The Chrysalids

The Chrysalids (US: Re-birth)  
First edition hardback cover
First edition hardback cover
Author(s) John Wyndham
Cover artist Spencer Wilson
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Science fiction novel
Publisher Michael Joseph
Publication date 1955
Media type Print (Hardback and Paperback)
Preceded by The Kraken Wakes
Followed by The Midwich Cuckoos

The Chrysalids (US title: Re-Birth) is a science fiction novel by John Wyndham, first published in 1955 by Michael Joseph. It is the least typical of Wyndham's major novels, but regarded by some people as his best.[1][2] An early manuscript was originally entitled Time for a Change.[3]

The novel was adapted for BBC radio by Barbara Clegg in 1982[4] and for the theater by playwright David Harrower in 1999.[5]


Plot summary

A few thousand years in the future post-apocalypse rural Labrador has become a warmer and more hospitable place than it is at present. The inhabitants of Labrador have vague historical recollections of the "Old People", a technologically advanced civilization which existed long ago and which they believe was destroyed when God sent "Tribulation" to the world to punish their forebears' sins. The society that has survived in Labrador is loosely reminiscent of the American frontier during the 18th century.

The inhabitants practise a form of fundamentalist Christianity with post-apocalyptic prohibitions. They believe that in order to follow God's word and prevent another Tribulation, they need to preserve absolute normality among the surviving humans, plants and animals. Genetic invariance has been elevated to the highest religious principle, and humans with even minor mutations are considered "Blasphemies" and the handiwork of the Devil.

Individuals not conforming to a strict physical norm are either killed or sterilized and banished to the Fringes, a lawless and untamed area still rife with animal and plant mutations. Arguments occur over the keeping of a tailless cat or the possession of oversize horses. These are deemed by the government to be legitimate breeds either pre-existing or achieved through conventional breeding. The government's position is considered both cynical and heretical by the orthodox frontier community.

The inland rural settlement of Waknuk is a frontier farming community, populated with hardy and pious individuals intent on reclaiming land from the Fringes. Ten-year-old David Strorm, the son of Waknuk's zealous religious patriarch, has inexplicably vivid dreams of brightly lit cities and horseless carts that are at odds with his pre-industrial experience. Despite David's rigorous religious training, he befriends Sophie, a girl carefully concealing the fact that she has six toes on each foot. With the nonchalance of childhood David keeps her secret. The subsequent discovery of Sophie's mutation and her family's attempted flight causes David to wonder at the brutal persecution of human "Blasphemies" and the ritual culling of animal and plant "Deviations". David and a few others of his generation harbour their own invisible mutation: they have strong telepathic abilities. David begins to question why all who are different must be banished or killed.

As they mature, David and his fellow telepaths realize that their unusual mutation would be considered a "blasphemy" and they carefully conceal their abilities. That their mutation cannot be directly detected allows their unusual abilities to remain undiscovered for a time. Eventually some of the group are exposed and David, his half-cousin Rosalind and younger sister Petra flee to the Fringes. Through the unusually strong telepathic abilities of Petra they make contact with a more advanced society in distant "Sealand". David, Rosalind and Petra elude their would-be captors and are rescued by a Sealand expedition sent to discover the source of Petra's telepathic transmissions.

Though the nature of "Tribulation" is not explicitly stated, it is implied that it was a nuclear holocaust, both by the mutations, and by the stories of sailors who report blackened, glassy wastes to the south-west where the remains of faintly glowing cities can be seen (presumably the east coast of the US). Sailors venturing too close to these ruins experience symptoms consistent with radiation sickness. A woman from Sealand, a character with evident knowledge of the Old People's technology, mentions "the power of gods in the hands of children".

Major characters

  • David Strorm, is the narrator of the story. David is one of a small group of youngsters who can communicate with each other via telepathy. However, their community's theological prejudice against anyone who is abnormal means he and the others must keep their abilities carefully hidden. David and Rosalind’s love for each other is kept secret from their parents because of a bitter feud between their families.
  • Sophie Wender is a young girl born with six toes on each foot. Sophie lives with her parents in an isolated cottage somewhere north west of Waknuk, her deviation from the "norm" keeping her from associating with other children.
  • Joseph Strorm is the father of David and Petra. He is deeply religious and unyielding on the subject of mutations and blasphemy, punishing David severely for an unintentionally blasphemous remark about "needing an extra hand" to apply a bandage.
  • Uncle Axel is a widely traveled former sailor, open minded and willing to question conventional religious precepts. Upon discovering David's telepathy, he counsels reticence and extracts a promise that David take great care not to allow others to learn of his mutation.
  • Petra Strorm is the youngest of the Strorm children and the group of telepaths discovers her ability is extraordinarily strong and difficult to resist, placing the group at greater risk of discovery.
  • Rosalind Morton is David's closest friend among the group of telepaths, but they become more of a couple later on in the book. She lives on a neighbouring farm and is David's half cousin.
  • The Sealand woman and her people are from a more technologically advanced society where telepathic ability, while not ubiquitous, is far more common and is accepted, promoted and studied.
  • Michael is the most objective, perceptive and decisive of the telepaths, the best educated, and in many ways plays a leading role in the group despite his physical absence from events in the story. His telepathic abilities remain secret, and during the pursuit into the Fringes he joins the leading posse in order to give updates and warnings to David, Rosalind and Petra as they flee.
  • Rachel is the last remaining telepathic in Waknuk after David, Rosalind and Petra are brought to Sealand. She is afraid of loneliness, while being in love with Michael, as Rosalind loves David. As a result of this love, Michael remains behind with Rachel when they find out that the aircraft bringing the four of the telepaths to Sealand cannot take Rachel as well. He hopes to arrive in Sealand with Rachel in tow.

Allusions to actual geography

The inland village of Waknuk (Wabush) is in southwestern Labrador. Labrador has become a much warmer place in the fictional future, with large tracts of arable land. Rigo (Rigolet) is the capital of Labrador, a fairly large river town near the east coast. The port of Lark (Lark Harbour) is mentioned as a way-point on the west coast of the island of Newf (Newfoundland) where sailors may obtain provisions.

A large island to the north-east (Greenland) is rumored to be inhabited by an amazonian culture with bizarre habits. Northern islands are described as being cold and inhabited chiefly by birds and sea animals. Uncle Axel, a former sailor, has traveled far to the south of Labrador, and from a distance seen the "Black Coasts", where there are areas with what look like ruins of the old civilization.

Later, the existence of geographic areas far less affected by the nuclear exchange and fallout is established, particularly Sealand (New Zealand). Sealand is home to a socially and technologically advanced society where telepathy is not only the norm, but is encouraged and developed as a survival advantage.

Literary significance

Although stylistically The Chrysalids does not differ markedly from Wyndham's other novels, the subject matter is rather different. While most are set against a mid-twentieth-century English middle-class background, The Chrysalids is set in an agrarian future society which is described in some detail. It is also more of a bildungsroman than most of his novels.

It was written after The Kraken Wakes and before The Midwich Cuckoos.

Critical response

J. Francis McComas, reviewing the American release for The New York Times, declared the the "outstanding success" of the novel lay in Wyndham's "creation of humanly understandable characters that are, after all, something more and less than human" and concluded that the novel "will be well noted and long remembered."[6]

The noted critic and science fiction author Damon Knight wrote [7] that Wyndham "...failed to realize how good a thing he had. The sixth toe was immensely believable, and sufficient; but Wyndham has dragged in a telepathic mutation on top of it; has made David himself one of the nine child telepaths, and hauled the whole plot away from his carefully built background, into just one more damned chase with a rousing cliche at the end of it... this error is fatal." gave a mixed review, stating that “The Chrysalids comes heart-wrenchingly close to being John Wyndham's most powerful and profound work.” but that "Wyndham stumbles—catastrophically—at the climax, in a way that actually undermines the story's thematic foundations."[8]

The novel also garnered some positive reviews. The Ottawa Citizen judged the novel as "brilliant" and "a top-notch piece of sci-fi that should be enjoyed for generations yet to come.”[9] The Guardian described it as "a remarkably tender story of a post-nuclear childhood" and "a classic to most of its three generations of readers".[9] Hartford Courant reviewer George W. Earley praised it as "a compelling story and Mr. Wyndham's best novel to date."[10]

Galaxy reviewer Groff Conklin praised the novel as "so skillfully done that the fact that it's not a shiny new idea makes absolutely no difference."[11] Anthony Boucher similarly found the novel made "something completely fresh" out of a familiar theme, commending Wyndham's "accumulation of minutely plausible detail" and "greater depth and maturity than he has shown in previous novels."[12] Writing in Astounding, P. Schuyler Miller reported that Wyndham "has made the Mutant theme believable in a way that Odd John, Slan and the stories of the Baldies never quite were."[13]

There is critical disagreement regarding whether the intervention of the Sealand culture at the end of the novel should be considered a deus ex machina.[8]

Critics have disagreed with Wyndham's implication that two differently evolved species must necessarily fight to the death. Wyndham justifies this in a lengthy speech from the Sealand woman near the end of the novel, but her reasoning seems at odds with the implicit plea for tolerance in the earlier part of the novel.[8] This implication also exists in The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos.

The Chrysalids in popular culture

The song "Crown of Creation" by Jefferson Airplane was inspired by the novel. Its title and lyrics are drawn from the text and plot with permission from Wyndham.[14] One example lifted almost verbatim from the text reflects a philosophical explanation by the Sealand woman: "But life is change, that is how it differs from rocks, change is its very nature." This line is rendered in the lyrics as "Life is change—How it differs from the rocks." The portion of the song that reads: "In loyalty to their kind / they cannot tolerate our minds. / In loyalty to our kind / we cannot tolerate their obstruction" is from an explanation by the Sealand woman that asserts the inevitability of conflict between a more advanced species and its less advanced progenitors. (The book's original phrase is "they cannot tolerate our rise.")


  1. ^ "The Chrysalids - Novel". November 7, 2001. 
  2. ^ Aldiss, Brian W. (1973). Billion year spree: the history of science fiction. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0297765554.  page 254
  3. ^ Joanne Revill. "The John Wyndham Archive, 1930–2001". SF Hub. Retrieved 2010-09-19. 
  4. ^ Lou Martiniano. "Chrysalids & Survival, The". Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  5. ^ "David Harrower". 2007-02-20. Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  6. ^ "Spaceman's Realm", The New York Times Book Review, July 10, 1955, p. 15
  7. ^ Knight, Damon (1967). In Search of Wonder. Chicago: Advent. ISBN 0911682317. 
  8. ^ a b c "The Chrysalids / John Wyndham ☆☆½". Sf Reviews.Net. Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  9. ^ a b Wyndham, John. "Random House, Inc. Academic Resources | The Chrysalids by John Wyndham". Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  10. ^ "Science Fiction", The Hartford Courant, October 16, 1955, p. SM22
  11. ^ "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, September 1955, p.91
  12. ^ "Recommended Reading," F&SF, August 1955, p.94.
  13. ^ Miller, P. Schuyler. "The Reference Library," Astounding Science-Fiction, October 1955, pp.144-45.
  14. ^ Kantner, Paul (2003). Lyrica - Paul Kantner's Theory of Everything. Little Dragon Press. 

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