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Thank you for this great site and your reviews of The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoo, though I disagree with some of the points made.
Firstly the reviewer critises the 'weak' ending to Chrysalids. Wyndham is an intelligent writer so doesn’t need to spell out moral conclusions, and leaves the reader to make his or her own mind. In chapter twelve, after Katherine is tortured Michael declares ‘It is war’. The Chrysalids was written a decade after the end of the Second World War, the most barbaric war ever fought. Most people, including myself, would agree that the Allies were the ‘goodies’. However the British and Americans carpet bombed Hamburg, Tokyo, and a hundred other civilian cities, and of course there were the atomic bombs. War is brutal, sometimes even those who are fighting in self-defence, or for what is generally regarded as a just cause, commit dreadful crimes. Moral ambiguity is a theme of many Wyndham novels, and the atom bombs on Japan are about as controversial as war can get. I think the ending is brilliant in its unhollywood coldness.
Secondly you mention the 'cosy' argument to dismiss an element of Wyndham's writing. Could I refer you to the article Cosy Cliches at: www.wyndhamweb.com for a vigorous defence against this accusation.
I agree with UKtriffid, The Chrysalids is a cracking read from start to finish. You say in the review that the Sealanders actions are not justified; please read the ending again! The actions were briefly justified. And why should a book have a dull, black and white ending, to appeal to an American audience perhaps? Chrysalids is too classey for that. Secondly, I hate to be pedantic, but in the Midwich Cuckoo review you seem to be unsure of the differenc between a village, town and hamlet. Midwich is a village (say a thousand people), a town is much bigger and a hamlet much smaller (say a dozen houses). Sorry but these things have t bee explained to North Americans!
One of the more surprising things about being a webmaster of a site like this is that your most trafficked pages are never what you think they're going to be. I've been fascinated over the last few years to see how my review of the 55-year-old The Chrysalids has gotten more hits than any other on the site, even Ender's Game. Clearly it's touched a nerve. I've gotten emails telling me it's been argued over in literature courses in UK colleges. If one goal of a critic is to upset some long revered applecarts, I suppose I've done my duty.
I've had emails telling me the climax of The Chrysalids (and naturally this post will be full of spoilers, so be warned) was intended ironically, allegorically, what have you. So far I have yet to read a defense of the novel that holds up to a clear and objective reading of the book's final chapter. But I wouldn't be so arrogant as to think these defenses don't have some good insights to offer.
Triffid UK, I think you make some good arguments for the allegorical intent of the story. But I think that only goes so far. While there is a very convincing interpretation to be made that the Chrysalids represent the Jews living under the repressive regime of the Nazis (Waknukians), the novel as a whole does not suggest a broad WW2 allegory. I can assure Liz I've read the climax to the book, not once, not twice, but scores of times, and today I've read it again and have it sitting in front of me right now. And whatever "brief" justification the Sealanders give for their massacre of the Waknukians runs into the very problem I described: Their rationale of genocide towards the Waknukians is no different than that given by the Waknukians for their genocide of the Chrysalids. They're different. They threaten us. We're better. So we have to kill them.
Here are the salient passages from the climax. The Sealander representative has a lengthy speech which we pick up here:
"It is not pleasant to kill any creature," she agreed. "But to pretend that one can live without doing so is self-deception. There has to be meat in the dish, there have to be vegetables forbidden to flower, seeds forbidden to germinate; even the cycles of microbes must be sacrificed for us to continue our cycles. It is neither shameful nor shocking that it should be so. It is simply the great revolving wheel of natural economy. And just as we have to keep ourselves alive in these ways, so, too, we have to preserve our species against others that wish to destroy it, or else fail in our trust....
"The unhappy Fringes people were condemned through no act of their own to a life of squalor and misery — there could be no future for them. As for those who condemned them, well, that, too, is the way of it. There have been lords of life before, you know. Did you ever hear of the great lizards? When the time came for them to be superseded they had to pass away.
"Sometime there will come a day when we ourselves shall have to give place to a new thing. Very certainly we shall struggle against the inevitable just as these remnants of the Old People do. We shall try with all our strength to grind it back into the earth from which it is emerging, for treachery to one's own species must always seem a crime. We shall force it to prove itself, and when it does, we shall go; as, by the same process, these are going.
"In loyalty to their kind they cannot tolerate our rise; in loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction.
"The static, the enemy of change, is the enemy of life, and therefore our implacable enemy. If you still feel shocked, or doubtful, just consider some of the things that these people who have taught you to think of them as your fellows, have done. I know little about your lives, but the pattern scarcely varies wherever a pocket of the older species is trying to preserve itself. And consider, too, what they intended to do to you, and why."
"It wouldn't just be murder, Uncle Axel. It'd be something worse, as well; like violating part of ourselves. We couldn't do it."
"The alternative is the sword over your heads," he said.
"I know," I agreed unhappily. "But that isn't the way. A sword inside us would be worse.
I do not wish to get into a slanging match with you, since I agree with the first half of your Chrysalids review, and clearly you rate Wyndham as an intelligent, thought-provoking author. However, I feel a little frustrated that somebody who thinks that the book is 98% five-star masterpiece, could then go on to write 'I cannot believe Wyndham could screw up this badly, especially when, considering how masterfully he had woven his story up to that point'.
You made an eloquent response to my original post, and an informative one, since I did not know that The Chrysalids has also been interpreted as a metaphor for the Jewish holocaust. This point is especially pertinent. Surely this is an example of Wyndham's briliance, when his book can be viewed as a parable on an Axis war crime (concentration camps), and an Allied war crime (atomic bombs). I agree that we should not over-egg the pudding here, and that Chrysalids is not meant as an exact allegory of the Second World War (a conflict that Wyndham himself served in), but persecution and genocide are certainly themes.
I just don't undersand why you hate the ending so much, you appear to be cutting off your nose to spite your face, simply because the finishing chapter does not correspond to your themematic expectations. Is it not possible that Wyndham intended the Sealanders to sound hypocritical? Surely some of the defences used by politicians to justify Allied war crimes ARE hypocritical and DON'T stand up to closer inspection. Surely we as Humans are very often prepared to swallow inadequate excuses in order to pacify our consciences. You appear to be saying that neither a fictional or real person ever says one thing, then does another. Would you not except that their were British people who condemned the blitz, whilst readily supporting the bombing of Germany? So should there be no hypocritical thoughts or characters in a book? Is it not possible that Wyndham was purposefully allowing holes to left in the Sealander's diatribe?
I'm also interested to note that you didn't mention the passage where Rosalind killed one of her persuers in self-defence. This raises no objections and yet in the final scenes you take great umbrage to the a similar act by the Sealanders, albiet on a much larger scale, who had no other way to defeat the hundreds of enemies, than through their secret weapon, in order to save their persecuted brethren.
You write: 'Here is where the Sealander shamelessly launches into exactly the sort of rhetoric employed by oppressive regimes throughout history.' Yes Wyndham is probably satorising the Sealanders, in his usual subtle way,
It's also the language that you use in your reviews, especially using the word should in relation to the ending.SHOULD?! Why SHOULD? I don't understand why you feel the right to use 'should', as though Wyndham is under some sort of obligation to justify the actions of his characters. I would suggest that it is far more realistic to have characters whose persecution has turned them into people who CAN justify the slaughter of their enemies. I'll move on from the Second World War, and give you another example. If some Americans (and some Brits) can justify an invasion of Iraq, because of the terrorist actions of a handful of Saudi nutters, then it is quite believeable that the oppressed mutants, who have been so hounded by their own community and family, could readily accept any justification given for the elimination of the aforementioned foes. Why on Earth does this make the ending a poor one? And to then give it a mark of three and a half out of five!!! Come on, that's a bit harsh isn't it. So please Thomas, remove the bee from your bonnet, and just enjoy a marvellous book, with an original ending (well I didn't see it coming)!
I wasn't suggesting that you shouldn't critise things you don't like. You are quite right in thinking that poorly written books, film-scripts etc., should be regarded as such, and I certainly don't believe in the 'suspend your disbelief' cliche which is continually employed to excuse god-awful Hollywood productions. If the criteria for a bad book is having an ending that does not fit in with a novel's previously stated morality, then I suppose there is a case for critising The Chrysalids. However, I've never seen that as being an essential part of reading.
You wrote: 'The minute he brought in players from a civilization so much farther advanced from the Waknukians they might as well have been gods descending on golden chariots, and had them offer the same justifications for their slaughter that the Waknukians were basically making, Wyndham jumped the shark.'
Not quite sure exactly what the poetic turn of phrase 'jumped the shark' means!? Anyway, to re-use my Iraq War analogy, surely Bush's America was far in advance of Saddam's Iraq. Does that mean he was right to drop white phosphorus (spelling) on civilians? Since when have technologically advanced peoples, adopted a more civilised approach to their enemies? The 20th and 21st centuries have produced a hell of a lot of genocides and bloody wars, and a corresponding load of justifications, often from highly-industrialised modern nations such as Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and America.
Personally I think Wyndham's worst ending is in Kraken Wakes, which is anti-climatic.
On a final note, do you think Wyndham was justified in having Zellaby (a character who spent much of the book attempting to see matters from the childrens' angle) blow up the Midwich cuckoos? To me it's a similar finish, but one that does not seem to stimulate any passionate rebuke from your good self.
Fair enough mate, though I'm still disappointed at your determinatino to dislike the ending of The Chrysalids.
On a change of topic, have you ever read The Outward Urge, one of Wyndham's less well known novels? I feel it warrants a review on your website?
Hahaha - very entertaining debate here! I say cos most of the time on the interent people just insult and get personal so well done for keeping it intelligent! Im another brit and maybe you feel we're ganging up on you mr wagner? But I have to agrre with the others - the ending is great and does not spoil the book at all for me. However I think you probably argue your case better. Not that i have the knowledge to talk about world wars and evolution!
Now that you make the points about the illogical ending, I notice it. But at the time i didn't cos i was too wrapped up in the story - and what a story! I think maybe mr wagner you're looking at it from too sci-fi an angle if you get me. Remember wyndham called his work Logical Fantasy. And i think its why chrysalids is so effective. He's a good writer! To be honest i havent read or even heard of most of the folk reviewed here and i'm a reader in genereal, not just sf. But from my experience wyndham is just different from sf cos he has proper characters that you care about - plus the great ideas. Take asimov one of the sf authors i have read. I loved the first three books of the foundation, espceailly the ones with the Mule in. But after a while i got bored cos asimov is not a great writer - wonderful thinker mind but not a fantastic prose man. When i read and reread chrysalids i was so on the side ofthe children that i really wouldn't have cared - if id noticed - that it didn't comply to a more sci-fi set of rules. If i was in david or rosalinds shoes id not give tuppence if all my enemies were eradiocated in a brutal way, as long as i survived!
So in conclusion john wyndham is fantastic! And as the first poster mentions isnt at all cosy or "cozy"
Im Spanish so don´t have enough English for arguing but Chrysalids is wonderful AND so is the ending
OK Thomas M. Wagner, where exactly does Wyndham tell us how to think? Where does he tell us how to interpret the story? Answer: he never does. Not in Chrysalids, not in any of his books. Why? Because he's a fabulous writer who doesn't patronise....ever.
You see Wyndham, like many good authors, writes about humans. Do you understand this concept??? You see almost every human is hypocritical. So to read a book that you yourself are enjoying, then suddenly say "these characters are not acting within critical expectations" is utterly absurd.
OK so you don't like the ending, that is your view, but to then go off on a tangent about how illogical Wyndham is, is nonsense. Complete nonsense. Are you seriously saying that only logical (inhuman) characters can appear in fiction. Only characters who speak and act in an unhypocritical manner. What? What! Ok so an author can only talk about Mother Terresa that's essentially what you're drivelling.
It isn't about writers telling you how to interpret things; no skilled writer ever does that. But a novel's overall narrative usually makes a writer's thematic goals clear. That's what novelists do: communicate ideas and themes in the context of a story. In good novel writing, one expects both logical and thematic consistency. If the book's theme is the chaos and unpredictability of people and the world around you, then fine. But that isn't the theme of The Chrysalids.
You're essentially (and poorly) trying to make the argument others have already made, which I've responded to in-depth here: that Wyndham intended for the ending of the book to be ironic. I think I make a good case he didn't intend that. I don't think you've made a good case for your disagreement.
The thing is, of course it's okay for characters in a book to be dishonest hypocrites, if the author establishes them as such. The factor here that you haven't understood is logical consistency in character development. At no time in The Chrysalids does Wyndham ever make it apparent that David and Rosalind are dishonest people (except where deceit is necessary to survive in Waknuk) or moral hypocrites as a matter of course. Nor is their sudden moral hypocrisy at the climax given any kind of convincing narrative justification. It is, rather, given a supremely unconvincing one. That's poor storytelling. Period.
So if it's your position that the protagonists of The Chrysalids intentionally behave, at the book's climax, in an illogical and hypocritical manner that is at odds with both the entire novel's themes and the development of their characters up to that point in the story, and that Wyndham meant to do this, then on what basis am I supposed to find his heroes sympathetic, or the novel praiseworthy? What can you quote me from the book's actual text to show that this is not a major story flaw?
As someone else said - how great to come across an online debate where everyone appears to read everyone else's posts and actually have something resembling a coherent argument. Thanks to previous posters for a good read thus far.
I've just finished the book, literally 10 minutes ago. I read the review and wanted to rebut its critique, but the number of posts trying to do the same (at times wandering close to silly ad hominems) - and the well-evidenced counter-argument - make me wary. So from me it's a "well- y'know-it's-complicated" position.
I think there's enough scope for a range of interpretations. I think it's entirely possible, writing in an age before decolonisation and following the seemingly brutal black-and-white moral realities of the Second World War, that Wyndham wanted to be unambiguously in favour of harsh and intolerant selection in favour of an 'improved' humanity, with a more humanist/post-Enlightenment oriented values. Such a position would clearly be offensive from our contemporary, more relativist perspective.
It could even be argued (though not without some apparent contradiction of the above) that in the Second World War he saw a kind of nihilistic destructive urge (so often remarked on in the Old People) that he would wish to see forcefully purged from humanity, even if that meant casual genocide. (Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind as another sci-fi author who fought in the war and ended up similarly misanthropic.) After all, the book constantly reiterates that telepathic bonds between people make it impossible for them to do harm to one another, once they 'know' each others minds.
On the other hand - it is not inconceivable that Wyndham was fully aware of the savage and detestable irony his ending suggests. Early in the book, Uncle Alex suggests that 'maybe everyone thinks they're created in the true image'. It is possible that he wrote the book, ending included, so as to deliberately pull the punch entirely - to avoid laying it on thick, even allowing the narrative voice to appear to agree with and endorse the logic of the Sealanders, so similar to that of the Waknukians (?). Possibly he wanted the reader, only on finishing the book and reflecting on its ending, to be struck by that ending's repugnance and hypocrisy; and the masterful way in which he or she was deceived into agreeing with the awful and inhuman logic of the Sealanders, and the naive wide-eyed (and in fact self-serving) acceptance of David and the others. To realise that even the most honest and upright figures, the most sympathetic of characters - can be led to unthinkingly condone the worst hypocrisies. Such a realisation would arguably have much more force than the author patronisingly explaining it all himself.
In the final analysis - maybe the more general question that arises is what criticism should be about. Are we discussing the author and his intentions, or the work itself and the response it generates in contemporary readers? [insert navel-gazing metaliterary digression on the lives of texts, reader-author dialectics and the thorny philosophical problems of 'signification'.] If the latter - it seems a lot of people here, reading the review and commenting, are sufficiently repulsed by the Sealanders' approach as to want to defend Wyndham from any suggestion that he was, in modern terms, a monster. Maybe that itself makes the book relevant, and worth a wider readership.
Anyway. I enjoyed the book. I'm off to read the Midwich Cuckoos now (no thanks to the person with the plot spoiler above!). Thanks again for the thoughtful commentary!
Personally I enjoyed The Chrysalids and its ending, but whatever you think it certainly isn't a cosy ending.
But at the ending, what does he do? He has David take up that "sword inside him" with pride.
Sorry what does this mean? How does he take the sword inside him with pride? What he actually does is accept a morally uncomfortable turn of events, preferring it to death in battle, and there by the grace of god go I.
I see no indication by Wyndham in the actual text that David finds the situation all that morally uncomfortable. At first, he shows more "confusion" (Wyndham's word) than discomfort at the Sealand woman's attitude at having killed literally everyone: ...there was no callousness in her mind, nor any great concern either: just a slight distaste, as if for an unavoidable, but unexceptional, necessity. But once the Sealand woman gives her little might-makes-right lecture, he gets over it pretty quickly.
It's quite a few years since I read the novel. But from what I remember of it, Thomas, I'm inclined to agree with you, at least regarding David and his reactions...
The fact that the Sealanders are such a ruthless culture is not necessarily a flaw in the novel... It is certainly conceivable that a nation of telepaths in a non-telepathic world might have a culture like that...
But the starting point of the story, after all, was the bond between David and his six-toed friend Sophie. Sophie, if I remember correctly, is killed by the Waknuk people towards the end... but the fact remains that she is in a category of people that the Sealanders destroy without compunction... When David embraces the Sealander culture, what has happened to his feelings about Sophie? Or, for that matter, his bond with his mentor Uncle Axel, who also belongs to the non-telepathic category of people who the Sealanders despise?
Had much the same question as Thomas Wagner. After brilliantly attacking the "purity" of the bigot and the wretchedness that it brings into the world, how could Wyndham end the book with a repugnant sermon on Social Darwinism?
Here are possible explanations.
1. Wyndham actually believed in an amoral evolutionary struggle in which superior variants shrug as they eliminate inferior ones and survival is the only measure of superiority. No need in this brave new world for artificial equality of people since they could all link up with each other on the basis of who and what they really were. In any event, they, too, would be surplanted by still more successful variants who would eliminate them without much thought.
2. The book was plotted from the very beginning with Zealand as the "City on the Hill" with its aircraft, lights, and sailess ships as it appears in David's dreams at the beginning of the book. The intervention of the Zealenders at the end is the intersection of that utopia with the dystopian Waknuk. It turns out that when utopia arrives, it carries the seeds of its own bigotry in its condescendtion towards the Waknuk "primitives", its explanations to David that seem geared toward simpletons, and its indifferent killing of people whose death could have been avoided with the application of whatever goo remover they used to get the sticky stuff off of the David & Co. Thus, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
3. After his lucid explanation of bigotry and sympathetic portrayal of the effects of bigotry, it is hard to believe that Wyndham did not understand what he was doing with his didactic Zealander speech at the end or fail to understand that it contradicted his horror at intolerence. However, he had to get the book to his publisher, wanted it done, and wasn't a good enough author to integrate the smugness and amorality of the Zealand society into the plot and themes of the book. Thus, the last ten pages.
The three explanations above are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and you can deconstruct the book all day long and still never really know why Wyndham ended up where he did. It's a pity he didn't explore the parallel between Waknuk bigotry and Zealand smugness more fully, but perhaps if he had, and if he came down on the side of Social Darwinism, we would think of him less as an author who missed his chance than an author who manipulated empathy in order to draw the reader to an odious conclusion.
I´d like to talk about Midwich Cuckoo NOT Chrysalids as I think enough has been said already on that book. I´ve only recently become aware of Wyndham. I watched the God awful recent BBC version of Triffids and my wife insisted that I read the book. Then I read Kraken Wakes, then Midwich. I think youré being a bit hard on JW when you say:
"With the appropriate allowances made for the archaic ideas and storytelling methods it invariably contains´.
Also not sure what was so bad about his view of evolution, and women. To me it reads like an attack on conservative rural England rather than misogyny (spelling). It´s the scandal dimension that a 21st Century English woman would not have to endure to the same level, though a village - and yes as somebody else said neither a town or hamlet is qute right but I forgive you! - in the Third World would probably be the equvilant now.
For me the great thing about Wyndham is what he doesn´t tell us, he let´s us do the imaging and filling in the holes. Even at the end there remain unanswered questions about the origin of the Children and how human they are. They definately have a touch of humanity in their paranoid actions. Brillant, wonderful, amazing, chilling book. Please read it if you haven´t already, and the black and white film is ok too.
Have enjoyed reading some of your site, and just off to read some more reviews, interested to read what you have to say on Richard Morgan.
Mr Wagner, Hi!
Would you have guessed it, yet another one coming over here about your review of John Wyndham's The Chrysalids. In my opinion, you misread that ending, Sir.
Did you get from the story that had they been able to make it to Waknuk and fetch Rachel, it would have been the Zealanders' intent to, as a necessity, right away "goo up" every single unarmed soul that they in fact left alone there?
They killed those who were in The Fringes, intent on destroying _at least_ three who were of the telepaths' kind.
The unhappy Fringes people were condemned through no act of their own to a life of squalor and misery — there could be no future for them.
As for those who condemned them, well, that, too, is the way of it. There have been lords of life before, you know.
Thanks for your interesting website.
I think the review of the ending of the Chrysalids makes a fundamental error in assuming Wyndham is using the Sealand woman to express his own views. Why make this assumption? The Sealands woman arrogance is commented on by the children several times leading up to their 'rescue', all hints towards the Sealanders perhaps not being everything they seem. To me this is simply an expression of Wyndhams classic lack of faith in humanity and a very clever ending. To have the Sealanders be perfect and give us a classic Hollywood happy ending would have been a great disappointment!
Jean Phillipe Alexis offers some elaborately constructed defenses of Wyndham's ending...except that nowhere are any of Jean's assumptions supported in Wyndham's prose (such as the Sealanders' presumed fear that they would be overwhelmed if they tried to land — Jean has simply made this up, as this is nowhere stated or even implied in the text). The idea that the Waknukians presented the sort of clear and present danger to the survival of the Sealanders that their annihilation was a necessity is absurd on its face. The Waknukians are a bunch of rustics on horseback. The Sealanders are a high-tech civilization living half a world away, capable of raining death down from the skies, and prior to their confrontation at the climax, neither side was aware of one another. In short, it seems that Jean has fully bought into the moral justifications for genocide put forth at the end.
Re Michele's point: Whether the Sealanders' views are Wyndham's own is not even remotely the relevant issue (though given what I've read in Wyndham's other works, there are reasons to think it might be). And indeed, it would have been great to have the Sealanders be "not quite what they seem." But I've already dealt with the notion that the ending was intended ironically. The usual goal in storytelling is to make your protagonists sympathetic and relatable to the reader. The problem lies not in the Sealanders being just as xenophobic and evil as the Waknukians, but in having David, Rosalind and Petra so blithely and unthinkingly accept the Sealanders' rationalizations ("We're superior to them, they stand in our way, therefore we have to wipe them out"). In so doing, the protagonists essentially become the very evil they were spending the whole story fleeing. And with no one to like at the end, where does that leave the reader?
And with no one to like at the end, where does that leave the reader?´
It leaves the reader with a refreshing and challenging conclusion. I like several other people fail to understand your reasoning.
You also wrote:
The usual goal in storytelling is to make your protagonists sympathetic and relatable to the reader.
Well Science Fiction wouldn´t exist if writers were only interested in formulaic tales.
I suspect Wyndham is making a serious point about how persecution dehumanises the victims as well as the perpetrators (spelling?)
Chrysalids gets five stars out of five from me.
Does that mean that we as readers are meant to be dehumanized as well? After all, the ending — in which the saviors and heroes are revealed to be just as evil as the villains, they simply justify it more eloquently — is presented without a hint of irony. We are meant to think of it as a happy ending and the morally correct outcome of events.
Characters can still be sympathetic even if they are forced by circumstances to perform morally questionable (or even outright evil) acts. But events must be set up in such a way that we see the moral conflict within the character, and relate to it. While we would not wish to make such decisions ourselves, we can understand why the character was forced to do so. This isn't formula, it's good storytelling.
Wyndham sets up nothing like this. The Sealanders turn up, slaughter everyone, we get a self-gratifying lecture from their leader, and the kids think "Yeah, that sounds good," and everyone flies off to a happy ending untroubled by consequences.
Wyndham appears to have had a "might makes right" philosophy underpinning much of his work (it's even evident in The Midwich Cuckoos) that sometimes makes his stories feel morally dubious, however entertaining they may be.
Splendidly put Jean Philippe Alexis, couldn't have worded it better myself. I think Thomas M. Wagner would view 1984 as supportive of the principle of 'might is right'.
Both sides in this discussion have focused on similarities between what happens in the novel and things that happened in reality in the twentieth century.
I agree that there are similarities, but there are dissimilarities as well.
The difference between the populations in the novel -- people with the gift of telepathy and people without -- is portrayed as an objective reality, very much greater than the trifling ethnic differences which the Nazis were so obsessed with.
There is another, better comparison which Thomas Wagner raised in an earlier posting (Jan 20, 2010): Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. As Thomas Wagner said there, Wyndham's understanding of evolution may be poor in terms of what we know today, but that is not surprising given that he was writing largely in the nineteen fifties.
Chrysalids is not the only Wyndham novel about encounter between two intelligent populations. The Kraken Wakes and Midwich Cuckoos also have this theme. In these three novels, the outcome is never peaceful coexistence or cooperation, it is always a lethal struggle.
To understand where Wyndham was coming from in these novels, it may help to look at twentieth century conflicts not so much as a moral lesson, but more as a lesson in how things happen.
Wyndham was writing in the aftermath of two world wars, with the shadow of a nuclear third world war hanging over the Earth. If it was so difficult to have peace, just within this one human species, what then would be the prospects for peace between earthlings and aliens, or between the current sort of humans and a new population of telepaths? Perhaps it seemed to Wyndham that an all-out, lethal struggle was the only likely scenario?
First off I just wanted to say what a great forum this is. It's very interesting to see everybody else's opinion with this book. I personally really enjoyed the ending of the book even though Mr. Wagner does make a pretty convincing argument that Whyndam got the ending wrong.
Anyways, the main reason that I wanted to comment on this forum was to express my own opinion about how the book ended. Now I am just a few years out of high school and have not read as many books as most people on this forum but I don't have any problem at all with the Sealander killing all of the Waknukians. I know that sounds really bad but I just can't get myself to feel sorry for them. I understand that one group of people shouldn't be able to exterminate a lesser intelligent group of people because they think they are smarter or their beliefs are better but the Waknukians were just a burden on society. Whyndam compares the Waknukians to flies when he has the Sealander kill them with what seems to be an artificial spider web. In Whyndam's and the Sealander's eyes, they are just pests that just get in the way. Sometimes you may kill a fly even if it isn't bothering you at that time because you know if you leave it alone it may bite you later. That is how I look at the last chapter of the book, even if most people feel that it is wrong.
In short, I just don't see the problem with removing the people that drag society down in a negative way. It is obvious that the Waknukians are very stubborn and will not change their ways. I know I sound like a horrible person when I say that but I always felt that if you weren't a part of the solution then you were part of the problem and the Waknukians sure feel like part of the problem to me.
I think Wyndham did mean the ending to be ironic, because I think he may have been using Nietzsche'n themes of the 'will to power' and 'eternal reccurance'.
You have already been discussing the morality behind survival of the fittest or 'will to power' and social darwiniamism so i don't feel i could do justice to adding to your debate on this.
However Nietzsche also talked about how if 'God is dead' then there is no absolute goal or end to life. In place of this he posits a type of nihilism where life repeats itself over again, and the strong continue to defeat the weak until they themselves are defeated by something stronger.
This is what I understood the 'Sealanders' to represent. And when the story ended, I was still trying to imagine what would happen next, as I didn't get the sense that their new powerful social position would remain stable for very long.
And, I'm sorry anonymous, but I really disagree with your perspective. I think Wyndham was strongly criticizing fascism, and a morality which is based on 'removing people which drag society down'.
I think, like several others, that the reviewer has missed the point. Yes of course he is entitled to his own opinion, and if you don't like the ending then no amount of persuasion will convince you otherwise. However, to say that JW is somehow justifying the views of his characters is arrant nonsense. Since when does an author have to include only characters that he/she feels are morally comdenable? Did the writers of the Bible intend to justify the actions of Judas? The critique even admits that the finale is believable (in the context of the story), so what's the problem?
Can I suggest a possible solution to this argument? What if we suppose that the ending reflects both possibilities - i.e. that it is wrong to kill someone (as David suggests in the conversation with his uncle, along with Rosalin's feelings of guilt, etc.) AND that the Chrysalids were involved in a fight for their survival? In other words, is it possible that the point is the impasse represented by these two realities? It seems to me that this struggle is both mirrored and perhaps clearer when considered in light of Alan's murder. There is no question that that preemptive act was wrong, but then again, there is really no way to see how the Chrysalids would have survived if he hadn't been killed before he had an opportunity to use what he knew against them. In short, perhaps what Wyndham is pointing out here is the moral ambiguity that is present in much of human conflict and, by extension, in human nature as well, now matter how 'evolved' we become.
I think the moral message of the Sealand woman is wrong, but I think disappointment is inflated by overtreating the majority of the book as a plea against bigotry. When you quote Uncle Axel as stating mind makes a man he goes on to say that David et al have a new quality of mind. Uncle Axel, presented as the voice of intellengence within the Waknuk community, will go to extreme lengths to protect David, but only because of his superior abilities. There is litle sign that Uncle Axel cared much about the plight of Sophie or even his relative Harriet, even if he is smart enough to know the religious justification given to it all was nonsense. Axel is like the Sealander, interested in nurturing the abilities of the exceptional, and disinterested in protecting the ordinary. This seems to be Wyndham's morality.
Wyndham may have conveyed the pain of Sophie and Harriet brilliantly, but he seems to be more syphathetic than you think to the harsh laws of Waknuk. The man who extols the virtue of the "purity of the race" is the Inspector, who the book makes clear has no time for Joseph Strorm, who needs the certainty of religion to give an absolute justification to the harshness of his society. I don't think Wyndham is taking sides here. He understands the pain of Sophie and Harriet but he's uncomfortably understanding of the Inspector's position too.
Wyndham wanted the reader to identify first and foremost with the telepaths. After Harriet's passing, David, despite liking his Aunt, expressed to Uncle Axel that his fear was what would happen to him when they found out he was different. Wyndham did portray a deep sympathy from David for Sophie. However when David encountered Sophie in the fringes one would think the never explained fate of Sophie's parents (who David was fond of) would be important to him, but that didn't seem to occur to Wyndham when he wrote the book. For Wyndham, the emergence of the telepaths was the key. How the ordinary suffer from bigotry may have been brillantly conveyed, but it was a side-show to him.
Personally I would have liked to see Wyndam take a completely different track in the second half of the book. Aunt Harriet could have cried for help in the church in front of the entire community. Sure she would have received no support at all, but once Joseph Strorm went on his callous tirade, a few would cautuiously express a touch of compassion for her. Perhaps husband Henry could have been more obviously flawed than Harriet and some could have asked if God's judgement might have been on him. We already knew plenty in the community (the Drakers, Angus Morton and even the Inspector) found Joseph over the top.
The first mutterings of dissent may have been minor, but Joseph, unable to tolerate any sense that Waknuk was starting to lose its faith, may have gone on the warpath, leading to a violent confrontation with those who only wanted to soften the harsh rules a little. The news of the divisions within the community could have carried to the fringes, and Gordon could have led a rescue of a bunch of norms facing execution from Joseph's mob. Then things could really change. People wanting nothing more than a bit of compassion for Harriet would owe their lives to those thay had formerly dismissed as blasphemies. Distant Rigo could have ignored it all. Through Gordon, David would have become re-acquainted with Sofie, still wretched, but suddely given new hope. The book could end with the broken Wenders returning to their old Waknuk home after a lengthy spell in a distant jail, suddenly finding joy beyond their wildest dreams.
heyy, look who's back... party's still going on it seems.
So how should the book end in your opinion? All the children's enemies are persuaded to go home and abandon all their bigotry and everybody has a nice cup of tea?
Triffid UK here, the man who made the original post, but can't remember his password.
Don't think I can add anything that hasn't been said, other than thanks for the website Thomas and the chance to have my say.
Should this thread have some sort of award for long duration of existence?!
But since it is still open for comments, I thought I'd add one. Thomas Wagner eloquently makes the point that, if you view the book as a parable against the evils of bigotry, the ending is at best incongruous, at worst nonsensical. However, from this he concludes that it is Wyndham who has made the mistake, when I think actually it is his own mistake to have assumed that was the aim of the book in the first place.
In fact, I think it is a illuminating illustration of how far we have come as a society from the time in which Wyndham was writing that someone would attempt to suggest this was the aim of the book. Living in the 1950s, in a society in which discrimination against multiple groups of people was still ingrained, having just experienced the horrors of the second world war, and feeling the constant threat of "the bomb" hanging over society's head, I think John Wyndham had a far darker view of humanity and its inherent capacity for repeated cycles of self-destruction than we do today. I think that, sad though it may seem to 21st century eyes, the book accepts that, while it causes desperate pain and distress to many of its characters, bigotry and "might is right" is just part of the human condition. In that context, the end is entirely logical, and, indeed, quite typically for this author manages to leave unsettling questions outstanding despite a superficially pleasing resolution. Why else would we still be discussing it over 50 years later?!
Re PJF - yes! That's a punchier version of what I was trying to say, around 7 years ago ...
(well done everyone on the longevity of this thread.)
Adding to longevity! Refreshing to read a discussion about someone I still read seriously for pleasure. Can see many angles, thanks. My contribution: as a child reader, I never actually much liked David, although I felt some sympathy for him, and I'm still not sure you're meant to like him. His behaviour when he sees Sophie again, while arguably partially explained by recent horrors, is, for example, cold enough to be shocking. So his seeming acceptance of what, even as a child, I felt was an unconvincing rationale for mass murder, never surprised me.
But, as a child, I was never in any doubt myself that the cocooning was horrific, and unjustifiable. I was never in any doubt that Sophie's man demanded/deserved compassion and understanding. I was disgusted to find that the cocooning process was reversible. I did not envy the people on their way to Sealand, I was still grieving for Sophie, and I found Petra unbearably irritating.
As an adult: I think anyone who's been on the journey that Wyndham takes the reader through - from the shared horror with David at the fate of his aunt, and his own inability to help, to the befriending of Sophie and her parents, to the terror of Michael, and the relief that it's Axel (much more mired in the community) who kills him, rather than any of the telepaths - would be highly unlikely to agree in any way with the Sealanders. Since this reaction isn't coming from David, who seems to have reverted to the snobbish, privileged, helpless, obedience of his upbringing by the end, I think it's part of Wyndham's authorial genius.