The Chrysalids

by John Wyndham

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In The Chrysalids, what is the main theme?

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The main theme of The Chrysalids is that we should embrace change instead of fearing it.

There are many themes in the book, but the idea that change is not dangerous is an important one.  When the Sealand woman arrives to save the telepaths, she comments that David’s people are...

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the ones who are going to be extinct, because they do not allow change.

They have become history without being aware of it. They are determined still that there is a final form to defend: soon they will attain the stability they strive for, in the only form it is granted -- a place among the fossils. . . .' (ch 16)

The people of Waknuk have lived in fear for two generations, even since David’s grandfather founded the place.  They have interpreted the Bible specifically enough that they are convinced that they know exactly what a person should look like.

And God decreed that man should have one body, one head, two arms and two legs: that each arm should be jointed in two places and end in one hand: that each hand should have four fingers and one thumb… (ch 1)

This limited view of life extends to their burning crops and plants that are deviant from what they expect.  Therefore there is no change, and no evolution.  The people are stuck where they have always been, and they refuse to allow change.

Joseph Strorm and his people are so desperate to keep everyone in line that he even beats his son until he gives up Sophie and then comes after him with an army when  he and the other telepaths flee with David’s little sister to the Fringes.

There are no human emotions in the rule of law in Waknuk.  Everything is ruled by fear and dogma.  Innocents are sacrificed so that people can have a feeling of control.

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What are the themes in Chrysalids?

A good overview of The Chrysalids may be found here. Some themes prevalent in the novel include:

1. Isolation and Alienation: David and the "abberrations" are considered as outcasts and alienated from Waknuk's society.

2. Religious persecution

3. Betrayal

4. Salem on Literature says "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."

5. Life in a post-apocalyptic world.

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What is the motif of The Chrysalids?

A motif is a recurring theme, symbol or image in the text. Any work of literature will contain a number of different motifs. One in this great story is the dream that the story opens with, which we only learn to be based on reality at the end of the story when David finally reaches Sealand with Rosalind and Petra. What makes this dream so strange is that he is able to see things so vividly that he has never actually seen before in his life:

But this city, clustered on the curve of a big blue bay, would come into my mind. I could see the streets, and the buildings that lined them, the waterfront, even boats in the harbour; yet, waking, I had never seen the sea, or a boat...

The significance of this motif therefore lies in the way that it points towards the telepathic gift that David has and how it enlarges his mind to be able to see and experience things that he himself has never seen and experienced. The importance of this motif is cemented in the final section of the story, where David actually reaches this city and says "It was just as I had seen it in my dreams."

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What is the theme of The Chrysalids?

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What is the theme of The Chrysalids?

The title of this excellent story itself yield what is, to me, the central theme. By choosing a title including the word "Chrysalids," Wyndham points towards the way in which humanity is changing and developing, moving from its caterpillar state into something new. Of course, the fact that the title includes the words "chrysalids" indicates that this transformation and change is not completely over yet, and thus we are plunged into the frightening world of David and Rosalind and their companions, who recognise that they are different from the rest of the humans they live with, but must hide those differences.

The focus on transformation and evolution is likewise signalled by the woman from Sea Land, who states clearly that "life is change" and "The living form defies evolution at its peril; if it does not adapt, it will be broken." Thus the central theme of the novel points towards the way in which humanity is constantly changing and evolving and how we must embrace that.

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In the novel The Chrysalids what is the specific theme? 

If I had to pick one, single theme that I feel is most prevalent in The Chrysalids, I would say that the theme of discrimination is most apparent.  The discrimination that the novel contains though is very interesting.  It is not racism, sexism, or even class discrimination.  It's something completely different.  The discrimination is "genoism."  That word was actually coined by Andrew Niccol for his 1997 film GATTACA.   There are a lot of parallels between that movie and the The Chyrsalids.

Genoism is present throughout the novel.  David Strorm is taught from birth to discriminate against and hate any kind of genetic change that Waknuk society doesn't deem "normal."  In fact, the Strorm household has framed sayings hanging up that remind David of that concept.  


Despite the emphasis on hating genetic mutation, David doesn't behave that way.  For example, he doesn't turn Sophie into the authorities even though she has six toes.  Unfortunately, her secret is discovered and she is forced to flee to the Fringes.  Had she not done that, Sophie likely would have been killed just for having a genetic difference.  Once David and the other telepaths are discovered, they must escape to save their own lives as well.  Even when the Sealand woman shows up, she also helps perpetuate the novel's theme of discrimination through genoism.  She tells David that he is genetically superior to the Waknuks, and that they deserve to be eradicated.  

"For ours is a superior variant, and we are only just begin-ning."

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What are two major themes in The Chrysalids?

Two themes are no good comes from an oppressive society and stand up for your friends. 

The first theme in the story is that oppressive societies eventually implode.  While we don’t see that happen yet, we see the beginnings of it.  Waknuk’s society is based off of religious principles supposedly derived from some post-apocalyptic event.  People feel that anyone or anything that does not conform to the True Image is blasphemous and you should get rid of it.  That includes anything from crops to people. 

When David and the other telepaths meet the Sealand woman (in their minds at least) she explains to them that the way they have been treated is wrong, and the sign of a backwards society.

The static, the enemy of change, is the enemy of life, and therefore our implacable enemy. [Consider] some of the things that these people, who have taught you to think of them as your fellows, have done. [The] pattern scarcely varies wherever a pocket of the older species is trying to preserve itself. (Ch. 17) 

Although the Sealanders may be advanced enough to accept change, that does not help the people of Waknuk.  They live under a state of religious tyranny.  When people are trying to hide babies and committing suicide, you know that there is trouble in your community. 

When David is still a little boy, he meets Sophie and learns that she has six toes.  This makes her blasphemous in Waknuk, and her parents should have turned her in when she was born.  Children need a certificate that shows they meet the requirements of the True Image.  If they don’t get it they are cast out.  Sophie’s parents did not turn her in, and instead hid her. 

David tries to keep Sophie’s secret, but one day another boy sees her and David with her.  His father finds out and asks him about it.  David tries to keep from telling him anything, trying to protect Sophie as long as he can.  His father beats it out of him though, and he feels terrible. 

[My] tears soaked into my pillow. By now it was not so much the bodily hurts that brought them: it was bitterness, self-contempt, and abasement. (Ch. 5) 

David tried to protect Sophie.  He also tries to protect the other telepaths when they have to go on the run.  He believes in the importance of looking out for your friends, no matter how dangerous it is.

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What are some of the major and minor themes of The Chrysalids?

The overriding thematic concern in The Chrysalids (1955) is Wyndham's concern that humankind is not equipped to contend with and triumph through the changes facing the world during, and now after, his time (1903-1969), having lived through both World War I and II. He perceived that humankind's necessary and valuable adherence to rational logic would paradoxically (i.e., seemingly contradictorably) be the undoing of the society rationality had built and was attempting (with debatable success after two world wars) to hold together. He perceived that the only thing that would aid humanity was a collective enlightenment for the need of transcendence of the rigid adherence to old modes of thought and reasoning.

Wyndham illustrates this very vividly by choosing images and philosophical views that were widely familiar and dearly clung to. These were Christianity's religious tenets and paranormal extrasensory perception. Both systems of thought and belief bring up strong ideological and emotional response, especially in the 1950s, in readers who, generally speaking, would have viewed the disparagement of religiousness and advocacy of thought communication as shocking and scandalous. All the better to make his thematic point, which is that "the essential quality of living is change" and therefore humanity needs to embrace change and each other as though no separation "existed any more," as though "for a time there was a single being that was" all.

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What are some of the major and minor themes of The Chrysalids?

The society that exists in this story is one full of fear and prejudice. The people live their lives according to the Old Testament of the Bible, not allowing for anyone or anything that is not normal according to their own strict guidelines. These rural denizens live by such commandments as "blessed is the norm" and "watch thou for the mutant". Anyone who isn't like them is exterminated, and many of these "mutants" have fled to the Fringes, a place outside of Labrador, the community of the "norms".

The central themes are that society must get rid of its enslavement to the past and its fears and prejudices, and humankind must unite in order to save themselves from total annihilation. The novel suggests that by following religious beliefs, we have dehumanized our society because we blindly follow outdated Biblical laws that don't allow for differences. Those in control use the Old Testament to support their prejudices toward anyone who is different. Change isn't acceptable because that would involve straying from the Biblical laws that stereotype people. The author tells us that we are all "mutants" in one way or another, and this is what we must realize unites us as humans. Unless we can get beyond our stereotypical prejudices, we are doomed.

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