Study Guide

The Chrysalids

by John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beyn Harris

The Chrysalids Essay - Critical Essays


Writing what he termed “logical fantasy,” John Wyndham cast an unsettling shadow across the apparently placid landscape of post-World War II England. The literary heir of H. G. Wells, Wyndham blended fantasy, horror, and science fiction into a seminal body of work that resonates in the tales of many writers, including Richard Matheson, Clive Barker, James Herbert, and Stephen King. Generally overlooked in the United States, where it went out of print, The Chrysalids is the centerpiece of Wyndham’s three most important novels, the psychological and creative bridge between the Wells-inspired The Day of the Triffids (1951) and his startling fusion of science fiction and horror, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), which also appeared under the title Village of the Damned. The story was filmed as Village of the Damned in 1960 and 1995.

As their beautiful Sealand rescuer tells David and Rosalind, “The essential quality of living is change; change is evolution; and we are part of it.” In Wyndham’s fiction, the world is in constant flux, and most people are either unwilling to face change or too eager to capitalize on it for their own advantage. Caught in this paradox are the Wyndham protagonists, ordinary men, women, and children pummeled by the past and present into resolutions of transcendence and new, meaningful undertakings. No guarantees await them in the future. Sealand, to which David, Rosalind, and Petra escape, is peopled by beings who view themselves as superior and, by their own admission and as shown in their obsession with Petra’s harrowing gift, are doomed one day to self-destruct, as have the unyielding remnants of the Old People they are supplanting.

The hubris of humans then, not the technology they create, undermines them. The Chrysalids, critical of Old Testament justice, still draws a comparable moral from the New Testament: “for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Ironically, Joseph Strorm refuses to acknowledge, as his own, his misshapen brother, his “impure” children, and all the abnormalities that surround him; he systematically fashions his own doom. People are all of one origin, the novel insists, and to deny this precipitates the tragic demise of humanity.

This portrayal of kinship demonstrates Wyndham’s resolute refusal to perpetuate traditional stereotypes. Appearances mean little; truth, beauty, and deformity reside within, as does the pupa inside the chrysalid. Like her namesake in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Rosalind personifies charm, courage, and compassion. The stoic heroism of David, like his biblical counterpart’s, is tempered by wisdom and tenderness. In a scene that anticipates the “grokking” of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), David and Rosalind, destined to be lovers, meld minds until “Neither one of us existed any more; for a time there was a single being that was both.”

The Chrysalids proposes that ignorant adherence to the “word,” or to religious tenets, has dehumanized the world, and that only in transcendence of past beliefs will humanity resurrect itself. The message is distinct: People must throw off the mind-forged chains of the past, bury fears and prejudices, and walk as one with enlightened steps into the future, or else stumble and perish forever.