David had always been taught to avoid all deviations. His whole life, Sunday sermons had taught him that anyone who did not fit the Definition of Man, with two arms, two legs, 10 fingers, 10 toes, and no defects whatsoever, was “a blasphemy against the true Image of God, and hateful in the sight of God.” But when he met Sophie, who had an extra toe, he began to question:
I was abruptly perturbed—and considerably puzzled, too. A blasphemy was, as had been impressed upon me often enoug, a frightful thing. Yet there was nothing frightful about Sophie, She was simply an ordinary little girl—if a great deal more sensible and braver than most. Yet, according to the Definition…
Clearly there must be a mistake somewhere. Surely having one very small toe extra—well, two very small toes, because I suppose there would be one to match on the other foot—surely that couldn’t be enough to make her “hateful in the sight of God…”?
In post-apocalyptic Labrador, the setting for John Wyndham’s 1955 novel The Chrysalids, being different is deadly. If you’re different, you’re a blasphemy, and if that difference is discovered, you’ll be thrown out into the Fringes, a land of terrifying monstrosities. The government strives to root out all deviations before they gain a foothold in the community. All crops, animals, and babies are inspected and will be allowed to live only if they are declared normal. Sophie’s family managed to hide her abnormality, but her secret cannot stay safe forever.
David’s friendship with Sophie first put him on the path of questioning his people’s ways, but his own ability to telepathically communicate made him realize that he too was a deviation. As he and his fellow telepaths grew up, their secret became more difficult to keep. If someone discovered the truth, could they survive?
Wyndham’s world in this novel is our own world in more ways than one. First, it’s literally our world, but centuries into the future. Some Great Tribulation has destroyed the land to the south of Labrador, and it’s taken centuries for people and animals to breed true again. It’s never said outright, but it’s clear that this is a world suffering from the long-term effects of a nuclear holocaust. However, their greater suffering comes from prejudice that’s all too common in any time.
When considered logically, it’s easy to see how a prejudice against deviations might arise after a worldwide nuclear disaster. If radiation causes genetic mutations, then the survival of the species might require the elimination of mutations. Yet this logic is so dangerously close to the logic behind eugenics, genocide, and so many other evils, that it’s obviously wrong. To couch this logic in the language of God and scripture makes it especially vile—and all too familiar. Wyndham’s world is filled with people claiming to know God’s will, but how do they know? They claim to be following the traditions of the Old People, but would the Old People recognize their world? And who’s to say the Old People were so great? After all, they were forced to suffer the Great Tribulation. They might not be the best example to follow.
This is by far my favorite of the three Wyndham novels I’ve read. (The others were Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos.) The ideas seemed more relevant, the characters more realistic, and the story more gripping. It makes an especially interesting counterpoint to Midwich Cuckoos, because David and his friends in this novel are not so different from the Children in Midwich Cuckoos, which was published two years after The Chrysalids. There are some significant differences in their behavior—the Midwich Children are an overt threat—but the slight ambiguity of feeling at the ending of Midwich Cuckoos is strengthened when considered in light of this novel. I love when books speak to each other like that!
Oh, and I have to share the cover of the edition that I read. The cover at the top of this post is from the original first edition, and it suits the book perfectly. I actually read the Penguin edition you see pictured on the right. Unless I missed something really important, this cover has nothing whatsoever to do with the book. And what’s funny is that I kept expecting that guy on the cover to show up, and he never did. I don’t know whether I’m disappointed or relieved.
This is in fact the second bizarre cover I’ve encountered this week. The edition of Weirdstone of Brisingamen that I read had Darth Vader on it. That cover made slightly more sense because a guy in a black cloak did turn up toward the end, but this edition was printed in 1978, and I have to wonder if they weren’t thinking they could capitalize on late 70s Star Wars mania.