By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, published in 1955, is one of the earliest examples of young adult dystopian fiction. It clearly demonstrates the potential of dystopian literature to comment on timely social anxieties, and it allows thought about the very complicated relationship between dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature.
The Narrator of The Chrysalids
David Storm is the main character and first-person narrator of The Chrysalids. He shows readers his dystopian society through his eyes, first as a 10-year-old and then, by the end, as a man in his early 20s. In an era when science fiction was marketed almost exclusively to men, with an emphasis on young men, David is an unusual sort of protagonist.
He’s neither an adventure hero nor an inventor, the two roles most common to teenagers in science fiction novels of this period. He also shares little with the male characters of a young adult novel published the year before, in 1954, and which also has a nuclear event in its backdrop: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
In Golding, unlike in Wyndham, the view is of teens who cannot maintain a society without adult influence and who reveal a very dark view of uncivilized humanity. But at a time when the concept of a teenager is still fairly new, and when teens are often associated with rebellion, David is neither Ralph nor Piggy. He is, by necessity, a quiet boy, since there are no boisterous children in his world.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, Wondrium.
David’s Dystopian Society
David’s home is especially quiet since his father is a regular preacher at the local church as well as the largest landowner in Waknuk, a tight-knit community of very religious people known throughout the district for their deep devotion to Purity—capital P purity. David’s father is the leader in fighting against deviation.
As David grows up in this strict society and even stricter home, he becomes increasingly aware not only of the repressive nature of his community but also of his own terrifying difference. This draws the reader, regardless of age, into a sort of blossoming understanding.
The adult reader, especially if experienced with dystopian narratives, will be able to guess some things about how differences are dealt with that David cannot imagine. But even then, the ending—absolutely not cozy—may still come as a surprise.
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When David Meets the Little Girl
When David is 10, he meets a mysterious little girl named Sophie who lives in the depths of the woods and doesn’t participate in any of the community events. Although David knows there’s something strange about Sophie, the two become fast friends. One day, Sophie gets trapped near the river and is forced to reveal to David her horrifying secret: she has six toes on each foot.
This is David’s first chance to put into practice the surveillance he knows is at the center of not only Waknuk’s reputation for Purity but also of the survival of the human race. He must report Sophie immediately to the authorities, including his father, and the town’s Inspector. Wyndham is brilliant here in his use of a limit case. Six toes?
David has told readers that human mutants are expelled to the Fringes, where mutations are far more common in plants and animals, presumably a place where radiation poisoning is less contained than in the district. And as David considers what he should do, the reader thinks of sweet little Sophie with her extra toe and can’t imagine that David will actually turn her in.
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Rebellion of David within His Society
At the age of 10, David shows himself to be a rebel within society. And when Sophie is discovered by someone else, David risks punishment—and he gets the punishment, in the form of a horrific beating from his father—to help Sophie and her family escape, although he can’t imagine where they could escape to.
He helps not only because he really cares about Sophie, but also because David is beginning to realize that he himself is a Blasphemy. He doesn’t have an extra digit or a bum knee or a hideous external deformation. David and a few other children in the district are telepathic.
David’s Conversation with Axel
David is straightforward and matter-of-fact, and also very much at odds with his society. Even the kids in the neighborhood who share his telepathic talents can’t quite wrap their minds around the idea that a deviation might not be disgusting and evil, which means that even though several are older than David, they also can’t wrap their minds around the idea that they are deviants.
Wyndham makes full use of his child narrator to wring as much pathos as possible from the situation. The pathos begins when David has a long conversation with his Uncle Axel, who has traveled quite extensively outside the community and whose attitudes toward Purity are quite different from those of David’s father.
When David asks what the world is like outside, his uncle says, “Godless. Very godless indeed.” David looks disappointed, but Uncle Axel grins and offers him details as long as he can keep them quiet. The adult reader’s pleasure here is in watching David’s dawning understanding as Axel describes the world outside. The young adult reader may simply be along for the ride, just as astonished as David. Outside, it turns out, and not all that far away, are places where mutations run wild.
Common Questions about The Chrysalids
The narrator/first person in The Chrysalids is called David Storm. He lives in a dystopian society and reveals this society to the readers from his perspective.
Sophie is a mutant little girl who suffers in the dystopian society. She has one extra toe on each foot and lives deep in the woods with her parents.
In The Chrysalids, although David and some other kids look normal from the outside, they have a deviation on the inside in this dystopian society. They have the power to communicate with each other telepathically.