­bil­i­ty, of such mag­ni­tude that he might in his own per­son serve as a liv­ing proof of Ham­let’s hack­neyed pre­cept2-but that he has, nearly always, been so con­di­tioned to con­sider him­self the most mun­dane of crea­tures, that, find­ing no rela­tion­ship to the remain­der of his life in this extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ence, he has for­got­ten it.3

It seemed to me (con­sid­er­ing the immense extent of the uni­verse of the senses and the minute size of that area of it we think of as “every­day”) that this must cer­tainly be cor­rect. Yet if it were true of every man it ought also to be true of me-and try as I might I could remem­ber no such extra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stance.

When I had switched off the light I lay recall­ing, very pleas­antly on the whole, my life. It has been a pleas­ant life, though I fear a dull, and per­haps a lone­ly, one. I live now not five miles from the hos­pi­tal in which I was born, and have lived nowhere else. Here I grew up, learned a pro­fes­sion, prac­ticed, and, much sooner than most men, retired. I have twice been mar­ried, but both mar­riages were brief, and both ended in friendly sep­a­ra­tions; the truth is that my wives (both of them) bored me-and I am very much afraid I bored them as well.

As I lay in bed, then, think­ing of times when my grand­fa­ther had taken me fish­ing and of skat­ing par­ties with friends, and about our high school team (on which I was a sub­sti­tute quar­ter­back, but one so much infe­rior to the first­string occu­pant of that posi­tion that I almost never got into a game unless we were sev­eral touch­downs ahead, which was not often), it at last occurred to me that there has, in fact, been one thread of the strange—I might almost say the incred­i­ble, though not the super­nat­u­ral—in my own his­to­ry. It is sim­ply this: liv­ing all my life, as I have, in a town of less than a hun­dred thou­sand pop­u­la­tion, I have been dimly aware of the exis­tence of a cer­tain woman with­out ever meet­ing her or gain­ing any sure idea of her appear­ance. But even this is not, per­haps, as extra­or­di­nary as it may sound. I have never made an effort to meet this wom­an, and I doubt that she has ever attempted to meet me, if, indeed, she is aware that I exist. On the other hand we are nei­ther of us invalids, nor are we blind. This wom­an—her name is Suzanne (though I fear most of us here have always pro­nounced it “Susan”) Delage—lives, or at least so I have always vaguely sup­posed, on the east­ern edge of our lit­tle city; I live on the west­ern. I doubt that we, as chil­dren, attended the same ele­men­tary school, but I know that we were, for four years, at the same high school. I was able to ascer­tain this as a mat­ter of cer­tainty through my year­books, which my moth­er, with that more or less for­mal­ized sen­ti­men­tal­ity char­ac­ter­is­tic of her, saved for me in the attic of this tall, silent frame house (it­self saved for me as well). Actu­al­ly, of the four vol­umes which must orig­i­nally have exist­ed, only two remain—those for my sopho­more and senior years. There are a num­ber of pages miss­ing from the class pic­ture sec­tion of the ear­lier book, and I seem to recall that these were lorn out and cut up to obtain the indi­vid­ual pho­tographs many decades ago. My own face is among those miss­ing, as well as Suzanne Delage’s; but in another sec­tion, one devoted to social activ­i­ties, a girl’s club (it was called, I think, the Pie Club) is shown, and one of the names given in the cap­tion is Suzan­ne’s. Unfor­tu­nately the girls in the pic­ture are so loosely grouped—around a stove and work table—that it is not pos­si­ble to be cer­tain in every case which name should be attached to which young lady; besides, a num­ber of them have their backs to the cam­era. The senior book should have told me more—at least so I thought when I, at last, came across it at the end of an hour or so of rum­mag­ing. It is whole and undam­aged, and I, thanks largely to foot­ball, have no less than four pic­tures in var­i­ous parts of it. Suzanne Delage has none. On one of the clos­ing pages a woe­be­gone roll of names reminds me of some­thing I had for­got­ten for many years—that there was an epi­demic of some kind (I think Span­ish influen­za) just at the time the pic­tures for the annual were to be tak­en. Suzanne is listed as one of those “unable to be pho­tographed.” I should explain that ours was one of those over­grown schools found in the vicin­ity of small towns, a school repeat­edly expanded because the growth of the town itself had been slow (though always faster, so it seemed in ret­ro­spect, than any­one had antic­i­pat­ed) and the tax­pay­ers had not wanted to autho­rize a new one. It was large enough, in short, that only a few lead­ing stu­dents—the star ath­letes, the class offi­cers, the few really promis­cu­ous girls and the daz­zlingly beau­ti­ful ones whom we, in those naive times, called “queens”—were known to every­one.

The rest of us, if we moved socially at all, went by classes and cliques. A stu­dent might know the oth­ers in his Eng­lish and alge­bra rooms; the cliques—at least the ones I remem­ber—were the foot­ball play­ers and their girls, the chil­dren of the rich, the boys and girls whose fam­i­lies attended a cer­tain fun­da­men­tal­ist church on the out­skirts of town; and cer­tain racial minori­ties, the chess and debat­ing soci­ety types, and the toughs. It sounds, I sup­pose, as though there were a group for every­one, and at the time (since I was fairly well entrenched among the ath­letes) I believe I thought myself (if I thought about the mat­ter at all) that there was. I now real­ize that all these lit­tle coter­ies embraced no more than a third of the school, but whether Suzanne Delage had entry to one or more of them I do not know.

I should, how­ev­er, have made her acquain­tance long before I entered high school, since Mrs. Delage, Suzan­ne’s moth­er, was one of my own moth­er’s close friends. They had met, I think at about the time I was eight, through a shared pas­sion (much more wide­spread in our area, I think, than in the coun­try as a whole, and more ardently pur­sued in the past than it is now) for col­lect­ing antique fab­rics; in other words, for embroi­dered table­cloths, for quilts, cro­chet­ing of all kinds, afghans, crewel work, hand-hooked rugs, and the like. If my mother or her friends could dis­cover a sam­pler, or a bed­spread or “com­fort­able” made in the ear­lier part of the nine­teenth cen­tury (it was their endur­ing hope, I think never well sat­is­fied, to find a piece from what they called “Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion times”—by which they meant the eigh­teen­th, even such dates as 1790 or 1799), a piece well made and dec­o­rat­ed—the more the bet­ter—in the unschooled, tra­di­tional ways of the old farm fam­i­lies, then their joy and their pride knew no bounds. If, in addi­tion, the work was that of some notable wom­an—or to be more pre­cise, of some woman rela­tion of some notable man; the sis­ter, say, of a lieu­tenant gov­er­nor—and could be authen­ti­cat­ed, the home of the finder became a sort of shrine to which vis­i­tors were brought, and to which soli­tary pil­grims from other towns came (ring­ing our bel­l—­for we pos­sessed, as a result of Moth­er’s efforts, a vast appliqued quilt which had been the civil-wartime employ­ment of the wife of a major in a fen­ci­ble Zouave reg­i­men­t—usu­ally at about ten-thirty in the morn­ing and offer­ing, in intro­duc­tion, a com­pli­cated recita­tion of friend­ships and cous­in­cies link­ing them­selves to our own fam­i­ly) bear­ing homage like cook­ies on a plate and eager to hear, for the bet­ter direc­tion of their own future strate­gies, a cir­cum­stan­tial descrip­tion of the inquiries and over­heard clues, the offers made and rejected and made again, which had led to the acqui­si­tion of that pre­cious object which would, as ter­mi­na­tor of the inter­view, at last be brought forth in a glory of moth crys­tals, and spread sparkling clean (for of course these col­lected pieces were never used) over the liv­ing room sofa to be admired.

Mrs. Delage, who became my moth­er’s friend, pos­sessed pieces of her own as valu­able as the major’s wife’s quilt (which was, as my mother never tired of point­ing out, entirely hand­sewn) and a col­lec­tion, too, of lesser trea­sures rank­ing, as my mother her­self admit­ted, with our own hoard. Together they scoured the coun­try­side for more, and made trips (trips so exhaust­ing that I was, as a boy, always sur­prised to see how very will­ing, in a few weeks, my mother was to go again) to view the riches of neigh­bor­ing coun­ties—and even, once or twice, by rail, of neigh­bor­ing states. It would there­fore have been entirely log­i­cal for Mrs. Delage to have been our fre­quent guest, at least for tea; and for her to have brought, occa­sion­al­ly, her lit­tle daugh­ter Suzan­ne, whom I would no doubt have soon come to both love and hate.

This would doubt­less have occurred but for a cir­cum­stance of a kind pecu­liar, I think, to towns exactly the size of ours, and incom­pre­hen­si­ble not only to the res­i­dents of cities, but to truly rural peo­ple as well. There lived, directly across the brick­-paved street from us, a bit­ter old wom­an, a wid­ow, who for some rea­son never explained to me detested Mrs. Delage. It was law­ful for my mother to be friendly with Suzan­ne’s, but if (women in small towns some­how know these things) she had gone so far as to invite Mrs. Delage to our house this widow would at once have become her enemy for life. The invi­ta­tion was never given, and I believe my moth­er’s friend died while I was at col­lege.

Thus while I was still small I was hardly aware of Suzanne Delage, though my mother often men­tioned hers; in high school, as I indi­cat­ed, though I was in much closer prox­im­ity to the girl her­self this was hardly altered. I heard of her vague­ly, in con­nec­tion per­haps with some friend of a friend. I must surely have seen her in the cor­ri­dors hun­dreds of times—if one can be said to see, in a crowd, peo­ple one does not know. I must some­times have shared class­rooms with her, and cer­tainly we were together at assem­bly and in the vast study hall. She would have attended many of the same dances I did, and it is even pos­si­ble that I danced with her—but I do not really believe that, and if, indeed, it hap­pened the years have so effec­tively sponged the event from my mind that no slight­est trace remains.

And in fact I think I would never have recalled the name of Suzanne Delage at all, as I lay in bed last night lis­ten­ing to the creak­ing of this empty house in the autumn wind and search­ing the recesses of my mem­ory for some extra­or­di­nary inci­dent with which to attest the author’s the­sis, if it had not been for some­thing that took place a few days ago. I had been shop­ping, and hap­pened to meet, on the side­walk in front of one of the larger stores, a woman of my own age whom I have known all my life and who is now the wife of a friend. We stood chat­ting for a momen­t—she, after the usual half teas­ing reproaches about my (sup­posed) gay bach­e­lor life, gos­sip­ing about her hus­band and chil­dren. As she turned to leave a girl of fifteen or so came out of the store and, smil­ing but intent upon her own con­cerns, walked quickly past us and down the street. Her hair was of a lus­trous black, and her com­plex­ion as pure as milk; but it was not these that for a moment enchanted me, nor the vir­ginal breasts half afraid to press the soft angora of her sweater, nor the lit­tle waist I might have cir­cled with my two hands. Rather it was an air, at once insou­ciant and shy, of vivac­ity cou­pled with an inno­cence and intel­li­gence that were hers alone. To the woman beside me I said: “What a charm­ing child. Who is she?”

“Her name?” My friend’s wife frowned and snapped her fin­gers. “I can’t think of it. But of course you know whose she is, don’t you? She’s the very image of her mother at that age—­Suzanne Delage.”


At first, this very short story seems pretty poor. It’s not hard to find dis­mis­sive rat­ings of it. It’s bor­ing. It ends with a cheap gim­mick of ‘like moth­er, like daugh­ter’. It’s not really wor­thy of a mas­ter writer like Wolfe. It cer­tainly isn’t wor­thy of being printed in two differ­ent antholo­gies.

By now you real­ize that it’s a trap.

But what is the trap? What’s the Wolfean sto­ry-in­sid­e-the-s­to­ry? Ah, now that one’s hard to answer. But first some basics.

Yes, it’s a trap

First­ly, read­ing through it, what makes us sus­pi­cious? After all, not every Wolfe story is a mul­ti­-lay­ered con­fec­tion.4

Well, the nar­ra­tor promises very early on to tell us about some­thing astound­ing: “…some extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ence, some dis­lo­ca­tion of all we expect from nature and prob­a­bil­i­ty…” But prima facie, there is no such pay­off! As one user writes:

I really would like an expla­na­tion for this sto­ry. The best I’ve been able to do is: if Suzan­ne’s daugh­ter had really been as strik­ingly beau­ti­ful as the sto­ry’s nex­t-to-last para­graph describes, then the nar­ra­tor would cer­tainly have noticed Suzanne. Ergo, the daugh­ter is really not so remark­able, and the flow­ery prose of the descrip­tion reflects the sen­ti­men­tal­ity of a lonely mid­dle-aged man. But if that’s all there is to it, it’s not much of a sto­ry. And the way Wolfe writes it, it feels to me that there should be some greater pay­off.5

Sec­ond­ly, the body of the story belies the intro­duc­tion; Marc:

…the nar­ra­tor opens by say­ing I have no idea what Suzanne looks like or who she hung out with, then pro­ceeds to describe her daugh­ter in detail on the last page obses­sive­ly, with some­one say­ing she looks exactly like her mother and even describes exactly which clubs she par­took in from his year­book, where her pic­tures are cut out. But this seems like sup­pres­sion and erad­i­ca­tion rather than delib­er­ate con­scious lying.

Wolfe’s non-mul­ti­lay­ered sto­ries tend to be bet­ter than that. So we are made sus­pi­cious. For­tu­nate­ly, we don’t need to appeal to just inter­nal evi­dence. We have a pretty reli­able attes­ta­tion that there is some­thing below the sur­face— (Brod­er­ick 1998) went to the orig­i­nal col­lec­tion in which “Suzanne Delage” was pub­lished, and he found a damn­ing sum­ma­ry:

I turned for clues to Ms Kid­d’s intro­duc­tion to the sto­ry. It proved imme­di­ately unre­li­able in a small way, not per­haps a star­tling dis­cov­ery in a paper­back orig­i­nal which had printed the clos­ing sen­tences of my own story not on its last page but at the head of the ital­i­cized intro­duc­tion to the next, Carol Emsh­willer’s “Omens”. We are mis­in­formed that Mr Wolfe had been ‘work­ing exten­sively on his tetral­ogy (The Rock of the New Sun)’. Nev­er­the­less, it is worth attend­ing to Ms Kid­d’s insid­erly com­ment:

‘His short story here­un­der is a den of iniq­ui­ties; no one else could have writ­ten it.’6

Marc Aramini high­lights the intro­duc­tory quote:

We can accept this as true in which case the nar­ra­tor does­n’t remem­ber or can’t make the con­nec­tion, which would tell us why pic­tures of Suzanne would be cut out for scrap book­ing and the creepi­ness of pos­si­bly encoun­ter­ing his own daugh­ter, or even of spread­ing small pox through the sheets when he and Suzanne got it on them, but the point is the extra­or­di­nary event can’t be remem­bered by the nar­ra­tor, which is exactly why the name of Suzanne Delage and Span­ish Influenza and small pox quilts, all asso­ci­ated with for­got­ten or shame­ful mem­o­ries, are present in the text.

So we’ll just dis­agree on our read­ings, but the text says the nar­ra­tor can’t be trusted to relate the extra­or­di­nary event and puts his mem­ory in ques­tion with those ref­er­ences. Mil­lions of peo­ple died of Span­ish Influen­za, and he isn’t cer­tain about what dis­ease hit his town. His mem­ory is faulty. He claims he has no idea what Suzanne looks like, then claims the daugh­ter looks just like her7. This is not Wolfe being lazy with detail­s….What sways it to the super­nat­ural inter­pre­ta­tion for me is just the strange­ness of her attrac­tion, the dec­i­ma­tion of the town, and the premise that an explic­itly “super­nat­ural” event that embod­ies “there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your phi­los­o­phy” would be com­pletely for­got­ten if it occurred … which would be more like Proust’s involuntary/suppressed juve­nile mem­o­ries than the sec­tion with Suzan­ne’s name in it.

So I still think the ref­er­ence could go either way. The very idea of com­pletely for­get­ting some­thing men­tioned in the text just screams of eli­sion (and yes, I under­stand the cir­cum­stance of the quote, but it does say that in the text, like Chekhov’s gun, super­nat­ural events will be for­got­ten).

Proust connection

Michael Andre-Driussi iden­ti­fied the name “Suzanne Delage” as being taken directly from ; the Wolfe Wiki cov­ers this—a girl the young Proust was sup­posed to meet but did not. Driussi recounts:

It sounded famil­iar only because I’d already read Wolfe’s sto­ry. Suzanne Delage is a minor char­ac­ter who is men­tioned in , the third book in Proust’s . The con­text is the funny part: the con­text of my read­ing a book at ran­dom (but it is known that Gene Wolfe really likes Proust) and see­ing an unsus­pected link to a Wolfe sto­ry; the con­text of Suzanne Delage within Proust’s mon­u­men­tal work, wherein she is only a name, only men­tioned in one part! She has far less impact than a num­ber of unnamed back­ground char­ac­ters.

Any­way, I realised that Wolfe had named his char­ac­ter after Proust’s and men­tioned my dis­cov­ery to oth­ers when we were dis­cussing the sto­ry. Well, it took on a life of its own. It started on ; it came up on the Urth List, years lat­er; Damien Brod­er­ick wrote an essay about it for The New York Review of Sci­ence Fic­tion (where, if I recall, he gave me credit for my dis­cov­ery—yay!); Robert Borski wrote an essay about it in The Long and the Short of It; and now there’s even an entry on it in the WolfeWiki which does­n’t men­tion me (un­der­stand­able), nor Brod­er­ick, nor Borski (both of whom really should be men­tioned).8

Gerry Quinn:

In Proust’s nar­ra­tive, how­ev­er, nei­ther the girl nor the fact of him not meet­ing her seem to be of any par­tic­u­lar sig­nifi­cance.


The name ‘Suzanne Delage’ seems to be com­pletely explained as a Proust ref­er­ence, but the sur­name Delage has an inter­est­ing con­nec­tion:

You all know, of course, that (1854-1920) was the French zool­o­gist who (as the EB tells us) `de­vel­oped a method for cul­tur­ing sea urchins fol­low­ing arti­fi­cial fer­til­iza­tion of the eggs with chem­i­cal­s’. This might be irrel­e­vant in the work of any­one with less inter­est in cloning and redu­pli­ca­tion than Mr Wolfe.9

Coin­ci­dence? Or a 10?

The theories

There are quite a few the­o­ries as to what’s going on; the evi­dence is ambigu­ous, and a lot depends on how much weight one gives to things like the daugh­ter’s com­plex­ion and the extended inter­lude about tex­tiles. The fol­low­ing are drawn from my search of the Urth mail­ing list dis­cus­sions, and may be incom­plete.


In this the­o­ry, the incred­i­ble thing is that vam­pires are real and that the nar­ra­tor has been fed on by them. This the­ory works pretty well:

  • the daugh­ter is Suzanne her­self; clas­sic female vam­pires don’t age and can appear flaw­lessly beau­ti­ful. That she appears ‘vir­ginal’ only height­ens the decep­tion.
  • the empha­sis on the white­ness of her skin is explained
  • the rea­son she would not be pho­tographed is explained: clas­sic vam­pires either can’t be pho­tographed or pho­to­graph in all their undead hor­ror
  • the ‘exhaust­ing’ nature of the trips to the coun­try is due to blood loss when his mother is fed upon11
  • Vam­pires are very com­mon char­ac­ters in Wolfe’s fic­tion12—they’ve appeared in mul­ti­ple sto­ries and nov­el­s—and so are pos­si­ble.

What are the objec­tions?

  • the color of her skin is like ‘milk’, not cadav­er­ous or just pale. The descrip­tion does­n’t seem very vam­pir­ic.13
  • if Suzanne made the nar­ra­tor for­get with vam­piric pow­ers, then why does the friend know exactly who the daugh­ter & Suzanne are, and expect the nar­ra­tor to?
  • the pho­tographs don’t quite work out­—we aren’t told that the pic­ture of the Pie Club, which claims to show Suzan­ne, shows 1 too few girls, nor does Suzanne being unpho­tograph­able jibe with the fact that there appar­ently were pic­tures of her in the nar­ra­tor’s early year­book (they were sim­ply torn out pre­vi­ous­ly).


In this ver­sion, we’re being lied to (like we are in so many Wolfe work­s). The nar­ra­tor did not lead a charmed life, and did meet Suzanne. She was beau­ti­ful, as we know from the end­ing, and the two often met. He fell in love with her and she with him, but some­thing went wrong. The rela­tion­ship ended in acri­mo­ny. He was so embit­tered by this that he expunged all traces of Suzanne from his life, and only allowed him­self to remem­ber it decades later when he runs into her daugh­ter. (Pre­sum­ably she grew up and even­tu­ally mar­ried some­one else.)

This explains the lack of pho­tos in the nar­ra­tor’s pos­ses­sion, the dat­ing, why the friend expects him to rec­og­nize the girl, and even the detailed descrip­tion of the girl14.

But this the­ory is unsat­is­fy­ing in some respects:

  1. There’s noth­ing par­tic­u­larly astound­ing about this time­line
  2. It does­n’t explain the quilt inter­lude
  3. It does­n’t explain the pecu­liar Pie Club pho­to­graph
  4. It does­n’t explain the ‘unable to be pho­tographed’ list­ing
  5. The Span­ish Influenza anom­aly goes unex­plained

Affair & pregnancy

This vari­ant attempts to fix prob­lems 3 & 4 by expand­ing the hid­den story a bit more. In this ver­sion, the nar­ra­tor had a rela­tion­ship with Suzan­ne, the two teenagers fooled around too much, and she got preg­nant15. This improves on the above as now we have a solid expla­na­tion for the odd Pie Club pho­to: the girls are loosely grouped around some­thing so Suzan­ne’s bulging belly could be hid­den. She was­n’t pho­tographed for a sim­i­lar rea­son—in the 1910s, when the story is set, teenage preg­nancy would be extremely shame­ful.

But this raises an issue. The nar­ra­tor says he has learned and prac­ticed a pro­fes­sion, been mar­ried twice, and retired. Fur­ther, the high­school pho­tos miss­ing from his year­books were removed ‘many decades ago’. The daugh­ter at the end is surely in her teen­s—the nar­ra­tor guesses 15, and could­n’t be too badly wrong (a 25 year old looks quite differ­ent from a 15 year old, and a 15 year old looks even more differ­ent from a 5 year old). So how could the daugh­ter at the end be the baby Suzanne was preg­nant with many decades ago? The daugh­ter should be in her 30s or 40s, and surely at least her 20s.

They have an affair in high school, and a kid. The daugh­ter then grows up, and is 20 or so; this puts the nar­ra­tor at ~35 (), and the daugh­ter has a daugh­ter; the grand­daugh­ter needs 15 years or so to become the attrac­tive teenager at the end, which puts the nar­ra­tor at ~50 (). This might work with the early retire­ment, since the tra­di­tional retire­ment age was ~60-7016.

But if the daugh­ter at the end isn’t Suzanne & the nar­ra­tor’s daugh­ter, then who is she? This the­ory solves the issue of the pho­tos, but it intro­duces sev­eral new enti­ties—whomever Suzanne mar­ries and her off­spring by him, or if the sight­ing is of Suzanne and the nar­ra­tor’s grand­daugh­ter, whom their daugh­ter mar­ried.

(Note that this the­ory still suffers from prob­lems #1, 2, and 5.)

Spanish influenza

On reflec­tion, one strik­ing part of the story is

On one of the clos­ing pages a woe­be­gone roll of names reminds me of some­thing I had for­got­ten for many years-that there was an epi­demic of some kind (I think Span­ish influen­za) just at the time the pic­tures for the annual were to be tak­en. Suzanne is listed as one of those ‘unable to be pho­tographed.’

The first time through, one prob­a­bly focuses on the unable to be pho­tographed. Sus­pi­cious! But actu­al­ly, what should alarm us is the influen­za. He for­got it for many years? It was an epi­demic of some kind? The was a pan­demic that killed half its vic­tims and resulted in up to 100 mil­lion deaths. Yes, 100 mil­lion. To for­get about such a thing would be like for­get­ting about World War II, or the Black Plague, or the Civil War. It’s not even plau­si­ble with­out very strange going ons17. Gerry Quinn sug­gests that per­haps it was a parental coverup or actu­ally a ref­er­ence to a later & milder flu epi­demic18, and Jerry Fried­man that the Span­ish Influenza is com­monly described as “the for­got­ten epi­demic” with mul­ti­ple waves, some not very lethal at all.

The men­tion of Span­ish Influenza also serves to date the high­school years of Suzanne and the nar­ra­tor to within World War I; the recre­ations described are con­sis­tent with that period19.

Ives Delage, inci­den­tal­ly, died in 1920—not long after the Span­ish Influenza pan­demic of 1918.


The expe­di­tions of Suzan­ne’s mother and the nar­ra­tor’s mother turn up a blan­ket—­such tex­tiles being the pro­fessed point. The blan­ket goes to Suzan­ne’s mother per­haps. But amaz­ing­ly, it is one of the infa­mous blan­kets used by small­pox vic­tims and given to the Indi­ans. Or per­haps it was just an infected blan­ket. Regard­less, the mir­a­cle the nar­ra­tor alludes to is how the bac­te­ria have man­aged to sur­vive 2 cen­turies or more to infect some­one.

Small­pox famously scars vic­tims; Suzan­ne’s beauty would be utterly marred. Per­haps she would be made hideous. Regard­less, the nar­ra­tor would feel guilty about his fam­i­ly’s respon­si­bil­ity in mak­ing such a poi­so­nous gift.

The scar­ring also explains the lack of pho­tos, and the old pho­tos pre-s­car­ring are destroyed out of guilt and shame. That small­pox could return and the nar­ra­tor for­get about it for many decades might strike us as unlike­ly, but the Span­ish Influenza men­tions remind us that the nar­ra­tor has already done exactly that20—for­got­ten a hideous dis­ease that killed untold mil­lions.

This the­ory works out pretty well. One might quib­ble about small­pox sur­vival being all that amaz­ing, and point out that the enmity of the old lady is still unex­plained, and we still need to assume that at a very late date Suzanne mar­ried and had a child, but this the­ory seems as solid as the vam­pirism one.


Dan’l Danehy Oakes writes:

the small­pox bit won’t wash, not in a quilt from Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion times. While the idea of lep­rosy com­ing through infected items might have occurred to some colonists (via the Bib­li­cal pre­cepts there­on), it’s unlikely that any­one would have tried to pass small­pox on through germ war­fare in those pre-van-Leeuwen­hoek days.

William and Mike reply, respec­tive­ly, that it is per­fectly plau­si­ble:

But, I was moti­vated to find where I had read that this had hap­pened and, for­tu­nate­ly, it was­n’t hard. It is on p. 251 of Plagues and Peo­ples21:

‘The rav­ages of small­pox among Indi­ans may in fact have been assisted by delib­er­ate efforts at germ war­fare. In 1763, for instance, Lord Jeffery Amherst ordered that blan­kets infected with small­pox be dis­trib­uted among enemy tribes, and the order was acted on. Whether the result was as expected seems not record­ed.’

Actu­ally the small­pox is pos­si­ble. I’ve read sev­eral accounts of Euro­pean colonists and/or sol­diers giv­ing clothes/bedclothes from small­pox vic­tims to Native Amer­i­cans specifi­cally in the hope that they would catch the dis­ease.

Lesbian MILF

The two moth­ers were hav­ing a les­bian affair. The old bit­ter neigh­bor is a dis­carded lover of Suzan­ne’s moth­er; the beau­ti­ful young thing (pre­sum­ably Suzan­ne’s mother would be as beau­ti­ful as her grand­daugh­ter) jilts her for the nar­ra­tor’s moth­er. Their trips to the coun­try­side are exhaust­ing, as they are the occa­sion of marathon les­bian sex, and the mother becomes eager to go as her libido builds up again.22 Even­tu­ally the nar­ra­tor’s mother is her­self jilt­ed, and in revenge she removes the pho­tographs of Suzanne from the year­book—she too painfully resem­bles her moth­er. The nar­ra­tor for­gets because it’s all too sex­u­ally con­vo­luted for his ten­der Edwar­dian teenage sen­si­bil­i­ties.

This sala­cious the­ory does­n’t explain many impor­tant points, though (non-pho­tographs, astound­ing event, the daugh­ter, etc.)


The WolfeWiki arti­cle cov­ers the allu­sion to a sto­ry. In some way, the Span­ish Influen­za, the daugh­ter, and Suzanne come togeth­er, but Adam Stephanides is none too clear about how exactly this expla­na­tion works; he’s not alone in say­ing it feels ghost­ly, though.

There can only be one

Suzanne does­n’t exist; there’s just her moth­er, reju­ve­nat­ing her­self. We meet her at the end, pos­ing as her own daugh­ter. The nar­ra­tor never met her as a child because he only saw Suzan­ne’s moth­er, and she could­n’t appear twice in the same place. This would work with the vam­pire the­ory as well23, or could per­haps be a cloning story akin to . How the nar­ra­tor would know it is the same woman (and hence appre­ci­ate her unique­ness) is unclear.

Send in the clones

David Stock­hoff24 argues for cloning being the skele­ton key to the sto­ry:

2. [Ives Delage’s] Arti­fi­cial fer­til­iza­tion of urchins: There are no coin­ci­dences, or rather none that go unex­ploit­ed, in Wolfe. 3. The Snow White cor­re­spon­dence: We know Wolfe works this way, as com­mented in the entry.

With­out hav­ing thought much about the sto­ry, I pro­pose that the story is basi­cally a Prous­t­ian mem­ory anec­dote draped on a Snow White frame, with cloning as a mech­a­nism to con­nect the two. The rest is noise.

Snow White

Robert Borski argues in 2 emails in 1998 (1, 2), and in his 2006 The Long and the Short of It (which rel­e­vant sec­tion is the same as the first email with some more quotes), that the eso­teric story of “Suzanne Delage” is actu­ally “”, just as many other Wolfe works are par­o­dies, homages, inver­sions, or retellings of other clas­sic works. His points:

  • the daugh­ter’s appear­ance is almost exactly that of Dis­ney’s Snow White
  • ‘Suzanne’ ety­mo­log­i­cally goes back to ‘lily’ (as in white)25
  • the nam­ing of the girls ‘queens’
  • the old neigh­bor women is the wicked witch
  • the muti­la­tion of the year­books is the destruc­tion of the magic mir­ror
  • the pie club is meant to bring up apples, like the poi­soned apple in SW
  • Span­ish Influenza has some­times been called ‘sleep­ing sick­ness’

And the inver­sion is that the nar­ra­tor was not manly enough, too inter­ested in sex, not noble & princely enough to be Suzan­ne’s prince, which is why he never again saw her.

Missed chances

Some posters avoided explain­ing the anom­alies, say­ing there’s noth­ing there except Prous­t­ian melan­choly, stop look­ing for clones or vam­pires already!26

If you need hor­ror, the waste of a man’s life be hor­ror enough. Gerry Quinn ably describes this inter­pre­ta­tion27:

This man’s life is empty and blight­ed. Why? Because by some per­verse oper­a­tion of chance, he has never met his other half, the woman he is made to love….

At the end after “the usual half teas­ing reproaches about my (sup­posed) gay bach­e­lor life” he sees and is enchanted by Suzan­ne’s daugh­ter, who is (we are told) the image of Suzanne at the age when he should have met her. There is no auc­to­r­ial duplic­ity here. She is indeed the daugh­ter, not Suzan­ne, and she is indeed the image of Suzanne. The descrip­tion is delib­er­ately sen­su­ous in regard to her body “the vir­ginal breasts half afraid to press the soft angora of her sweater, nor the lit­tle waist I might have cir­cled with my two hands”, and also refers to her spirit “vivac­ity cou­pled with an inno­cence and intel­li­gence that were hers alone”. There is no doubt here—this is the image of the woman he would have loved. If only he had met her.

By some per­verse con­spir­acy of chance or fate he did not, and his life has been wast­ed.

This inter­pre­ta­tion may not seem to sat­isfy some of the more notable prob­lems, but it has been argued that the ‘con­spir­acy of chance or fate’ (pos­si­bly super­nat­ural28) is extra­or­di­nary enough to ful­fill the nar­ra­tor’s promise of a remark­able point to his story29.

Shaggy dog story

Peter Wright’s Attend­ing Daedalus argues that it is a prank on the read­er—how long can Gene write an ‘uncanny tale’ before the reader real­izes that there’s noth­ing actu­ally uncanny there?

For exam­ple, in ‘Suzanne Delage’—which has pro­voked sig­nifi­cant dis­cus­sion on the Inter­net—­Wolfe leads the reader to believe that the text is an uncanny tale by imi­tat­ing the ini­tial nar­ra­tive stages of such sto­ries. If the reader is acquainted with super­nat­ural fic­tion, he or she recalls its con­ven­tions and may begin to accept Wolfe’s text as an exam­ple of the genre when, in fact, the story actu­ally sub­verts rather than repro­duces the form. Riffaterre remarks that, ‘In a response ren­dered com­pul­sive, and facil­i­tated by the famil­iar mod­el, as soon as the reader notices a pos­si­ble sub­sti­tutabil­i­ty, he or she auto­mat­i­cally yields to the temp­ta­tion to actu­alise it.’ In the case of ‘Suzanne Delage’, the ‘famil­iar model’ is the weird tale. The reader accepts the story as such because he or she sees a ‘pos­si­ble sub­sti­tutabil­ity’ and sub­se­quently actu­alises that sub­sti­tu­tion only to dis­cover his or her expec­ta­tions under­cut.30

Gerry Quinn offers the sug­ges­tion that the dull inci­dent is sim­ply the best that the nar­ra­tor can do in try­ing to come up with inter­est­ing inci­dents:

That’s [‘that every man has had in the course of his life some extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ence’] what the nar­ra­tor thinks is the premise. He tries to find a mem­ory of an extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ence in his life, and can­not. Then he realises that there is one—his hav­ing lived in a small town with a girl whose name he often heard, but whom he never met….In fact, what hap­pens in the story is not so very far from this: cer­tainly there is a dis­lo­ca­tion of prob­a­bil­i­ty, and the nar­ra­tor had for­got­ten it until he thought about it. And at the end he still does not, per­haps, recog­nise the impli­ca­tions and how impor­tant it has been for him: that might also be con­sid­ered a kind of for­get­ting.

Just because it is in a fan­tasy col­lec­tion does­n’t mean there have to be ghosts or vam­pires…The title is explained well enough by it being the name of a girl the nar­ra­tor should have met but never did, just like the girl in Proust. And I don’t think the story sucks at all—in fact, I like it a lot. The best fan­tasy is often that which is clos­est to real­i­ty.

Dan’l Dane­hy-Oakes has a sim­i­lar view:

A cou­ple of the short pieces, OTOH, just leave me going, “Huh?” I sus­pect that in a cou­ple of cas­es, what’s going on is just what’s going on. I remem­ber all the spec­u­la­tion here about “Suzanne Delage”; on reread­ing that story a month or two ago, I came away firmly con­vinced that it was just about what it says it’s about, the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing an event that the nar­ra­tor sim­ply can­not remem­ber because it fails to fit into the con­text of his life. Because he can’t remem­ber it, he can’t really tell us any­thing about it, and so we can­not know what it is. End of sto­ry. (If any­one wants to say that this makes the story point­less I won’t argue; I find it enter­tain­ing on its own terms.)

Further Reading

  • Report­edly, Wolfe’s short story “Pro­cre­ation” has a sim­i­lar amne­sia theme.

  1. ed. and , 1980; there’s a more com­plete pub­li­ca­tion his­tory at Author Wars↩︎

  2. Surely the famous quote from the 5th scene of the 1st act—“There are more things in heaven and earth, Hor­a­tio, Than are dreamt of in your phi­los­o­phy.”↩︎

  3. Dan’l sources this to , Chap­ter V:

    A thing can some­times be too extra­or­di­nary to be remem­bered. If it is clean out of the course of things, and has appar­ently no causes and no con­se­quences, sub­se­quent events do not recall it, and it remains only a sub­con­scious thing, to be stirred by some acci­dent long after.

  4. For exam­ple in Endan­gered Species, “The Detec­tive of Dreams” is straight­for­ward once you real­ize the dreams are Gospel sto­ries.↩︎



  7. Gerry Quinn points out that the nar­ra­tor does­n’t claim that; rather, his friend with him tells him that the ‘charm­ing child’ looks like Suzanne Delage.↩︎

  8. ‘“Tell me about the Lex­i­con Urthus”: an inter­view with Michael Andre-Driussi’↩︎








  16. Con­sider the usual retire­ment ages for pro­grams like Social Secu­ri­ty.↩︎


  18. Gerry Quinn:

    …Not so weird even if it was the 1918 epi­dem­ic. Par­ents prob­a­bly tried to pro­tect their chil­dren from learn­ing too much about it. But it could have been a lat­er, milder flu epi­dem­ic. Maybe peo­ple over­re­acted to flu for a bit.



  21. William H. Mac­Neill, Plagues and Peo­ples, 1976, Anchor Press/Doubleday, Gar­den City, New York. ISBN: 0-385-11256-4↩︎




  25. Mes­sages hid­den in char­ac­ter names and ono­mas­tics are another clas­sic Wolfe tech­nique.↩︎





  30. pg 46 of Attend­ing Daedalus↩︎