The Chrysalids was published in Great Britain under that title and in the United States as Re-Birth. The novel takes place after Tribulation, a cataclysmic event (probably a nuclear holocaust that devastated the world thousands of years earlier) attributed to God’s anger in the tradition of Eden and the Flood. The agrarian folk, technologically backward and beset by fear and prejudice, obey a strict interpretation of the Old Testament, eradicating all crop and animal mutations. Stern commandments and proclamations hang on their walls, telling them that “blessed is the norm” and to “keep pure the stock of the Lord” and “watch thou for the mutant!” Humans “made in God’s image” reside in communities throughout Labrador, and deviations from the norm are ritualistically “purified” (exterminated) or exiled to the Fringes, the abnormal territories, where they forage for food and eke out an existence.
David Strorm, the narrator, has a deep secret. For years, he, his half-cousin Rosalind, and several other youngsters have been communicating telepathically. Although by appearance they are “norms,” they are mutants within and a potential threat to the existing order. Instinctively, they have never revealed their abilities to anyone except for David’s kind and protective Uncle Axel.
David’s life changes forever when, at the age of ten, he meets Sophie, a girl with six toes. Her parents are terrified of her being discovered by David’s intractable father, Joseph Strorm, Waknuk’s fanatical patriarch. Joseph has destroyed some of his own children and relatives as blasphemies, and his deformed brother, nicknamed Spider, leads a ragtag group of marauding mutants of the Fringes. Sophie’s secret is exposed, and Jo-seph whips David until he admits where Sophie has gone. Sophie’s family disappears into the Fringes. Following the birth of David’s sister Petra, a child with incredible powers, six years pass without further incident.
The adolescents are betrayed when one marries a “norm” only to commit suicide after confiding in her unsympathetic spouse. Uncle Axel murders the callous husband, but Petra’s awakened and uncontrolled powers send psychic blasts that paralyze the others, arouse suspicion and a witch hunt, and draw telepathic responses from Sealand (New Zealand), which sends an aircraft to rescue them. Pursued by Joseph Strorm and his troops, David, Petra, and Rosalind battle their way to the Fringes, where David’s banished uncle, Spider, captures them. Spider brutally beats David and leaves him to die, having announced his carnal designs on Rosalind. Sophie, her innocence corrupted, conceals David and murders the albino guarding Rosalind. As the posse descends for the kill, the Sealanders arrive, annihilating everyone except the young telepaths, whom they transport to Sealand to help build the world anew.
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.