The Post-Apocalyptic Dystopia in ‘The Chrysalids’


By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

John Wyndham in The Chrysalids draws out the suspense in a way that forces the reader to reflect on a post-apocalyptic dystopia. In a world in which mutations run rampant, people take measures to preserve the purity of the human race. In 1955, the Holocaust was still fresh in people’s minds, so the reader had just seen the results of eugenics thinking.

Image of a young man in a post-apocalyptic environment.
In The Chrysalids, David and his friends escape to the Fringes. (Image: ARKHIPOV ALEKSEY/Shutterstock)

Pregnancy and Its Psychological Torture in a Post-Apocalyptic Dystopia

The protagonist David experiences the birth of his little sister in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. David tells the reader that his mother is pregnant, a cause for great anxiety, since, in Waknuk, people don’t celebrate a pregnancy until the inspector has issued a certificate declaring a human baby in the true image. And David’s mother is especially at risk since after giving birth to David, who was certified as human, she gave birth to two Blasphemies, babies who did not meet the true image. 

An anxious pregnant woman.
David’s mother was at risk of giving birth to a mutant baby. (Image: Nicoleta Ionescu/Shutterstock)

If she produces a third inferior child, it is her husband’s right to expel her to the Fringes and take another wife who is less offensive in the eyes of God.

It is horrifying, waiting with bated breath for the birth of the new child, and eye-opening, since this is the moment when David truly understands his relationship with his parents. 

Finally, the Inspector declares the baby a true human. David’s mother is pure, and now David has a little sister.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Aunt Harriet’s Shocking Request

David’s Aunt Harriet comes to ask something that may be shocking for David and the readers. And because he’s an excellent eavesdropper, David hears far more than he should—not telepathically, though. He can only communicate telepathically with other telepaths. Aunt Harriet has just had a baby, too, and she has come to visit on a terrible errand. 

Her baby has a deviation—is a Deviation—and she has come to ask her sister if she can borrow the perfect baby, who is almost the same age, for the inspection of her mutant child. This is a turning point for David. Is he committed to Purity or not? Here the Deviation is a stranger, someone who isn’t even thought of as a person yet.

David is devastated when his mother not only says no but tells David’s father. And when David’s father scolds his sister-in-law, the reader realizes that David is in great jeopardy if anyone ever learns his secret. His parents have a stronger commitment to their community mission than to their family. No one is surprised when Aunt Harriet’s body is found in the river the next day, with no mention of the baby.

Wyndham and the Power of Missing Information

The most brilliant thing of all is that David never finds out exactly what was wrong with the baby. The power of missing information; each reader can fill in whatever is more emotionally powerful. For some readers, the pathos might lie in the baby having a very noticeable difference that doesn’t prevent Aunt Harriet from loving her, while for other readers, the pathos might lie in a baby that has a miniscule difference—an unauthorized birthmark or some such—that leads to, presumably, the baby’s death.

Seeing through David’s eyes is nowhere more challenging—and powerful—than when he grows into young adulthood and embarks with his lover and his little sister, who turns out to be an extremely powerful telepath, upon an adventure complete with an escape to the Fringes, capture by mutants, telepathic military strategy, and a reunion with six-toed Sophie, all grown up and highly ambivalent about seeing her childhood friend again.

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The Power of Mutation of David and His Friends 

As David and his cohort are truly on the road to escape, David begins to understand what the reader may already have intuited—the telepaths are far more frightening than other kinds of mutants, because they are more powerful than the humans who are in God’s image. This is a difference that isn’t just threatening to the purity of the species. 

A view of New Zealand landscape.
In The Chrysalids, telepaths from New Zealand help David and his friends. (Image: Shay Yacobinski/Shutterstock)

This could be a moment of cladogenesis, an evolutionary splitting where a parent species breaks into two distinct branches.

What is learned when they meet a group of telepaths who have flown from New Zealand to save the protagonist and his friends is that telepaths elsewhere are already taking control. 

And as soon as the leader of the New Zealand telepaths enters the scene, everything is different. To those powerful telepaths, the humans David has always considered pure—his family, his community, and everyone he has known except his fellow telepaths—to the New Zealand telepaths, these people represent a less advanced, less fit species, since their communications technologies leave them emotionally alone and militarily weak.

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Effect of The Chrysalids on Teenagers

The Chrysalids provides the kind of complex analysis of power the readers have come to expect from dystopias written for adults. And they will enjoy this novel not only because of the nostalgia but also for the true power of The Chrysalids that is opening up the genre of dystopia to younger readers, a move that has become especially prevalent in the 21st century. 

Young people try to figure out their place in the world. They also try to understand the state of the world they’re living in. The mid-1950s was an especially anxious time for teenagers who felt different and often had a stronger sense of their individuality than others.

As Wyndham showed readers in 1955, dystopian literature, with all the narrative excitement of catastrophe and life-and-death conflict and the potential for utopian imaginings, provided a powerful space for teens to reframe not only their own questions and concerns but also the potentials for resolutions available even in worlds drastically more frightening than their own.

Common Questions about the Post-Apocalyptic Dystopia in The Chrysalids

Q: Why didn’t people celebrate pregnancy in The Chrysalids?

In the post-apocalyptic dystopia narrated in The Chrysalids, people weren’t happy with pregnancy for the fear of giving birth to a mutant/Blasphemy baby.

Q: Why did Aunt Harriet come to visit David’s mother?

David’s Aunt Harriet gave birth to a baby that had a deviation. Aunt Harriet wanted to borrow her sister’s perfect baby for the inspection.

Q: Why were David and his friends frightened of getting noticed by pure humans?

David, his sister, and his friends were telepaths. When a group of telepaths from New Zealand came to save David and his friends, David learned that telepaths elsewhere were already taking control

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