The Chrysalids: Paradox in Modern Societies

The Chrysalids: Paradox in Modern Societies


Published in 1955, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids is set in a post-apocalyptic world and begins with a society in Labrador that adheres to strict religious beliefs. A suspected nuclear apocalypse has forced the community to retreat into what is reminiscent of Christian fundamentalism and agrarianism. An extensive eugenics policy is pursued, where plants and humans conform to physical norms to be made in the “Image of God”. The protagonist, David Strorm, is not physically mutated, but possesses telepathic abilities, along with a few other children and they can be perceived to be a threat to the existing social order. The group is soon exposed and forced to escape to the Fringes. Subsequently, they establish contact with a powerful woman from Sealand who remains unnamed throughout. An advanced civilisation where telepathy is the norm, Sealand is the antithesis of Waknuk and the people seem more open-minded and initially emerges as the beacon of hope for the outcast telepaths. However, the woman from Sealand exterminates the Waknuk community without batting an eyelid with sophisticated technology and dismiss non-telepaths as the inferior race, with heavy undertones of social Darwinism. Christian fundamentalism and social Darwinism are labels that are never explicitly stated in the novel, but often used in the scholarly realm when discussing The Chrysalids due to the overt textual evidence that allude to these ideologies.

One of the most interesting themes from The Chrysalids surfaces from the relationship between the Waknuk and Sealand societies. The conflict between these two societies in the novel actually represent the clash between fundamentalism and liberalism in the wider real-life context, of which Christian fundamentalism and social Darwinism are the most significant vehicles in communicating this idea, amongst other vehicles. The novel seems to hint at the superiority of liberalism over fundamentalism, evidenced by the subversion of the Waknukians at the end. While the text may initially confer greater sympathy to the Sealanders as readers identify their society more closely with them, readers are eventually perturbed by their unsettling behaviour at the end. The complex relationship between the two ideologies is also conveyed via the telepathic protagonists who are born in Waknuk, putting them in a position where they are simultaneously of both worlds and not, within and without. Their position of liminality allows them to express doubts about both societies, acting as mouthpieces for the readers. Why is it that the Sealanders do not convincingly assert the moral legitimacy and the superiority of their modern society? Ultimately, the Waknuk and Sealand societies have much more in common than what is immediately apparent as intolerance of the other on both sides underlie the conflict. For this, I contend that, unlike the Waknukians whose intolerance is at least ostensible at the outset, the Sealanders’ intolerance is ironically disguised under liberalism, from which the added dimension of hypocrisy leaves the accordance of moral legitimacy hanging in the balance. This hints at the paradox of tolerance in modern societies, famously coined by Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies.

Seeming Moral Legitimacy of Sealanders over Waknukians

While the Waknukians are of a more traditional and pious society, the Sealanders are more modern and secular. The Waknukian subsistence is dependent on farming and they pride themselves on ‘a stability of stock and crops’. More pertinently, they are characterized by Christian fundamentalism, typically a reaction against the encroachment of modernity [1]. Right from the beginning, heavy religious overtones are palpable, as the apocalypse is referred to as the ‘Tribulation’, connoting a time of trouble and suffering for mankind to pay for their sins in Christian Eschatology. Additionally, a journal article by M.D. Litonjua stipulating a few features of Christian fundamentalism is helpful in corroborating the details in the novel. The foremost ideological feature of Christian fundamentalism is ‘absolutism and inerrancy’ of religious scriptures and hence these scriptures must be ‘literally understood and cannot be subjected to canons of critical rationality or modern hermeneutical principles’ and some facets of religion are modified, ‘like the Book of Daniel and Revelation to justify precepts legitimating the political rule of divine law in times of crisis’ [2]. All of these are embedded in The Chrysalids where the Bible and Nicholson’s Repentances are the only books that survive the apocalypse and dictate the way people should live in order to prevent another ‘Tribulation’ befalling them. However, the Sealanders do not subscribe to a religious ideology, a feature of their liberalism is the ‘reliance on reason and science’ [3] and this is defined by the Sealanders’ belief in social Darwinism. Historically, many Christian fundamentalists resisted Darwin’s evolution theory, in defence of Creationism. [4] In a display of their modern technology, the Sealanders kill the Waknuk and Fringes people with ‘plastic threads’ from a ‘strange, fish-shaped craft’ above, bestriding those on horses with ‘bows and guns’. The Sealand woman justifies the killing with a logical and scientism explanation, whereby it is necessary to do so to preserve their species and this process is ‘simply a part of the great revolving wheel of natural economy’. Unlike the arrogant Waknuk community that suppresses evolution and eliminates variations, the Sealanders do not view themselves as the ‘final form’ of humans, they are instead convinced that one day they ‘shall have to give place to a new thing’ and they will be uprooted by newer variants, like what they have done unto the Sealanders.

The Waknuk society is also portrayed to be narrow-minded and discriminatory, juxtaposed against the ostensibly liberal and inclusive philosophy of Sealand. Multiple laws in Nicholson’s Repentances point to the condemnation of mutations. These laws physically materialize as decorations in David’s house, such as ‘ONLY THE IMAGE OF GOD IS MAN’, ‘KEEP PURE THE STOCK OF THE LORD’ and ‘BLESSED IS THE NORM’. Strict and unquestioning adherence to these books is expected, or else the offenders are admonished by the state and their community. Everybody is expected to be ‘indistinguishable as bricks’ and ‘mint [themselves] into equality and identity, like stamped coins’, highlighting the intolerance and resultant eradication of differences. Internal conflicts within the Waknuk community also foreshadow the eventual moral bankruptcy of Christian fundamentalism. The mercilessness in the eugenics policy is conveyed through Aunt Harriet’s death, when David’s parents refuse to help Aunt Harriet conceal the deformity of her new-born and before her suicide. She denounces God in a thought-provoking speech and questions if it is ‘indeed His will that a child should suffer and its soul be damned for a little blemish of the body’. The approval of tailless cats and Joseph Strorm’s firm disapprobation of them already hint at diverging standards of Purity. Staunch supporters of Christian fundamentalism are disparaged to be ‘fools and bigots’ by the government. Even within the Waknuk society, some are shifting away from Christian fundamentalism to a more moderate stance, towards liberalism. According to Litonjua, the bedrock of liberalism is the ‘dignity and sovereignty of the individual, his rights and freedom’ [5]. Telepathic mutants, relentlessly hunted down by the Waknukians, are accepted and even celebrated in the Sealand society. The inclusivity is a breath of fresh air from the oppression of the Waknukians and appeals to the readers more as most liberal societies in reality try to embrace diversity and places the protection of human rights as priority.

Sealanders also triumph over the Waknukians in terms of moral legitimacy to the readers in its subtle suggestion of gender equality. This is mostly facilitated through the description of the physicality and mannerism of their most iconic characters. The representation of Waknuk is Elias Strorm, David’s grandfather, is said to be ‘a husky man, a dominating man, and a man fierce for rectitude’, with the repetition of ‘man’ reinforcing the dominance of the patriarchy in Waknuk. The Waknuk women are more submissive to the demands of men, like the hold Joseph Strorm has over Aunt Harriet and his wife. However, the representation of the Sealand society is a woman, whose first impression on the readers, is equally, if not more, formidable than Elias Strorm. She is depicted to have ‘the perfection of a sculpture’, ‘as if neither wind nor rain had ever touched her’ and she looks ‘so untouched, so unflawed’.

Closing the Gap in Moral Legitimacy

However, upon closer inspection of the two strands of ideologies, social Darwinism may not be all that different morally from Christian fundamentalism, especially the resultant actions that are espoused from these ideologies. In fact, there is a conspicuous similarity in the persecution of the minority in both cases. Christian fundamentalism endorses the annihilation of deviant plants, animals and ostracizes deviant humans openly. The Waknuk people are haughty in thinking that they are the “true image of God” and banishes people who they deem to be different from them to be a violation. Human “Blasphemies” are cruelly executed, sterilised or exiled to the Fringes, an inhabitable place that is rampant with mutations. David, the protagonist, expresses moral concerns that would likely occur to the readers in such instances. Sophie, his childhood friend born with six toes, is a trigger for him to question beliefs he is indoctrinated, that mutants are ‘disgusting’ or ‘evil’. David remains the moral voice that also articulates readers’ confusion at the ‘unnerving quality’ of Sealanders’ attitude towards killing the people of Waknuk and the Fringes. The telepaths of Waknuk are in a liminal position – they are on the cusp of transitioning to the world of Sealanders where they should rightfully belong, but their previous affiliations and upbringing have cultivated in them some form of allegiance and attachment to the Waknuk society. Their unique predicament allows them to assume the most objectivity and impartiality in doling out moral judgements. The justification for killing the Waknuk people provided by the woman from Sealand avows the concept of social Darwinism, a perverted form of Darwinism, mostly associated with Herbert Spencer. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection asserts that evolution is a directionless process [6], yet the Sealand woman argues that they are of a ‘superior variant’, implying an upward direction in evolution and renounces the rights of non-telepaths to live. Therein lies an irony where Sealanders only have the moral decency to grant people who are like them, to live, as the Sealand woman advises how to survive their lethal weapon only through telepathy. They, too, do not have the humility to let other people who are different from them survive in their own way. Judging from their arsenal of sophisticated weapons and almost insurmountable geographical distance from Labrador, the Waknuk people would have posed a negligible threat to them and could be effortlessly deflected off, even if they do attack. The contrast of the defenceless Waknukians and the Fringes people annihilated indiscriminately and the confident, almost haughty demeanour of the Sealanders relinquishes some sympathy from the Sealanders to the Waknukians. The strain of elitism and lack of compassion are evident in both schools of thought and hence social Darwinism does not gain any much significant ground over Christian fundamentalism in terms of moral legitimacy in this aspect. Ultimately, both the Waknukians and Sealanders are hostile to each other, as summarized by the Sealand woman’s speech: ‘In loyalty to their kind they cannot tolerate our rise; in loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction.’ Nevertheless, the jarring actions of the Sealanders, who initially come off as tolerant but are later revealed to be intolerant, perturbs the readers and severely undermines the moral legitimacy and the superiority of their modern and liberal society. This alludes to the paradox of tolerance in reality and deals a blow to open societies. The paradox of tolerance asserts ‘the right not to tolerate the intolerant’ ‘in the name of tolerance’ ‘if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument’ [7]. The superiority of liberalism over fundamentalism is nebulous and becomes peripheral, in light of the hypocrisy of liberal societies in its policies, for instance, American support of authoritarian leaders in foreign countries in the name of containing Communism.


Wyndham’s personal belief in social Darwinism could have led to the prevailing of this ideology in The Chrysalids. The ‘chrysalid’ stage is when a pupa undergoes a transition from the larval to adult stage, prophesying the successful transformation of the world from those of non-telepaths to telepaths. Wyndham originally garners readers’ support for the Sealanders, and proceeds to plant doubts and assails the moral legitimacy of the Sealanders. Nevertheless, the Sealand society still triumphs over the Waknuk society in a case of a lesser of the two evils. Yet, this is all secondary after delving deeper into the hypocrisy of the Sealanders and this directs readers to identify the same flaw in the supposedly liberal society they live in and realizing that they are intolerant of intolerance and that in itself, is not truly tolerance.


[1] Moojan Momen, “Fundamentalism and Liberalism: Towards an Understanding of the Dichotomy,” Reason and Revelation, Studies in the Babi and Baha’i Religions vol. 13 (2002): 13.

[2] M.D. Litonjua, “Contending Ideologies: Liberal Democracy and Religious Fundamentalism,” International Review of Modern Sociology, vol. 33, no.1 (Spring 2007): 31-32.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Momen, 2.

[5] Litonjua, 23.

[6] Timothy Shanahan, The Evolution of Darwinism: Selection, Adaptation, and Progress in Evolutionary Biology (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 286.

[7] Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies Vol. 1 (Princeton University Press, 1963), 265.

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