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Literature: The Chrysalids
Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

The Chrysalids is a Science Fiction novel written by John Wyndham, first published in 1955 and considered by many to be his masterpiece.

Many centuries after a global nuclear apocalypse, northern Labrador and 'Newf' are among the few places hospitable to human habitation, albeit very pre-industrial. Our story centers around the small farming community of Waknuk, ruled with an iron fist by fanatical Sinister Minister Joseph Strorm.

The only document that has survived from the time of the 'Old People' is the Bible, from which the current generation infer that 'Tribulation' must have been a final, devastating judgement on human arrogance, a la the fall of Jerusalem. Taking this together with a later book called Repentances, this new society develops what they believe to be the immutable Definition of Man, and aims to rebuild the world accordingly in the True Image of God.

In this theology born of ignorance and fear, any radiation-bred mutant — no matter how slightly abnormal — is interpreted as either a Deviation (plants, animals) or, more horribly still, a Blasphemy: a human-shaped but soulless mockery of God's perfection sent by Satan to lure Man off the faint and narrow path to righteousness. They all must be ruthlessly rooted out and destroyed lest they contaminate the purity of Godly society. In the case of the almost-humans, there is just enough mercy that they are merely sterilized and banished (usually at birth) to the wild country known as the Fringes, to survive or not as they can.

Against this backdrop, Joseph's son and our narrator David Strorm, along with several other children, discovers that they have a mutation that is not visible to the naked eye: they are able to communicate with each other by means of telepathy, or "thought-shapes". The story centers first on their efforts to conceal this ability, then their struggle to define it against what they and others understand as the Norm...

...and then, finally, on their efforts merely to defend themselves at all costs. Because as much as their society loathes the deviants they can see and thus control, the notion of ones they can't terrifies them into all-out racial war — a war which may only ultimately be winnable by a civilization still more ruthlessly determined to survive.

The story was adapted for radio by the BBC in 1982, and for the stage in 1999.


The Chrysalids provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Rosalind and Sophie.
  • Affably Evil: The inspector. He's shown as an amiable, basically humane bureaucrat who strongly objects to Joseph Strorm's harsh inflexibility, and his treatment of David particularly. However he's also an unimaginative man who never questions his mission; it's indicated that he thus takes part in the relentless interrogation of the captured telepaths, leading to their deaths.
    • Gordon Strorm also comes across as this, right up until he deliberately announces his intent to rape his nephew's fiance (and, it's strongly hinted, is at least interested in his nine-year-old niece).
  • After the End: Several centuries at least; long enough for the extremities of the inhabited earth to be reclaimed from nuclear catastrophe.
  • And Man Grew Proud: Thought to be the reason behind Tribulation. Ironically — as David's uncle and Secret Keeper Axel points out — even if this is basically correct, the new society has drawn exactly the wrong lessons from it.
  • Anyone Can Die: Well, anyone in the supporting cast at least. There are ten telepaths at the story's outset and only the five with major roles — David, Rosalind, Petra, Rachel and Michael — survive to the end. Likewise several others close to David are killed or otherwise disappear.
  • Asshole Victim: Alan Erwin is specifically called out as this. Nobody's much upset when Joseph Strorm dies either, not even his children.
  • As the Good Book Says: Not only the Bible, but also the Repentances, which together have given rise to "The Definition of Man," which gives specific descriptions of man, but it does not exactly state the form for beasts and crops.
  • Author Tract: Several pages are given over to philosophic discourses on the nature of man and God as they relate to evolutionary change and growth.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: David, although since he's usually up against much tougher opponents, not very effectually.
  • Berserk Button: The mere mention of deviation is enough to inspire real fear and horror, as per the scene in which David innocently suggests he could've used a third hand to accomplish a task and is beaten for it. The inspector enjoys pressing Joseph's buttons specifically.
  • Black Sheep: Aunt Harriet, after her ill-fated attempt to enlist the Strorms' help to save her mutant baby by switching her temporarily with perfect-seeming Petra.
    David: (narrating) It was as though she had been erased from everyone's memories save mine.
  • Blessed with Suck: What all the telepaths struggle with for years after they become aware of their deviance. Articulated outright at one point thusly:
    David: We had a gift, a sense which, Michael complained bitterly, should have been a blessing, but was little better than a curse. The stupidest norm was happier; he could feel that he belonged.
  • Book Ends: The novel begins with David dreaming about a futuristic city and ends with he, Rosalind and Petra actually arriving there.
  • Broken Bird: Sophie. Forced sterilization, followed by 'degradation to a savage', will do that.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Joseph gets this from the inspector on a number of occasions. Notably, the use of 'great-horses', which have been approved by the Government as the result of controlled breeding, but which Joseph insists are Deviations due to their unusual height:
    Joseph: It is your moral duty to issue an order against these so-called horses.
    Inspector: It's part of my official duty to protect them from harm by fools and bigots.
  • Character Development: David and the other telepaths are forced to this over the course of the novel. Rosalind goes so far as to deliberately construct a tough, cynical exterior to hide her fears.
  • Cheerful Child: Petra, whom even Joseph cannot resist spoiling, 'with an endearing lack of success'. Also Sophie, the six-toed little girl David befriends, before she and her family are captured and exiled — making the hard, bitter woman we meet in the Fringes later that much more heartbreaking.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Both David and Petra serve as this. David, because his strange childhood dreams allow him to confirm Petra's second-hand description of 'Sealand' (actually, as per its description, New Zealand); Petra, because her strong "thought-shapes" allow the Sealand woman to home in on her and thus know where to find the protagonists later.
    • The minor character Jerome Skinner, certainly. He's only seen in person for one brief scene, but he's the one who outs the protagonists to the authorities.
  • Church Militant: Many of the preachers described in the story, but Joseph Strorm and his father (in flashback) are the prime examples.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Of Sally and Katherine, in order to learn more about the telepaths. Just in case the reader has missed the wider implications to that point, we now learn that this is a society with no qualms about applying red-hot irons to an adolescent girl's feet.
  • Crapsack World: If you're a 'deviant', this is the kindest possible description of the new Labrador.
  • Cursed with Awesome: Petra's telepathic ability is much stronger than that of the other main characters, especially for her age, and she's able to communicate with other telepaths over a distance of several thousand miles. Unfortunately, it first manifests when she's panicked and urgently compels the others to rush to her aid, leading to the group's discovery. Even once she's trained and aware enough to control herself better, when she gets excited any nearby telepaths are stunned and "blinded" (the last scene is of her thus stunning the entire Sealand city).
  • Days of Future Past: The current Labrador society is essentially a post-apocalyptic twist on the rural villages Wyndham and his initial readers would've grown up remembering, complete with Eternal English, distinctively British given names and Caucasian Monochrome Casting (handily demonstrating why his books are sometimes dubbed Cosy Catastrophes).
  • Deadpan Snarker: The inspector, and Michael.
  • Death by Irony: Joseph Strorm is killed by his own mutated brother Gordon.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Rosalind
  • Deus ex Machina: The arrival of the Sealand rescue party could be interpreted as literally this, given the descent of their shiny helicopter-esque transport at the height of the pre-industrial peoples' climactic battle. It's been foreshadowed throughout the latter part of the book, but they still actually show up at an awfully convenient moment.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Given that her six toes are a major plot driver, Sophie is seen barefoot, or taking off her shoes, in most of her appearances.
  • Double Standard: As per the generally primitive attitude to biology, any woman who gives birth to three deformed or mutated children in a row may be 'sent away' by her husband... but apparently the husbands don't suffer any repercussions at all, instead being allowed to seek new wives.
  • Driven to Suicide: Aunt Harriet. Anne also to an extent.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: And how...
  • The End of the World as We Know It: The futility of the current society trying so fiercely to regain what was ultimately destroyed is discussed at several points.
  • Eternal English: Despite having only the vaguest idea of the Old Ones' civilization, and no documents from it save the Bible (and that probably, from the internal evidence, the King James Version), current Labrador society sounds remarkably like 1950's Britain, with perhaps a bit of similarly-vintage American dime novel thrown in. The Sealanders have a noticeably odd pronunciation — presumably the descendant of the original New Zealand accent — but can otherwise make themselves understood to David and co. with no trouble.
  • Fantastic Racism: Taken Up to Eleven and going both ways for the Norms and the Blasphemies.
  • Fate Worse than Death: In-story, being banished to the Fringes is considered this, as not only are Blasphemies officially not human (being considered instead the soulless spawn of Satan), they're forcibly sterilized and tossed into wild, savage country to survive or die as chance wills.
  • Feuding Families: On top of everything else they have to deal with, David and Rosalind's. Their fathers make a point of spying on each others' farms in order to publicly point out deviations in the crops or livestock.
  • Foreshadowing: David has a mysterious dream in the very first chapter, about — as he describes them — 'carts driving without horses to pull them', fish-shaped machines flying, and shining cities with lots of lights; and he wonders if any such place really exists. When he asks his older sister, she suggests that it may be a description of what the world used to look like before Tribulation, then warns him not to tell anyone else about it. Of course, it later turns out it's not a dream...
  • Friendly Enemy: The inspector sees himself as this to David.
  • Freudian Excuse: We learn early in the novel that Joseph Strorm is very much like his father Elias, who was even more harsh and unyielding.
  • The Fundamentalist: Strorm family retainer Old Jacob, deliberately introduced to represent this POV within the story. He considers one year's high rate of Deviations a judgement on the more progressive elements of Labrador society for, among other things, being too soft on human mutants — ie., no longer burning them to death.
  • Harmful to Minors: In-universe. Most Blasphemies are discovered and hence banished as newborn babies.
  • Heroic BSOD: Rosalind has one after being forced to shoot a man who was tracking her, David and Petra following the trio's flight from Waknuk.
  • Hot-Blooded: Rosalind, Michael and Sophie.
  • Humans Are Psychic in the Future: Zealand has telepaths as their main population. Where the story takes place, there are a few people who are also telepathic but would be persecuted because of it.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Both Uncle Axel and Rosalind kill to protect the group's secret, and both defend themselves this way.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Anne, after falling in love with a Norm. David also specifically prays this at one point, out of fear for himself arising from what he's witnessed happening to mutated crops and animals.
  • Infant Immortality: Averted; if you're found to have a deformity upon being born, well, sucks to be you.
  • Irony: A recurring theme in the book. That Joseph Strorm, the most extreme of the mutant-hating population of Waknuk, has two children that are mutants is just the tip of the iceberg.
  • Jerkass: Alan. So much so, in fact, that following his death, it's discovered that he's made a number of enemies. Joseph Strorm is this trope taken to horrifying levels.
  • Kick the Dog: When David's little friend Sophie and her parents are captured, Joseph announces it loudly to the inspector while sneering at David, who is all of about ten and at this point is crying audibly.
  • Kill All Mutants: A recurring theme. The tables are turned near the end of the novel.
  • Kissing Cousins: David and Rosalind. Well, they're half-cousins, anyway.
  • Knight Templar: Joseph. As noted, he harshly punishes David when the latter makes an innocent remark about needing a third arm to tie a difficult knot, because he interprets it as David wishing to be a mutant.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Joseph Strorm has been instrumental in getting numerous mutants banished to the Fringes. During the climactic final battle his brother Gordon, who was banished as a child for this very reason, singles out Joseph in the crowd and shoots him dead.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Uncle Axel cites this as the reason why Anne's relationship with a 'normal' man poses an overwhelming threat to the safety of the group as a whole; out of guilt or self-abasement or some other passion, eventually she will feel the need to confess all.
  • Masquerade: David and the other telepaths, being physically unremarkable, are able to hide these powers from the 'normal' populace for a very long time.
  • Mercy Kill: Given that they've just "overheard" the brutal torture of their fellow female telepaths, this is what Michael and David agree will happen to Petra and Rosalind if the trio are caught by the same authorities.
  • The Mole: Michael, the best-educated of the telepaths and one of the few whose ability remains undiscovered, joins one of the groups hunting David and company in order to give them play-by-play information.
  • Monochrome Casting: Rather oddly given the location, there's no indication of Inuit or other ethnic diversity in Waknuk. Black skin is called out as a particularly strange deviation found only among more southerly (probably remnants of the Caribbean) peoples.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: David gets this on two occasions, when he tries to defend Sophie from Alan and Rosalind from his uncle Gordon.
  • Not So Different: The Sealanders may be more advanced and enlightened than Labrador society in many ways, but — as more than one critic has pointed out — the two peoples share a very similar willingness to ruthlessly destroy any threat to their established 'norm'. Lampshaded to some extent by the Sealand woman, who views the Waknuk posse riding after the telepaths as fighting against their own inevitable extinction in the face of a superior human variant, and muses that they, the 'think-together people', will have to do the same one day.
  • Offing the Offspring: Joseph Strorm joins one of the hunter bands seeking out David and Petra basically in order to do this.
  • Only Sane Man: Initially at least, the inspector, who clearly isn't as fanatical as the community he's posted to.
  • Our Ancestors Are Superheroes: Played with, given that current Labrador society has only the vaguest idea of technology (they do keep a basic steam engine around just as a sort of museum curiosity, but have no idea what it could be used for). It's suggested the 'Old People' had superhuman intelligence, the power to move mountains at a whim, and could even fly. A companion rumor, first mentioned by Uncle Axel, holds that they could also communicate with each other over long distances — just like David & company.
  • Properly Paranoid: Sophie and her parents at the start of the novel. As they grow more aware of their difference from the norm, the telepathic group as well.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Rosalind's reaction when she's threatened with it is handled like this, with the normally entirely self-contained girl breaking down in hysterics at the thought of being violated by what she sees as a literal monster.
  • The Resenter: All the telepaths toward their powers, at some point. Anne goes so far as to try to 'stop' herself in order to marry a norm.
    • Sophie becomes this toward Rosalind when the two meet later in the novel; not so much because she sees her as a rival for David and/or Gordon, as that Rosalind's untouched beauty — and presumed fertility — throw Sophie's sense of her own futile existence into sharp relief.
    • Gordon is this toward his younger brother Joseph Strorm as well. He was banished to the Fringes as a child for having spider-like limbs, losing his rightful inheritance as the oldest son to Joseph.
  • Run for the Border: David, Rosalind and Petra are forced to do this after being officially branded as outlaws from 'normal' human society.
  • Secret Keeper: Sophie's parents and David's Uncle Axel. To an extent, Aunt Harriet and Rosalind's mother, leading David to wonder just how many other mothers might be out there willing to take chances for their slightly-abnormal offspring...
  • Sinister Minister: Joseph.
  • Sitcom Arch-Nemesis: The inspector's early exchanges with Joseph have something of the flavour of this.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: David starts the novel on the idealistic side, but eventually winds up toward the cynical. Rosalind is deliberately on the cynical side for the majority of the novel, but the very end of the story, she's allowing her idealistic side to show. Michael is unabashedly on the cynical side from the outset, as is the woman from Sealand. Near the end, pretty much everyone is flat-out cynical about their situation, little Petra being the only exception.
  • Spell My Name with an S: The main characters debate about whether Sealand's name should in fact start with an "S" or a "Z." The get confirmation that it's 'Z', but refer to 'Sealand' anyway as it makes more sense to them.
  • The Stoic: David's mother Emily, based on her interactions with him. Rosalind is largely this way as well, even toward David her Love Interest at times.
    • Not So Stoic: Emily eventually shows herself to be this after Aunt Harriet's visit. And Rosalind's cool exterior is revealed to be a deliberate 'armour' for her real sensitive, vulnerable self.
  • Telepathy: What sets David & company apart from the surrounding Norms of Waknuk, and by contrast is the driving force behind the Sealand society; it's called "thought-shapes" or 'thinking-together' by those who have it. They can communicate only with each other, and only receive what's sent (although Petra is beginning to evince an uncomfortable ability to detect 'behind-thinks'). They share this with the Sealand woman and the majority of the members of her society, with "normal" humans being the exception for them. It's hinted that Sophie's mother may have limited telepathic ability as well, but it's not something she's aware of. David actually tests her but cannot make contact.
  • The Chosen One: Petra is basically this to the Sealand community.
  • Training from Hell: Inverted when the True Companions seek to teach Petra how to control her abilities, after said abilities first emerge. Petra's willing and eager to learn under David's tutelage, but it turns out to be torturous for the trainers because Petra is Cursed with Awesome.
  • True Companions: The eponymous group, out of necessity.
  • Tsundere: Rosalind is a definite Type A. She could also be argued to be a Kuudere.
  • World Half Full: Despite living a world nearly irrevocably destroyed, David and his friends still end their journey on a note of hope for their future, and that of civilized humanity.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never do find out just what happened to Sophie's parents after they left Waknuk and were captured (although we can guess, concealing a mutant being a serious crime). We also don't find out what happened to Uncle Axel, or for that matter the rest of David and Rosalind's family. The fate of Sally and Mark, the telepaths who abruptly stop transmitting, is also left vague; the others assume they're dead, and we know Sally is at least deeply traumatized, but the concrete details are never given the reader.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: One of the most famous extended meditations on the theme.
  • X Meets Y: X-Men meets Fallout, though the book predates both.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Nor would you want to.


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alternative title(s): The Chrysalids
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