The book begins with David, the young narrator, telling us that when he was young, he sometimes dreamed of a city with “carts running with no horses to pull them” and “shiny, fish-shaped things” in the sky. David had never seen any of these things before, and when he asked his sister, Mary, about them, she told him he might be dreaming about the Old People, whose civilization was destroyed hundreds of years ago by the Tribulation. She also warned him not to talk to anyone else about the dream. David tells the reader that this ended up being important advice because it taught him to keep secret anything that was unusual or odd.
David’s dream of an Old People city with cars and planes sounds familiar to the reader, but is unfamiliar to David, which immediately shows that this book is set on a future version of Earth. Mary’s warning that he should not reveal this unusual dream to anyone else foreshadows the secrets David must keep later in the novel, and the intolerance his community has for anything it considers out of the ordinary.
While David felt like a normal child at the time of the dream, he tells us that he can now pinpoint the day when he realized he was unusual. At age 10, he met a girl named Sophie while he was playing at the edge of town. When he meets her, he is shocked to encounter a stranger, because he knows everyone in the town. Sophie and David play together until Sophie’s shoe gets stuck between two rocks.
So far David just seems like a normal, curious child, so as Wyndham reveals more details about his world we are surprised that David is somehow “unusual.” Only once we learn what the town considers normal can we identify David as strange. At the time of meeting Sophie, David himself has not yet internalized these norms.
When David tells Sophie that she’ll have to take off her shoe to get free, Sophie becomes upset and adamantly tells David she has to keep her shoe on her foot, even though she is in a great deal of pain. Finally she agrees to remove it, but makes David promise to look away. He doesn’t, and when he sees her foot, Sophie says that he “musn’t ever tell,” but he doesn’t understand what she’s talking about. David tells the reader that at the time he didn’t notice that she had an extra toe. David and Sophie go to her house, where Sophie apologizes to her mother for letting David see her foot.
Sophie’s extra toe does not stand out to David because he sees Sophie as a friend, and as a child he isn’t focused on her physical appearance. The reader does not yet understand why Sophie must conceal this toe, but the vehemence of her attempt to hide it hints at something sinister in their society. By withholding an explanation for Sophie’s actions, Wyndham enables the reader to experience David’s confusion.
David tells the reader that at the time, he did not connect Sophie’s foot to the rules he learned in church, because he learned those rules by mechanically memorizing them, and had not thought about what they meant. These rules specify that man is the image of God and should have a head, a body, two legs, two arms, ten fingers, and ten toes. While reminders of the rules hang in most houses, David does not see them on the walls of Sophie’s home.
The incident with Sophie’s toe should have provoked a response in David because he has been taught that human beings do not have extra toes. The fact that the sight of her toe does not trigger thoughts of the rules he has memorized shows how easy it is to repeat something without fully understanding it.
David can feel that Sophie’s mother is anxious before she speaks to him, and he tries to send comforting thoughts back to her, but they don’t go through. She asks him to promise never to tell anyone about what he has seen, but David finds her thoughts more persuasive than her words. He decides to keep what he has seen from everyone, even his cousin, Rosalind. As he leaves the house, he finally realizes that Sophie’s body does not match the body described in the Definition of Man, which means that Sophie is a Blasphemy. This is confusing to David, because he has been taught that Blasphemies are evil, yet he firmly believes that Sophie is good.
In this scene, Wyndham introduces David’s telepathic capabilities, but does not explain them. The fact that David finds Sophie’s mother’s thoughts more convincing than her words sets up a pattern that will repeat itself throughout the rest of the novel, in which thoughts are often portrayed more meaningful than words. Indeed, David’s belief that Sophie is a good person is more powerful than the words he has memorized which suggest that she is evil.