The Chrysalids

The Chrysalids Essay Questions

  1. 1

    The word chrysalid is derived from the biological process of insect metamorphosis: a series of stages starting with a larva/caterpillar, transforming into a chrysalis or pupa and then finally becoming a butterfly. How is The Chrysalids is an appropriate title for the novel? Examine the beliefs by the Old People, the Waknukians, and the Sealanders.

    The word “Chrysalid” was invented by John Wyndham for the title of his book The Chrysalids. The word comes from the process of insect metamorphosis, when a caterpillar goes into a cocoon or chrysalis, and then becomes a butterfly. Chrysalid can also mean a state of growing. The word Chrysalid makes a great title for the book, and there is evidence to prove it. We can view the Old People, the Waknukians, and the Sealanders as stages in the butterfly cycle.

    First, the Old people, or our modern day people, are the first stage of the butterfly cycle, the caterpillar, and are yet to change. The Old People did not respect God, and thought they were better than He was, so He brought down Tribulation upon them. One of the Fringes people explains it as follows: “The Old People thought they were the tops, too…. All they had to do was get it fixed up comfortable, and keep it that way; then everybody would be fine, on account of their ideas being a lot more civilised than God’s” (153). The Old People needed to change their ways. The caterpillars must now go into their cocoon to recover, and find a new way of life.

    The Waknukians are the second stage of the butterfly cycle, the cocoon or the chrysalis, and they are in the middle of transforming. The Waknukians are trying to change and be perfect in God’s eyes. Some of the Waknukians are changing, and developing powers that are unheard of and abnormal. They are able to communicate telepathically using thought-shapes, but are not being accepted into their community as the community is closed off in their cocoons. When Uncle Axel finds out David is able to communicate telepathically, he says, “It would be best if you could forget it altogether” (p.31). This is because all the other citizens would try to banish David, as they have not evolved out of the second stage and cannot accept him.

    Third, the Sealand people are the final stage of the butterfly cycle, the butterfly, as they have finished transforming. The reader knows that almost all the people in Sealand can speak telepathically, and those who cannot speak telepathically want to be able to do so. All who can speak in this way are welcome in Sealand. The Sealand lady explains the emergence of Sealand in this way: “Then, somehow, the strain of people who could think-together began. In time, those who were able to do it best found others who could do it a little, and taught them to develop it. It was natural for the people who could share thoughts to tend to marry one another, so that the strain was strengthened” (p.157). The Sealand people have emerged from their cocoons, will full butterfly wings ready to change the world.

  2. 2

    How women’s roles are shaped in The Chrysalids relies heavily on their place in the home, as well as their ability to survive. How does the novel portray this conflict in the struggles of the female characters of Waknuk and the Fringes?

    John Wyndham wrote and published The Chrysalids in England in the 1950s during a time when women’s roles in the home and in the workplace were going through an evolution; during World War II, women went to work and took on some of the traditionally masculine roles of working in factories and providing an income for their families. However, after the war, they were returned to their former roles of housewife and mother.

    In The Chrysalids, the society places women in the role of child bearer and homemaker, yet not all of the female characters fit into this role completely. Rosalind Morton is a strong woman who can use a bow and arrow and plan an escape; yet, later in the novel David reveals that beneath this she is a soft, gentle woman. Sophie in the Fringes has had to take care of her own needs, and fights alongside the men; yet she also wishes she could have a family and reveals she is in love with David too. There are also more traditional homemaker characters, such as Emily Strorm, the devout mother of David, who is contrasted with her sister Aunt Harriet, who values her child’s life over the values of the society. In addition, there is Anne, who chooses to marry Alan Ervin rather than to stay true to her secret community of youths with telepathic power. Almost all of these women have to balance their duties against their own survival. However, Wyndham presents limited desires of women that go outside of the societal norms of his time: even the strongest women such as Rosalind and Sophie have their strength diluted by their more conventional desires to be feminine (e.g., love interests, wives, mothers, homemakers, caretakers).

  3. 3

    How are the process of Othering and the theme of Intolerance portrayed in The Chrysalids?

    In Waknuk, people are devoted to the True Image of Man. In Sealand, they are devoted to the evolution of a superior human. These two philosophies are opposed to one another, yet they also have one thing in common: they both have a process of Othering, or qualifying another group of people as different and less than them. In Waknuk, the process of Othering consists in following the strict guidelines provided by the Repentances, with the added guidance of the Inspector and the Government of Rigo. The Sealanders, on the other hand, do not feel there is a true image of man, but rather that man is evolving to be a newer and better form of himself, which is why they refer to themselves as the New People. Yet, their way of thinking has its drawbacks as well: much like the Waknuk people believe that it is okay to sterilize and other the Fringe people, the Sealanders believe that any “inferior” race can and should be eliminated so that the superior version of man can grow and thrive.

  4. 4

    How does Wyndham use Tribulation and the imagery and narrative of the book to create a cultural and societal critique?

    Tribulation is Wyndham’s imagining of a worldwide nuclear disaster that was brought on by the Old People. The Old People are the humans of Wyndham’s time. During the Cold War when The Chrysalids was written, there was anxiety of a nuclear bomb that could destroy or drastically change life on earth. The bombs dropped on Japan at the end of WWII had had an impact that went beyond the damage caused by the explosion: people who were not directly hit still experienced radiation poisoning. Yet at the same time, Wyndham’s view of the post-apocalyptic future is in some ways hopeful, and Wyndham has been called a Post-Disaster novelist for this reason (Slattery 40). The hopefulness of the work comes in small doses–for example, when Axel describes how one sailor and explorer, Marther, went beyond the Badlands and the Blacklands and found that, slowly but surely, the Wild Country was beginning to encroach on the empty lands. Also, David, Rosalind, and Petra’s escape from the “primitive” culture of Waknuk to the shiny beautiful “Sealand,” where the people think together, suggests greater human potential through cooperation.

  5. 5

    The term “Cosy Catastrophe” was coined by Brian Aldiss to classify John Wyndham’s novels. Why would The Chrysalids be considered a Cosy Catastrophe, and how might the novel go beyond that classification?

    The term Cosy Catastrophe refers to the idea that a catastrophe and post-apocalyptic world that has a comforting ambiance in an environment in which the characters have to make a new start after a major disaster. There may be some safety in the idea of humanity surviving the kind of nuclear catastrophe presented in Tribulation, and living in a puritanical society that in some ways mirrors the lifestyles during the 18th and early 19th century in the US. In this way, The Chrysalids is a return to a time that many people consider to be simpler, although not without its dangers. These dangers come from outside, such as the Fringes and the Wild Country, but they also come from within, such as the deviant crops and stock, and especially the genetic mutation that is occurring in humans. The cosiness of The Chrysalids is overshadowed by the bleak reality of the way Waknuk society treats as inhuman those people who don’t fit their Norm. The Chrysalids is dark and at times not comfortable precisely because it reveals a dark side of humanity, that of prejudice and intolerance, that exists not only in Waknuk, the Fringes, and Sealand, but in Wyndham’s reality and in today’s society as well.