Response to The Chrysalids

by David Schlachter
October 25, 2005

In my opinion, The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham, is a book that is laced with messages. To me though, the most visible is one that tells us development and change are essential to our success, and that we must accept our differences.

For instance, in the book, the people of Waknuk had a strict and stern religion that excluded anyone who was different in any way. Their religion was obsessed by perfection and based on a dark and incomprehensible fear of an unknown past, as we can see on page 79 where Uncle Axel is talking to David. Uncle Axel told David that nobody really knew what Tribulation was or what the Old People were really like. In their conversation, David echoed the viewpoint of his father, and others in his religion, which was basically that the point of their lives was to be how the old people were. When Uncle Axel asked David what made a man a man, he began to recite ‘the definition’ that he had been taught. Uncle Axel, though, cut him off and said, “A wax figure could have all that, and he’d still be a wax figure.” I, of course, agree with Uncle Axel. To me Waknuk’s religion makes no sense. They were, as the Zealand woman called them, a living fossil.

Even a tiny variation from their ‘definition’ of a human was enough to have a person essentially killed (sent to the Fringes to die). For example, Sophie’s extra toe endangered her future, and eventually resulted in her losing her life (see page 187). In my opinion, the beliefs of Waknuk were stifling to both logic and imagination. Imagine what would have happened if Uncle Axle had published a book about the lands to the South. He would probably be tried for heresy and exiled to the Fringes. And all this was done in the name of God as a pathetic excuse.

Clearly, humans have not survived and become the dominant creatures on earth because we were physically superior to other creatures. If being physically superior was all that was involved in the success of a species, Tyrannosaurs or elephants might dominate the world. Instead, it is our mind that has helped us survive and become the earth’s dominant species. Our ability to make and use tools, such as fire, has enabled us to become what we are. In a community like Waknuk where logic, imagination, and the mind in general are stifled, the human race is doomed to fail. As Uncle Axel wisely stated, “What makes man man is his mind; its not a thing, it’s a quality, and minds aren’t all the same.” The Zealand people, on the other hand, were open to change and developing their mind, and they were obviously more successful than the people of Waknuk. This is clear near the end of the book, where thousands of ‘norms’ were massacred by a disturbing use of superior technology. The ‘think-togethers’ had become deus ex machina (Latin for “god by machine”), and they explained their actions as another justified example of evolution in action, which is to some extent, true.

I think that the author is telling us a few things by these examples. Firstly, the novel is basically attacking any kind of religious or social intolerance of change or excluding anyone who is different. When the novel was written in the ’60s, Communism was in full swing in the USSR. The author might have been trying to tell us that if you try to stifle change or differences, you will fail. This is clear in the book, and also in the world. For instance, the USSR and its regime of conformity and extermination of dissenters failed, and so did the people of Waknuk. We can also see this in the world today. For example, the Taliban in the Middle East had very strict standards of conformity and were very opposed to change and being different. When the US and its allies started to occupy the region, they essentially destroyed the Taliban’s regime and encouraged change. In other regions, such as Quatar, regions have decided that change and development are best, and so they have begun to implement such changes. I think that the author is telling us that we need to develop our mind and embrace our differences.

I find that the title of the book is very fitting, as it has a lot to do with change. A chrysalis is the intermediate stage in butterflies and some moths that the insect passes through before it becomes an adult. The chrysalis does not move and it seems the same on the outside, but on the inside the insect is changing drastically until it emerges as a more advanced form of life. There was a lot of change in the book that the title can be related to, but I think one of the best examples could be that of the people of Waknuk. The people of Waknuk could be compared to a chrysalis, the stage between the old people who brought about Tribulation, and the new people who had moved on. You could also compare the chrysalis to David and his telepathic friends who could be an intermediate stage between the people of Waknuk and the people of Zealand. They grew up among the stagnant society of Waknuk, and progressed to the ever-advancing people of Zealand. Of course, the title has so many different possible interpretations that the author really left it up to the reader to decide what it means to them. I think that the symbolism in the title is very interesting and would make a person want to read the book.

Something that I was reminded of when I was reading the Chrysalids is when our family moved from Alberta to Mexico, where we lived for 3 1/2 years. Just like people in the Chrysalids had to adapt and change continually to survive, we had to adapt to living in Mexico. Not only did we have to learn the language and adapt to the culture, but we also had to adjust our living habits. For instance, in Mexico there isnt very much money floating around and, when there is, it gets stolen. If we were to spend money like we do living here, on luxuries such as computers, desserts, new clothes, etc, we would not have been able to survive in Mexico. Thankfully, we adapted and did well in Mexico, something that the people of Waknuk werent very good at. They couldnt change, and so they couldnt progress, which also reminds me of the dinosaurs. One of the reasons that the dinosaurs died off is that they had gotten so big, and so specialized, that they couldnt adapt, and so they failed to survive.

The author used a variety of tools to convey his message, but I think that one of the ones he used best was point of view. The book was written in first person, with David speaking. He gives a very personal, though limited, point of view to the novel. Since he is a child for the bulk of the book, he couldn’t really tell us much, since he didn’t know much about the world outside of Waknuk. Conveniently though, his Uncle Axel explains a lot to him, and therefore us, about the setting for the book. His limited point of view probably helps to convey the message more clearly though, and we receive a much less biased story than we would have if Joseph Strom or the Zealand lady had been telling the story. In fact, many of the characters in the book really just represent points of view, and they do not develop much, if at all. David is really the only one who develops in the story, as he begins as an ordinary Waknuk boy, well texted to “beware the mutant,” but he develops into a more tolerant person who sees the world in a way that accepts change.

Personally, I find that the story’s basic storyline is not very original. In its most basic sense it is this: A boy finds out the he has extraordinary powers. This seems to be a very popular storyline. Not only has it been used in The Chrysalids, but also in other stories such as Star Wars, or Harry Potter. In Harry Potter, Harry finds out that he is a wizard, in the Chrysalids David finds out that he is a telepath.

While I was reading the Chrysalids, I was reminded of the movie Toy Story 2, and how it was a little bit like the Chrysalids. In the movie, Pete the Prospector was obsessed about staying the same as he had always been. Change was his enemy. In fact, he was elated that he was being shipped off to a museum in Japan. On the other hand, Woody and his friends knew that change was inevitable, and so they decided that they did not want to go to the museum, and so they escaped and went back home. Pete, being as he was, did his best to stop them, but in the end he failed, just as the people of Waknuk failed to stop David and his friends.

It seems to me that another important theme in the book is friendship. In my opinion the most prominent friendship in the book was that of David and Sophie. When they were both little, David was a good friend to Sophie because he kept her mutation a secret and accepted her. To David, saying that Sophie wasn’t human because of an extra toe didn’t really make sense, and so he continued to be a good friend. The day that Sophie’s mutation was discovered David stood up for her and didn’t betray her when questioned. When David and the other telepaths went to the Fringes Sophie kept on being a very good friend to David. Not only did she help him get Rosalind back, but she also gave them shelter and food and hid them from the Fringes people. I think that one thing the book is telling us is that we should be loyal to our friends, just like David and Sophie were.

One thing that I found interesting is that there were quite a few main groups in the book that were held together by different forces. The people of Waknuk were held together by their religion, the people of the Fringes by their deformities, and the telepaths by their ability to communicate using thoughts.