The Chrysalids


The Chrysalids – John Wyndham

There are a few us in Liquorature who have a soft spot for post-apocalyptic fiction.  There is something about the genre that allows the imagination to run rampant with the ‘Stephen King question’…what if?  It begs the reader to ask themselves ‘what would I do if…?’  I like that.  I like too that it is a grittier sort of subject matter. 
Though The Chrysalids doesn’t quite come across as gritty, it does present a somewhat callous view of existence in the aftermath of the unexplained catastrophic event.  It is a neat little tale.  It touches on morality, acceptance and coming of age.  It asks you to question fundamentalism and conformity.  This is accomplished in simple prose without the author ever resorting to preaching.
The story itself is soft sci-fi.  It tells of an agrarian society recovering after some sort of ‘Tribulation’ and searching for favor in God’s eyes again.  The implication regarding what Wyndham refers to as ‘Tribulation’ seems to be post-nuclear war, but it is never made explicit.  Waknuk, the community in the novel, works within the bounds of a flawed fundamentalism in that anything deemed to be outside the norm, or true image, is a deviation and banished to the ‘Fringes’ or destroyed.  The problem lies herein.  There is no way of knowing what the true image actually was before the ‘Tribulation’. 
The Chrysalids is a coming of age tale.  It presents us with the lives of a handful of the children of Waknuk, and their attempts at hiding their unique deviation from the tight-knit community.  It is a relatively simple parable, that allows for a little in-depth thinking as well.
The only criticism comes with the conclusion of the book.  Wyndham has been accused of using the ‘deus ex machina’ ending.  That will be up to you to decide.
 Posted by at 10:32 am

  3 Responses to “The Chrysalids”

  1. I prefer the original title “Re-Birth” which seemed to me to sum up the curiously ignored conclusion (Ignored by most of the School boards in my area who made this required reading for Grade 10 English, more on that later) at the end of the book better than the later title did.

    You mentioned the criticism of the ‘Deux ex machina’ ending, but my feelings are that the arrival of the Sealanders was pretty much foreshadowed throughout the book and was the only logical outcome. Had they appeared with no warning then the endind would be fatally flawed.

    What was fatally flawed, and what was for me the major disappointment in the novel is the hypocrisy of the conclusion. This is a moralistic and almost preachy tale with strong themes of bigotry, discrimination and conformity. The novel vividly shows the unintended cruelty of a narrow minded simplistic society. Yet when the ‘superior’ Sealanders arrive with their advanced technology, it is only those persons who share their particular deviation who are helped and welcomed into their society. They seemed to me to have a callous disregard for the rest of mankind. The lesson seems to be that if you are truly superior, then you are allowed to be arrogant and callous towards the rest of the ordinary folk. The inevitable domination of the world by the new superior race of human being is taken as a foregone and rightful conclusion at the end of the novel.

    I found the acceptance of this concept amongst literary critics to be very curious especially considering this book was written in 1955 only a decade removed from Nazi Germany, and I find the unwillingness of critics to discuss this aspect of the novel almost unfathomable.

    I guess in our mind’s eye simple agrarian folk are expected to hold prejudices and we see them clearly as this is a reflection of our past which is behind us, but when the more technically sophisticated folk hold similar concepts as truism we do not seem to recognize it because this is our future and we do not accept that we really haven’t changed.

  2. With reference to your penultimate paragraph: it was also the time of the red menace, fears of communism and HUAC (in the US). Criticism of “we in the West need to be strong and apart so as to survive” were never seen for the hypocrisies they were.

    The points you make are good ones, and many came up in a very heated discussion of the book, which has been a sort of sleeper favourite of ours. Thanks for weighing in.

  3. Well put, Chip.

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