Theme, Atmosphere, and Style of The Chrysalids
Theme: Theme is very closely tied with satire in this novel. Numerous main ideas of the novel are pointed towards the shortcomings of Waknuk society, and even at our society. For example, Waknuk society will banish from their society anything that is not made in their concept of the true image. In our history of mankind some groups have always reacted negatively towards groups that are supposedly different. Recent historical events of genocide make what Waknuk does look like child's play. For instance, during World War II, when six million Jews were killed. The expulsion of the Armenians from Turkey, in Cambodia in the 1970s and in Rwanda in 1994. Our society has institutions and clinics to change to abnormal into our concept of normal.
David's society, despite its great concern for the True Image, allows the great-horses to be introduced into their society. Although they are obviously not normal, for the sake of profit the True Image can be ignored. Hypocrisy is shown to be a universal human condition and the people of Waknuk are no different from us.
The chief critical theme, however, is the one implied by the title of the novel. Chrysalid is a term taken from biology. It describes the state through which a larva must pass before becoming an insect. In this state, the larva is wrapped in a hard case or shell, takes no food and is totally inactive. This is precisely the state that Joseph Strorm and his kind are trying to maintain and force on humanity.
As the Sealand lady points out, evolution cannot be denied and the chrysalid cannot be stopped in its development to the next stage. The Waknuk society's anti-intellectualism, which tries to put a stop to both logic and imagination, and its efforts to deny evolution, are doomed to be a dead end.
Wyndham's attack on this kind of thinking varies from satire to outright virulence. The satire is chiefly directed at Joseph Strorm. Since he embodies all that is wrong with the community's religious ideas, he is made to appear as a frustrated and dangerous person.
But criticism can take a crueler form, such as Sophie's fate, or Aunt Harriet's suicide. Their stories introduce a sense of helpless frustration for they point out not only the foolishness of the Waknuk philosophy but, also, the futility of trying to defeat it.
Uncle Axel, acting as the mouthpiece of the author, supplies the most accurate portrait, for he tells David that every group of people he has seen in his travels thinks that the True Image is themselves. No one, he points out, could ever be sure that the True Image is right, for it comes from Nicholson's Repentances, written after Tribulation.
Atmosphere: In The Chrysalids, atmosphere varies extensively. There is the normal interest at the beginning of a novel as the characters reveal themselves, and the plot unfolds. But the stronger curiosity in this novel arises from the urge to identify the society. It is familiar, yet unfamiliar. Just when the reader has determined that it belongs to the eighteenth century, somewhere in the Western Hemisphere, a vague reference is given to suggest that this is not so.
Then, there is the peculiarity of the society itself. These people seem like ourselves, but they have a disturbingly different set of beliefs, further piquing our curiosity.
As the setting, characters and background are established, the atmosphere begins to change to one of fear. This occurs for two reasons. The amazing lack of charity, and unbending set of rules in David's community are frightening in themselves but, by this time, we have come to know and like David and, realizing that he, too, is a deviant, we fear for him.
Several incidents such as the flight of the Wenders, and the suicide of Aunt Harriet, increase this fear. We now anticipate and expect that David will be discovered. When it finally does happen there is almost a sense of relief.
By this time, though, an air of hope is present. Petra's communication with a whole society of "thought-makers" gives some assurance that the fugitives will escape.
Only at the very end of the novel are there any feelings of joy.
Style: This is a novel of plot and theme. The author is mainly concerned with sociological and psychological issues in a society faced with the after effects of a nuclear holocaust. Wyndham aims at a general impression, rather than writing an in-depth analysis of an individual's character faced with a specific set of circumstances.
Although there are many opportunities for long descriptive passages, the author refrains from doing so. To give a gruesome description of various forms of deviation would only sensationalize the story, and the author has a more serious purpose.
Only the character of David is revealed to any extent, and he is the only one who develops appreciably. With the exception of Sophie, the other characters are one-sided representative characters like Jacob or Joseph Strorm. Most of the characters of the novel fall into groups. The Waknuk group is held together by its religion, the Fringes people by their deviations, and David and his group by their telepathic abilities.
The story is told in the first person. This narrative method has advantages for the novel. It is a more personal account and David is more likely to win the reader to his side, against the horrors of Waknuk. Although the method necessitates a limited view-point, it is, therefore, a better one for moulding the reader's impressions. The reader is taken into David's confidence and asked to share the secret of his deviation. Above all, there is an air of truth to what David is saying, and this fact intensifies every situation in the novel.
Background in a novel of this type is often very involved. Science fiction by its very nature deals with situations apart from the reader's experience and, therefore, requires long explanations. But the conditions of David's civilization differ only in detail from our own and can be related partly by the child-David as he explains them to Sophie. For David to do all of the narration would be tiresome, and as he is only a child, he is not likely to know all the information. Conveniently, Uncle Axel explains it to him. Because Axel is a broad-minded, thinking person, the reader is given a fuller, less prejudiced account than he might have received from someone like Joseph Strorm.
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