The Chrysalids

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Time and Progress Theme Analysis

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Time and Progress Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
Racism and Fear of the Unknown Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Chrysalids, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Time and Progress Theme Icon

The title of Wyndham’s book introduces time as an important theme in the novel because the word “chrysalid” implies a specific sense of time. The word can either mean “a shell that has been discarded” or “a preparatory or transitional state”—it is either something in the past or something preparing for the future. Because Wyndham never uses the word anywhere in the text of the novel, however, it is not clear precisely to what or whom “the chrysalids” refers.

In Wanuk, people believe that time progresses in a linear fashion toward a better and more moral future. The Wanukians’ goal is to rebuild the society that was lost in the Tribulation and live according to God’s Word by ridding society of any mutations. The forward motion of time is very important to the Wanukians, and only those who align with the Definition are allowed to contribute to this progression. Reproduction is encouraged and valued among those who fit the Definition, while those deemed Blasphemies are sterilized before being cast out into the Fringes. The people in the Fringes, on the other hand, as well as those from Zealand, believe in a more cyclical version of time in which history constantly repeats itself. People from both places believe that “life is change,” and they are not nearly as concerned with moving forward down a direct path to perfection.

The Chrysalids calls into question the idea that society can be manipulated into moving in a certain direction. Instead, it suggests, or perhaps even warms, that history repeats itself. Indeed, although the Wanukians conceive of time as moving forward, they want to move forward by replicating the past. The title, then, expresses the repetitive and cyclical nature of time through its two definitions. If David and the others who can think-together are “chrysalids” transitioning into a new society, they are also leaving a chrysalid of their previous society behind. Meanwhile, the supremacist ideas expressed by the Zealanders suggest that even though David and the group are transitioning to a new place and future, this society, too, will turn into an empty shell of the past.

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Time and Progress ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Time and Progress appears in each chapter of The Chrysalids. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Time and Progress Quotes in The Chrysalids

Below you will find the important quotes in The Chrysalids related to the theme of Time and Progress.
Chapter 8 Quotes

“A word…a rusted mirror, reflecting nothing. It’d do the preachers good to see it for themselves. They’d not understand, but they might begin to think. They might begin to ask themselves…Are we right? For it is clear, boy, that however wonderful the Old People were, they were not too wonderful to make mistakes—and nobody knows, or is ever likely to know, where they were wise and where they were mistaken.”

Related Characters: Uncle Axel (speaker), David Strorm
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Uncle Axel and David discuss some of the paradoxes and inconsistencies in the Wanuk religion. The Wanuk religion is based on worship of God as measured through the Old People; those who lived years ago, before God punished the human race. The Wanuk people believe that anybody who doesn't resemble the Old People is "imperfect," and should be banished from the land. And yet the Old People themselves clearly weren't perfect either--if they were, then God wouldn't have punished them so brutally.

Uncle Axel's observations are perfectly obvious, when you think about them, and yet he seems to be one of the only people in the community to have done so. In all, the passage underscores the reality that religion is more important as an "organizing force" in Wanuk than it is as a source of morality or truth. Religion helps keep the people of Wanuk in line, but if they were to turn to religion for moral support, they'd be disappointed by the muddle of contradictions they'd find.


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Chapter 14 Quotes

“God doesn’t have any last word. If He did, He’d be dead. But He isn’t dead; and He changes and grows, like everything else that’s alive. So when they were doing their best to get everything fixed and tidy on some kind of eternal lines they’d thought up for themselves, He sent along Tribulation to bust it up and remind ‘em that life is change.”

Related Characters: The Fringes Man (speaker), Old People
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter we're introduced to the  anonymous "Fringes man," the figure who works for Gordon Strorm and who captures David, Rosalind, and Petra. The Fringes man makes a couple interesting points about the nature of the world here, which stand in stark contrast to the dogmas of the Wanukians. Unlike the people of Wanuk, the people of the Fringes believe that life is a process of constant change, like it or not--therefore, the Wanukians' desire to maintain the status quo is willfully blind to the realities of life. Furthermore, the Fringes man maintains that evil shouldn't be condemned or expunged from history--even the greatest acts of evil have some useful purpose. Even the Tribulation (the disaster that destroyed the old world) had a silver lining: its purpose was to help mankind learn from its mistakes. Where the Wanukians see everything as rigidly black-and-white, good-and-evil, the people of the Fringes at least embrace a more openminded, reasonable view of history and progress.

Chapter 16 Quotes

“Your work is to survive. Neither his kind, nor his kind of thinking will survive long. They are the crown of creation, they are ambition fulfilled—they have nowhere more to go. But life is change, that is how it differs from the rocks, change is its very nature. Who, then, were the recent lords of creation, that they should expect to remain unchanged?”

Related Characters: Woman from Zealand (speaker), David Strorm, Joseph Strorm
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the mysterious woman from Zealand has come to rescue the psychics, including David and Petra. David is dismayed when he learns that his father is about to killed in the Zealanders' coming invasion of Wanuk. When David expresses his dismay, the woman of Zealand tries to console him by saying, much like the Fringes man did, that life is change, and to resist change is to be delusional. It is inevitable, then, that David’s father will die anyway, and that David would have to totally "break free" from his father at some point—thus, there’s no point in David being upset about his father’s passing.

The woman from Zealand's advice is rather callous, since she's essentially telling David to forget about his own father for another version of the "greater good." Joseph isn't a remotely likable or sympathetic character, and yet the woman from Zealand's indifference to his death seems a far cry from the behavior of a supposedly more "enlightened" being. The Chrysalids resists easy moralizing--just because the woman from Zealand seems to be working on David's side doesn't mean we have to agree with her philosophy. In fact, it's suggested that David has just left one racist, fundamentalist society for another one.

“The Old People brought down Tribulation, and were broken into fragments by it. Your father and his kind are a part of those fragments. They have become history without being aware of it. They are determined still that there is a final form to defend: soon they will attain the stability they strive for, in the only form it is granted—a place among the fossils.”

Related Characters: Woman from Zealand (speaker), David Strorm, Joseph Strorm, Old People
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the woman from Zealand continues to give David her interpretation of history. She argues that humans are always a part of history, whether they like it or not, and the only way to achieve real "purity" or stasis is through death. In this way she justifies the murder of the Wanukians, because they always wanted to become "fossils" anyway. In essence, the Woman of Zealand seems to be offering David another strict, deterministic model of the universe—the opposite and yet the equal of the one on which David was raised. Where the Wanukians worship stability in the sense of imitating the past, the woman of Zealand worships an ideal of progress, one that feels no qualms about eliminating anything that might hold it back.

Chapter 17 Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Woman from Zealand (speaker), Old People
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

In this surprising passage, the woman from Zealand reveals her own powerlessness even as she asserts her society's triumph. While she supports her society's ideas about history, she acknowledges that at some point in the future, the Zealanders will probably act like the Wanukians and try to reverse the inevitable "flow" of the universe, becoming a tyrannical, backwards regime that resists change and evolution. The idea here is that all tyrannies consists of authorities trying to undo the inevitable. For example, the tyrants of Wanuk try to undo the inevitable genetic diversity of the human species by banishing so-called mutants. By the same token, the woman from Zealand argues, her own civilization will one day (presumably when it starts to lose power or authority) become harsh and repressive, and then it will be destroyed by the next generation of "New People."

The Woman from Zealand assumes, as an unspoken premise of her argument, that existence is a constant process of evolution and decay. At the same time, she doesn't really seem to accept the real-world implications of her beliefs, as she is currently using them to justify mass murder. She also admits that right now, the Zealanders are still on the rise--it will be a long time before they become like the Wanukians. (And thus, presumably, she herself is immune from the harsher implications of her philosophy.)

“The essential quality of life is living; the essential quality of living is change; change is evolution: and we are part of it.”

Related Characters: Woman from Zealand (speaker)
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:

The woman from Zealand continues to explain her society's peculiar view of life. Where the people of Wanuk believed that an idealized version of man was the center of the universe, the woman from Zealand seems to believe that change itself is the center—albeit an unstable center. She takes a dialectical view of history, arguing that everything in history is part of a massive, larger-than-life cycle of change and evolution. (Note that the ideas expressed in the passage reflect some of the tenets of Marxism, the governing ideology of the Soviet Union at the time of Wyndham's writing.)

The novel ends before we’re exposed to many details of the woman from Zealand’s culture—thus, we’re left to guess how admirable her civilization ultimately is. It’s possible that the novel intends for us to see the woman from Zealand as an angelic figure, rescuing David from Wanuk. It’s also possible (and more subversive) to imagine that the woman from Zealand merely rescues David from one corrupt regime and places him in another. The Wanukians killed people for the "greater good" of normalcy and religion, while the Zealanders kill people for the "greater good" of evolution and progress.