Reflections: John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids Remains As Timely As Ever In Today’s World

In the future world of The Chrysalids (original U.S. title Re-Birth) all cities are believed to have been left in ruin from Tribulation, which God sent to punish the Old People for their sins. In Labrador, people are raised to follow strict rules. Everything must be in God’s image. 

Very little remains from the Old People but legends, the Bible, and another book called Repentances. Since God sent Tribulation down on the Old People for losing their way there are strict penalties for those who tolerate abominations, which are anything that does not conform to the image of God according to Repentances

“The Definition of Man recited itself in my head: ‘… and each leg shall be jointed twice and have one foot, and each foot five toes, and each toe shall end with a flat nail…’ And so on, until finally: ‘And any creature that shall seem to be human, but is not formed thus is not human. It is neither man nor woman. It is a blasphemy against the true Image of God, and hateful in the sight of God.’”

These people don’t know they’re living in a post-nuclear war world, where radiation had caused mutations. To them, anything that does not conform to the expected image per their teachings is the result of sin.

David Strorm

In The Chrysalids David lives in Labrador, in the part of the world that is known to remain habitable. To the south is the Wild Country; next comes the Fringes, and then, eventually, the Badlands. 

The story starts with David’s childhood. As a young boy he would slip away and play and explore on his own to avoid chores. It was during one of these outings that he met Sophie, a girl he did not recognize from school (which lasted only a few hours a day) or church. They became friends and played together until her foot became stuck in the sand and she couldn’t get it free. Wedged by a rock, finally David has to help her get it out of her shoe and then dig the shoe out. 

It isn’t easy, though. Sophie protests, because she isn’t supposed to take her shoe off.

Of course, David is young, so it doesn’t instantly register for him that her sixth toe means she isn’t in the true image. David helps her get home with her swollen foot, and Sophie’s mother convinces David to keep Sophie’s toes a secret, which he does.

Months later, when another boy encounters them in the river, David tries to give Sophie cover while she darts off into the bush, but the boy sees her footprint. David assaults him and then Sophie knocks the boy out with a rock and they flee to her home.

Her parents are ready. They’ve always known this day was coming. David wants to go with them, and Sophie’s mother wishes she could take him, because David’s father is dogmatic and one of the most zealous people around; he slaughters every deviant among his livestock, burns every deviant field. David has long been plagued with dreams of his father holding Sophie down the way he held down mutant livestock, but in David’s dreams instead of his father slaughtering a mutant animal he is preparing to sacrifice Sophie.

Sophie’s parents can’t take him because his family is powerful. Without him they have a chance. With him, they would not only be charged for concealing an abomination; they would be charged with kidnapping. David goes home to the beating of his life. His father makes his skin so raw he spends a few days in bed, and when he hears that Sophie and her parents have been captured he cries. Nobody will tell him what they do with deviant people …

David’s Difference

David isn’t like everyone else, either. He can make thought shapes, and with the thought shapes he can communicate with others who have the same ability. This might not seem like such a serious problem to have if they can pretend well, but something happens to make that impossible.

David has some other siblings, but twice his mother had delivered only to have no announcement, no certificate confirming the baby is in the human form. Then, when she gives birth to another child, there is good news when the inspector comes; Petra can be officially welcomed as a human created in the image of God.

Not long after Petra’s birth, David is avoiding chores by hiding in the room next to his mother’s when Aunt Harriet arrives. He describes her as a softer version of his mother, the way he would have liked his mother to be. Aunt Harriet has also had a daughter and begs David’s mother to let her swap babies for a few days so that she can get her child’s certificate.

Whatever the deviation is with David’s cousin, it isn’t readily obvious. David’s mother had at first congratulated Harriet and seen nothing wrong. When Harriet makes her request she inspects further … did the infant have a tail, a large birthmark, an extra toe like Sophie? David never finds out. His mother refuses to help. Harriet begs. 

Special Blame For Women

She has given birth to two other children who did not receive their certificates; a third means that she will be sent away.

After all, that’s what Godly husbands do when their wives produce deviants; they have them decertified and removed from Godly society, in accordance with the Purity Laws.

As though the men themselves have no contribution to the child produced.

No Mercy

David’s father arrives and learns what Harriet has asked and sends her away, proclaiming he will pray for her. Harriet is defiant, but doomed, and her body is recovered from the river the next day.

David is starting to realize that things in his world will not go well for anyone who is found to have the slightest difference. One of the things he notes is that, while the recovery of his aunt’s body is acknowledged, nobody says anything about the body of a baby.

This brought to mind a passage from Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out On The Ground:

“One day your gender studies class is discussing Toni Morrison’s Beloved–specifically, the scene where Sethe kills her two-year-old daughter rather than return her to a life of slavery. You remain silent as you listen to your classmates (all of whom are young and childless, all of whom are white) debate Sethe’s actions. What kind of mother does that to her child? What kind of mother would want her child to be born into a life like that? Bad mother, bad mother, bad mother.

“Suddenly, your professor declares that mothers are the most hated group of people in the world. He doesn’t elaborate, he just lets the statement sink in. Your stomach churns as you glance around at similarly slack-jawed students. Despite the looks of confusion, and the general tendency for university students to argue, no one protests. Not even you.

“You mull this statement over for weeks.”

Did Aunt Harriet act out of mercy, love, compassion for her child? In Labrador, babies born defective are sterilized and then left near the woods in the south. They are left to the mercy of the elements and the mutated beasts that roam freely there. Perhaps someone might find them and save them; most likely they will become an animal’s dinner, after being brutalized by so-called Godly humans.

“Mothers are the most hated group of people in the world.” In David’s world, they are the only ones who take the blame when a blasphemous ‘human’ is born.

Petra

David’s new sister is the child everyone — including David’s rigid and overbearing father — dotes on. It’s a simple love for David until one day, when Petra is six years old, his thought shape senses are overwhelmed with a demanding call for action. He races across fields to the river, where Petra is drowning, and saves her. His cousin, Rosalind — who lives on the neighboring farm — also arrives. She has the same thought shape ability.

Unfortunately, this occurred during harvest and a lot of people saw both David and Rosalind go running. It was a considerable distance, and while the people back down when Rosalind insists she heard Petra screaming for help, there were a few scary moments when they arouse suspicion.

Remember, this is a society where any difference is considered suspect. David is left-handed, and even that anomaly raises eyebrows in his world.

With Petra unaware and unable to control her superior abilities, David worries over how to handle her. There are now nine who can make thought shapes, including Petra, and they begin to realize how much danger they’re in. Any suspicion that they are different will have serious consequences, potentially for them all. 

Run

It’s inevitable that eventually, someone will grow suspicious, and when Petra has her second near death experience that’s what happens.

Once they are put under investigation things move at a breakneck pace as David, Rosalind and Petra flee. Will they make it to the Fringes safely? Will they be welcomed there? Or will this mysterious far-away friend Petra — who has a range that far surpasses their own with thought shapes — come to help them?

Resonating Themes: Women Are Not Equal

The plot is reason enough to pick up The Chrysalids right now; the themes are another. The way that women are treated has already been touched on; they must have a large cross stitched across the front of their dress. When they sin by birthing a mutant they must go to church and confess and pray for mercy.

And if they birth too many mutants they are decertified, sterilized, and sent to the Fringes. 

Today, women continue to struggle for true equality in society. Re-reading The Chrysalids prompted me to think of A Mind Spread Out On The Ground by Alicia Elliott more than once. Elliott wrote about sexual assault and how the courts and police often mishandle it:

“If we aren’t required to give consent or allowed to refuse consent when it comes to recounting our own trauma, what is left for us? The men who carry out this violence against us don’t have to testify in their own defence, yet we have to relive our trauma to prove our innocence. Our innocence is always what’s really on trial, not these men’s guilt.” 

Consider the recent cases. A judge let a rapist off because he came from “a good family”, as though that excuses criminal behavior. It certainly isn’t the first time that a rapist has been let off. It’s so common there’s a discussion about why this happens and a list of cases where those who rape or commit sexual assault got no jail time. 

In David’s world, when a child is born with a deviation, it is the mother who bears sole responsibility. This was referenced when Aunt Harriet begged for the only way to save her daughter’s life.

A woman’s place in acceptable “Godly” society is always precarious. She may have been born and certified there, but the act of giving birth can cause her to be decertified and removed. 

To this day women feel shame and assume blame when they miscarry, when they’re child has problems. Spend a minute searching parenting blogs and you’ll see the stories of blame men level at women for their child’s behavior. Women are blamed if they go to work and they’re blamed if they stay home. They’re blamed if they’re over-attentive and they’re blamed if they don’t seem to be paying enough attention.

And women who are assaulted are also shamed and blamed. What were you wearing? Did you do anything to encourage him? Did you say no? How many times did you say no? Why didn’t you do more to stop this man from overpowering you and forcing himself on you?

A woman born and certified as normal and in the image of God can lose that standing if her offspring are born with defects; your sense of belonging hangs by a thin thread, waiting for the day that fate and circumstance prompt someone to cut you loose, have you sterilized and then banish you. In David’s world, no shortcoming could ever be the man’s fault. As someone who spent many years working with children I have seen parents divorce when a child has behavioral issues or other problems; it was not always the case, but far too often the father would disappear, leaving the mother to deal with the problems and the shame of being abandoned. 

Consider our current political climate; the president referenced four elected officials who have been chosen by Americans to represent them in government, all of whom are women. Extreme religious zealots shout “send them back” in reference to these women; most were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens … When one considers this and contrasts it to the themes looked at in David’s world the realities for women sound far too familiar for a book that was first published 64 years ago.

I want to think of David’s world as archaic, a throw-back to simple-minded biases that could be resolved with knowledge. However, in our current era, one only needs to spend a short amount of time skimming Twitter to see that it is filled with people who treat others like they are less than human, because of their gender, their religion, their race, their sexual orientation. Go to any GOP rally and you will see the ignorance in person. I had to leave our town’s Facebook group because of it; I do not wish to live as an ostrich, head in sand, in denial of what is happening. At the same time, knowing neighbors were threatening to show up at student rallies with their guns when students advocated for gun control, and that the police did nothing to address these threats and local residents seemed to think this was fine… This was when I acknowledged we were beyond the help of reason. It’s nearly impossible to reason with individuals prepared to use brute force to impose their will on others.

Everyone Thinks They’re Chosen By God

The one adult in David’s life who is more open-minded has sailed and seen things beyond Labrador. He tells David about other lands, where people are different but convinced they are the true image. Those who have sailed on the sea have told of miles of black earth and other places with a strange green grow; miles and miles where nothing grows and anyone who gets too close to shore does not live long because they waste away and even Uncle Axel, who is far more open-minded than most, tells David about sailing south:

“Soon you’re following round a big bay, and you get to where there are no gaps: it’s all Badlands.

“When the sailors first saw those parts they were pretty scared. They felt they were leaving all Purity behind, and sailing farther and farther from God, where He’d not be able to help them. Everybody knows that if you walk on Badlands you die, and they’d none of them expected ever to see them so close with their own eyes. But what worried them most – and worried the people they talked to when they got back – was to see how the things which are against God’s laws of nature flourish there, just as if they had a right to …

“The lands down there aren’t civilized. Mostly they don’t have any sense of sin so they don’t stop Deviations; and where they do have a sense of sin, they’ve got it mixed up. A lot of them aren’t ashamed of Mutants; it doesn’t seem to worry them when children turn out wrong, provided they’re right enough to live and to learn to look after themselves. Other places, though, you’ll find Deviations who think they are normal. There’s one tribe where both the men and women are hairless, and they think that hair is the devil’s mark; and there’s another where they all have white hair and pink eyes. In one place they don’t think you’re properly human unless you have webbed fingers and toes; in another, they don’t allow any woman who is not multi-breasted to have children.

“You’ll find islands where the people are all thickset, and others where they’re thin; there are even said to be some islands where both men and women would be passed as true images if it weren’t that some strange deviation has turned them all completely black – though even that’s easier to believe than the one about a race of Deviations that has dwindled to two feet high, grown fur and a tail, and taken to living in trees.”

But then Uncle Axel goes on to tell David something he won’t hear from his father, or any other preacher on a Sunday.

“When you find more and more kinds just as convinced of it as we are ourselves – well, you begin to wonder a bit. You start asking yourself: well, what real evidence have we got about the true image? You find that the Bible doesn’t say anything to contradict the people of that time being like us, but on the other hand it doesn’t give any definition of Man, either. No, the definition comes from Nicholson’s Repentances – and he admits he was writing some generations after Tribulation came, so you find yourself wondering whether he knew he was in the true image, or whether he only thought he was …”

Like the people in David’s world, religious zealots today continue to hold fast to the indoctrination they have been subjected to their whole life. For example, it is actually well established that a mistranslation led to the belief that the Bible opposes homosexuality.

All the passages that are used to denounce homosexuality can be explained in context when the translation is evaluated, and the New Testament does not address homosexuality at all. And yet people continue to renounce homosexuality in the name of God and direct bigotry and hate towards members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Re-Experiencing The Chrysalids

I wasn’t much older than David was at the start of his story when I first read The Chrysalids. It’s one of a handful of works that I have kept with me over the years, that have journeyed from house to house. My original copy is here, somewhere in our library of thousands of books, but I haven’t been able to find it in my searching, so I ordered a new copy and sat down to read. I don’t remember ever re-reading this work before, but it left a clear impression on me: about how wrong it is to determine our self-importance based on how others differ from us physically.

Re-reading it now, that message remains. When people are found to be different, suddenly they are not human. They are of the Devil, and they must be removed from society.

“More men were coming out of the woods into the clearing, most of them on horseback. Many of them I recognized, men I had known all my life, all joined together now to hunt us down.”

There was no mercy for anyone who differed, particularly when they find out about the thought shapes. This is a deviation that can’t be seen physically, and it is a powerful deviation that offers these so-called deviations a distinct advantage over regular people without thought shapes. 

“They are alert, corporately aware of danger to their species. They can see quite well that if it is to survive they have not only to preserve it from deterioration, but they must protect it from the even more serious threat of the superior variant.”

The people in this society prop themselves up with notions about the image of God and use it to exclude others and to secure their own standing in society. It is not that different from what we hear today, about immigrants who ‘don’t belong here’, with so many people shrugging off putting refugee claimants in cages because they should ‘go back to their own country’. We still live in a world where people are using everything from religion to ethnicity to country of origin to rank a person’s worth in society, or whether or not they belong. In some cases, they send people back to be tortured or slaughtered because of the oppression they face, and they do it in the name of preserving their country from the evil immigrants.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and whether you are a person who has faced discrimination because of your race, religion, sexual orientation or gender, you will relate to living in dread. Some more than others will understand living in secret, trying to hide your true self. All will know what it is to face a direct threat because of your differences once they’re discovered.

Again, I think of Alicia Elliott’s words: “When my new best friend, a Puerto Rican girl named Rosita, saw my father and asked if he was Native, disgust curdling her words, I paused. She couldn’t already tell? … I realized then I had a chance. I’d fallen down a rabbit hole into a racial Wonderland where logic was negotiable. Only I wasn’t Alice; I was the Cheshire Cat, the Trickster. If I wanted I could say I was part Mexican or Italian or Mongolian, and the person would squint, but nod. As though they accepted that America’s melting pot would sooner or later boil all races down to a pale person like me. “He’s not Native. He’s Puerto Rican.” … I waited to be called a fraud, for my father to stride over and tell everyone the truth. But nothing happened. Incredibly, Rosita believed me. I was too cool to be Native anyway, she rationalized, too clean. She cemented our newfound racial sisterhood with a necklace of the Puerto Rican flag cleverly assembled from red, white and blue pony beads. I wore that necklace with an absurd, anxious pride …”

Like Alicia, David and his thought shape friends knew where the biases in their society lay. Their protection was in passing, pretending to be something that they weren’t. Never was it possible for Alicia’s coolness to be enough to change the existing opinion about Natives; to admit ethnicity was to be re-evaluated and shunned, the way that David and his friends eventually were when they were discovered.

Living As The Other

Many illegal immigrants in today’s society have fled legitimate hardships and fear for their lives. U.S. law allows individuals to seek asylum from inside or outside of the United States, and yet those who have come to the southern border have been separated from their children and locked in overcrowded cages. Countries such as the U.S. have directly contributed to issues in Central America that are forcing people to flee: “flawed U.S. foreign and trade policies have exacerbated dangerous conditions in these countries, breeding desperation. The answer is not more militarization of the border or callous treatment of refugee children, but rather a reimagined approach to relations in the region.”

And yet, in spite of evidence of how first world countries have directly contributed to the violence and poverty in Central America, these countries have not reevaluated their relations and how their conduct contributes to the problem; instead, the asylum seekers are branded as illegals and treated as criminals, used to stir up political drama and further polarize views in American society. They are the other; they don’t belong, they aren’t legitimate, they aren’t American.

In The Chrysalids the people in the Fringes raid the habitable lands for food and supplies, desperate for their own survival from a bleak region where crops are unstable and where deviant creatures pose a constant threat to their existence. These raids are a problem of Labrador’s own creation, but they never address that fact or take responsibility. In fact, some might even say that it’s because some people are too soft and don’t kill deviants in human form outright the way they do livestock.

Sterilization

One would think that the sterilization of deviants and women who give birth to too many deviants wouldn’t resonate in today’s society, and yet it does. There is a long history of forced sterilization in the U.S. and Canada, and although these sterilization programs were hidden behind justifications related to mental health, one examination found that individuals with Spanish surnames were several times more likely to be sterilized, suggesting the program wasn’t simply about keeping people with mental health issues from reproducing, but also about preserving white society. 

“Our dataset reveals that those sterilized in state institutions often were young women pronounced promiscuous; the sons and daughters of Mexican, Italian, and Japanese immigrants, frequently with parents too destitute to care for them; and men and women who transgressed sexual norms. Preliminary statistical analysis demonstrates that during the peak decade of operations from 1935 to 1944 Spanish-surnamed patients were 3.5 times more likely to be sterilized than patients in the general institutional population.”

In Canada, forced sterilization of Indigenous women continues. Canadians scoff at accusations of genocide while skipping over the newspaper articles about forced sterilizations as recently as 2018. How can it be anything other than genocide when a government systematically tries to eliminate a minority population’s ability to reproduce?

And all of it remains a wonder to me, for my grandmother had brain damage suffered from an accident when she was a baby and somehow she was not sterilized and allowed to reproduce, while completely healthy Indigenous women in Canada had the ability to bear children forcibly taken away from them. 

But then, my grandmother was white.

Indoctrination

Today, people talk about acting against your own interests. There’s been extensive examination of the fact that many of the poorest people, the people who most need food stamps and medicare and other social programs, vote Republican. The Republicans continue to usher in tax breaks for the wealthy while stripping away the programs these economically disadvantaged people need.

Wyndham touches on indoctrination in this book ever so subtly. “The bodice of her dress was ragged, a non-descript tawny colour, with stains on it. There were no sleeves, but what struck me the most was that it bore no cross. I had never before been face to face with a woman who wore no protective cross stitched to her dress. It looked queer, almost indecent.”

Although David is different, although there is a reward for his capture — alive or dead — and although he is being hunted, he still sees the cross as a sign of protection.

The same cross his Aunt Harriet wore across her chest.

When individuals are raised in a society that repeats dogma, that minimizes education and maximizes slogans and simplistic thinking, they can easily be conditioned. This conditioning causes them to act against their own interests. Think of Joe the Plumber, who used his ‘everyday average guy’ image as a platform to attack Obama. This led to widespread acceptance by the Republicans, and he was featured in joint appearances with McCain.

He went on to appear in commercials, have a published book, and become a political commentator. Not because he has education and experience related to these fields, but because he presented an image and message that appealed to Republicans. “For years I’ve said, you know, put a damn fence on the border, going to Mexico and start shooting.”

This conditioning, this indoctrination, explains why spouses of illegal immigrants still voted GOP. “Helen Beristain thought President Trump would deport only the criminals and troublemakers.” They weren’t concerned about what would happen to others, they just never thought it would happen to them. They only heard the parts of the message they wanted to hear.

I’m often told that I can’t see things clearly because I disagree with GOP policies. There is one way to undeniably prove who it is who has blinders on, and who it is who doesn’t. I find fault with Democrats. I don’t like Biden’s stance on healthcare. I approve of locking Wiener up. I don’t care if you’re left, right or otherwise; if you rape a woman or abuse a child you should go to jail. Period. I don’t care if that means any prominent Democrat goes to jail.

And yet, there was a time when I staunchly fell behind Conservative lines. After all, I was raised Conservative. I was also exposed to a lot of racist sentiments growing up.

I am not perfect, but my own views have changed immensely. I am in a continual state of learning. When I make mistakes, I try to own them. And the main reason for this is because I am consciously focused on undoing the conditioning I was subjected to by the society I grew up in.

Want to go on believing I’m brainwashed? I thought Clinton should have been impeached. Democrat sacrilege. But he lied. And frankly, I don’t think liars should be held up as leaders, no matter which party they represent.

Words To Live By

Wyndham somehow manages to speak so clearly to people who are oppressed and convey their plight and the dangers of living in a closed-minded society where there is an omnipresent fear of anyone or anything who does not conform.

“The essential quality of life is living; the essential quality of living is change; change is evolution: and we are part of it. The static, the enemy of change, is the enemy of life, and therefore our implacable enemy.” 

Wyndham wrote this work during a time when segregation in society was the norm; in spite of changes in the laws there are those today who would have us go back to the ways of old. The fear of change and the response to the fear of change is used to polarize and stir up hatred and prejudice. Remember the responses to Obama’s slogans: “Nobama: I’ll keep my guns & cash, you can keep the change.”

Perhaps, in the end, it is David’s friend Michael who gives us the words to live by, the words to hold on to, as we fight to embrace a better future that moves past the bigotry of the past.

“Knowing that we’re not just pointless freaks … It’s the difference between just trying to keep alive, and having something to live for.”

And so those of us who are fighting for a better society, for a world that facilitates societal evolution instead of warring against it, can see the parallels in The Chrysalids and why this work can speak as clearly to readers today as the day it was published. This is what it means for a work to be timeless; it resonates, perhaps even more strongly because the author had the ability to speak so clearly to our present circumstances from decades ago.

***

On a writing level, much has changed over the decades. Don’t look to this and think of it as a benchmark. I had a manuscript I was shopping with a protagonist who started out at 13 and a couple chapters later skipped ahead to age 16; I was rejected specifically because that’s unacceptable. It wasn’t at the time of Wyndham’s publication; David starts out as a young boy and is a man in the end; the book covers over nine years of time. Today, Wyndham would face demands for more in-the-moment action; his demonstration of the emotional distance between his parents and their children through minimal interaction would likely be rejected as well and he’d be told to develop those relationships and give them arcs. 

Don’t kid yourselves. If someone packaged up this work and presented it as a manuscript to a number of editors and agents there’s a good chance many of them would not recognize the work, and it would be rejected by most, if not all. Classics are not always the best reference for the current market.

Where this work is right on the money is the key plot arcs. Major events occur near the 25%, 50% and 75% points in the works. There are also significant events near 33% and 66%. If you love to break a work down by math then this book will work for you as well as any works written today.