The society of Waknuk has survived a nuclear war. The people have, however, only a dim memory of that period and refer to it as Tribulation, a time during which mankind had to pay for its sins. Although the war happened a long time ago, radiation still contaminates the living world outside the small community. Whenever any evidence of contamination is found within Waknuk, the inhabitants immediately eliminate the offending plant, animal, or...... person.
The story centres around the narrator, David Strorm, his small group of friends who all possess E.S.P., or extrasensory perception, and David's sternly religious family.
As a child, David has learned the strict morality of his society: "Watch Thou for the Mutant," "The Norm is the Will of God," and "The Devil is the Father of Deviation." This all meant that any living things - plant, animal, or man - had to be destroyed soon as it was discovered to be deviant. David's father, Joseph Strorm, was considered by the inhabitants of Waknuk to be a leader in the vigorous pursuit of deviations from the norm .
Waknuk, though, was relatively fortunate, because it was situated in Labrador, far away from the major centres of nuclear war - the Badlands - further to the south. Since God had sent Tribulation down upon the Old People, mankind had been struggling to return to the level of civilization that the Old People had enjoyed. Because the past generations of Waknuk had been very careful, the community was now fairly free of deviations that were the result of Tribulation. Any that did appear were destroyed or, in the case of deviant humans, banished to the Fringes country that lay towards the south, south-east, and south-west of the district.
At the beginning of the story David meets Sophie Wender and discovers that she is a physical deviant with six toes on each foot. Both she and her family are forced to flee. They are captured and banished to the Fringes. David finds it difficult to reconcile the laws of his society with his own conscience. This problem is intensified when he sees his aunt driven to suicide because she has given birth to a deviant baby.
David is concerned for his own personal safety when he realizes that he and his group of E.S.P. friends are also deviants, because their ability to communicate with each other in thought forms or by mental telepathy is not compatible with Waknuk's idea of the "true image."
Although they manage to disguise their deviation, the birth of David's little sister, Petra, causes innumerable problems. Because she is still an infant, she is unable to control her powers. An incident occurs in which she, David and his sweetheart, Rosalind, are found out. They are declared deviates and outlaws, and are forced to flee to the Fringes, where they are pursued by the people of Waknuk, including David's own father. In the Fringes they are captured by the deviate inhabitants there.
All this time, Petra has kept, through her awesome telepathic powers, in touch with a distant civilization in New Zealand (Sealand). These people, who are all telepathic, rescue the fugitives right in the middle of a battle between the Waknuk and Fringes people. David, Petra, and Rosalind escape per helicopter to New Zealand.
The society of Waknuk resembles what we know as the beginning of the eighteenth century. It is based on agriculture, with little evidence of any industrialization. Like eighteenth-century England or North America, the people are very provincial in their outlook; their lives are controlled by a rigid code of morality, and religious beliefs are repressive and, often cruel.
The people of Waknuk justify these standards by referring to Tribulation , a period in the past when God's wrath was visited upon His people or, more specifically, the Old People.
The Old People are clearly twentieth century society, the readers of the novel. Frequent references are made to air planes, automobiles and other twentieth-century inventions.
Strangely, however, the Old People who are held up as an ideal were the ones who were punished by Tribulation which was, in all probability, a nuclear holocaust. The effect of radiation is the cause of all the deviations that afflict David's society.
Paradoxically, then, Waknuk is a society of the future with a setting from the past.
Sealand, on the other hand, has escaped Tribulation to some degree, and has advanced beyond the level of the twentieth century, both in physical setting and in outlook.
Although both Labrador and New Zealand escape nuclear destruction, the similarity end there. Whereas Sealand is industrial and progressive, Waknuk is agricultural and regressive or, at best stagnant.
The middle of Labrador is affected by the nuclear holocaust to the extent that its climate is now temperate and suited to agricultural development. The farming appears to be somewhat communal, with one large farm having a great number of dependent workers. Houses are built close together for mutual protection.
Although the immediate area is fairly free of deviations, the further one goes in a southerly direction, the more the abnormalities increase. In those areas there is little control of nature by man, and all types of deviant form of life thrive.
The Fringes, which follow the Wild Country as one moves further south, contains practically no normal forms of life as we know them, and beyond this belt is a vast area known as the Badlands, where the worst results of radiation are found. In the some areas nothing grows at all; everything is black char or even polished glass. Evidence in the novel indicates that the Badlands are areas of what was once southern Canada and the United States.
The single, dominant fact of life in Waknuk, as David learns in his lessons in Ethics, is the process of climbing back into the grace of God. Tribulation has been a punishment, like expulsion from Eden, the Flood and so on, and the road back to God's favour is not an easy one.
Since there is only one true path and, since this is determined by learned writings such as Nicholson's Repentances, only the church and lay authorities could properly rule on what is right and proper. Anything that deviates from what they say is normal has to be destroyed, for it was not only a temptation leading away from the true path, it was, also, an insult directed at God. Above all, mankind's greatest duty is to see that the human form is kept true to the divine pattern.
For guidance, the people of Waknuk could turn to the Bible, which has survived Tribulation but, more often, they turn to Nicholson's Repentances. This is a series of lessons written during the age of barbarism, just after Tribulation, and it is the the only place where the True Image is described. Consequently, this volume is both a rule book and a justification for the stern morality of Waknuk.
The normal factors that influence an agricultural community are minor in relation to the power of religion. Even marriage is affected, for a husband may turn out his wife if she produces three consecutive deviant children.
Because it is so dominant, little else but religion penetrates David's existence as a child.
In The Chrysalids , atmosphere varies extensively. There is the normal interest at the beginning of a novel as the characters reveal themselves, and the plot unfolds. But the stronger curiosity in this novel arises from the urge to identify the society. It is familiar, yet unfamiliar. Just when the reader has determined that it belongs to the eighteenth century, somewhere in the Western Hemisphere, a vague reference is given to suggest that this is not so.
Then, there is the peculiarity of the society itself. These people seem like ourselves, but they have a disturbingly different set of beliefs, further piquing our curiosity.
As the setting, characters and background are established, the atmosphere begins to change to one of fear. This occurs for two reasons. The amazing lack of charity, and unbending set of rules in David's community are frightening in themselves but, by this time, we have come to know and like David and, realizing that he, too, is a deviant, we fear for him.
Several incidents such as the flight of the Wenders, and the suicide of Aunt Harriet, increase this fear. We now anticipate and expect that David will be discovered. When it finally does happen there is almost a sense of relief.
By this time, though, an air of hope is present. Petra's communication with a whole society of "thought-makers" gives some assurance that the fugitives will escape.
It is significant that the only other atmosphere of importance is the pathos which surrounds Sophie and a few other unfortunates. Only at the very end of the novel are there any feelings of joy.
Theme and satire are very closely interwoven in The Chrysalids. Many of the critical ideas in the novel are pointed directly at the shortcomings of David's society and, indirectly, at our society. The people of Waknuk, for example, purge from their midst anything that is not normal or, at least, does not look like their concept of normal. In the history of mankind, certain groups have always reacted negatively to other groups they feel are different. Recent history includes some horrendous events that make what the Waknuk people do look like child's play. Genocide has occurred, for instance, during World War II, when 6 million Jews were exterminated, during the expulsion of the Armenians from Turkey, in Cambodia during the 1970's, and in 1994 in Ruanda. Unfortunately, there are many more examples in the history of mankind. Our own society has institutions and clinics to educate and administer to the abnormal; yet there are "freak" shows in every large midway.
David's society, despite its concern for the True Image , allows the great-horses to be bred and used. These horses are huge, far bigger than any normal horse. But, they do twice the work of a normal horse at less than twice the feed. For the sake of profit the True Image can be ignored. Hypocrisy is shown to be a universal human condition and the people of Waknuk are no different from us.
Another of the author's statements directed at us is no less bitter. The graphic description of the Badlands, the deviations, the age of barbarism, the horror of Tribulation , all point out the inherent dangers of nuclear war and, perhaps more effectively, the finality of such a war.
The chief critical theme, however, is the one implied by the title of the novel. Chrysalid is a term taken from biology. It describes the state through which a larva must pass before becoming an insect. In this state, the larva is wrapped in a hard case or shell, takes no food and is totally inactive. This is precisely the state that Joseph Strorm and his kind are trying to maintain and force on humanity
As the Sealand lady points out, evolution cannot be denied and the chrysalid cannot be stopped in its development to the next stage. The Waknuk society's anti-intellectualism, which tries to eliminate both logic and imagination, and its efforts to deny evolution, are doomed to be a dead end.
Wyndham's attacks on this kind of thinking varies from satire to outright bitterness. The satire is chiefly directed at Joseph Strorm. Since he personifies all that is wrong with the community's religious ideas, he is made to appear as a frustrated and dangerous buffoon.
But criticism can take a crueler form, such as Sophie's fate, or Aunt Harriet's suicide. Their stories introduce a sense of helpless frustration for they point out not only the foolishness of the Waknuk philosophy but, also, the futility of trying to defeat it.
Uncle Axel, as the mouthpiece of the author, supplies the most apt analysis of the situation, for he tells David that every group of people he has seen in his travels thinks that the True Image is themselves. No one, he points out, could ever be sure that the True Image is right, for it comes from Nicholson's Repentances , written after Tribulation.
Only the Sealanders offer hope to David and his friends and in their wish to improve and develop mankind, they give hope to the novel.
Introduction - Characters - Outline - Style - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Chapter 6 - Chapter 7 - Chapter 8 - Chapter 9 - Chapter 10 - Chapter 11 - Chapter 12 - Chapter 13 - Chapter 14 - Chapter 15 - Chapter 16 - Chapter 17 - Test 1 - Test 2 - Map 1 - Map 2 - Map 3