The Chrysalids

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Ways of Knowing Theme Analysis

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The citizens of Wanuk rely mostly on tradition and religious texts as sources of knowledge about the world. Myths about the dangers of the Fringes and the Badlands proliferate, but Uncle Axel tells David that when explorers went to these areas, they found that these myths were not always true. Unlike most people in Wanuk, Uncle Axel frequently questions statements that are presented as fact. He points out that there is no way of being certain about the way the Old People lived or what the true Image of God really is because Repentences was written many years after the Tribulation. The correctness of the Definition of Man is not something that people in Wanuk challenge, but Uncle Axel encourages David to think not only about what is correct, but also about how one knows what is correct.

While the fact that Wanukians are living in the Image of God is widely taken for granted by the Wanukians, David learns that this fact might actually be an opinion when he meets other people, the Zealanders, who also consider themselves to be a superior race. He becomes increasingly skeptical of traditional sources of knowledge over the course of the novel, and is particularly wary of taking images and the words of authority figures as absolute truths. Rather than accepting things at face value, he comes to depend on personal experience as the only incontrovertible source of information. He also trusts the thoughts and feelings of his friends because he has experienced those thoughts and emotions.

Wyndham questions the primacy of vision and the statements of authority by creating characters, like Sophie, who look deviant, but are in fact much better people than many who look like the Image. Further, he challenges the credibility of appearances through David, who looks normal but is in fact very different from most people around him. The book clearly argues that there is a great deal of difference between appearance and reality. Wyndham also suggests that individual thought and experience is the only true source of knowledge, and emphasizes the importance of questioning authority and tradition.

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Ways of Knowing ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Chrysalids related to the theme of Ways of Knowing.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“Dreams were funny things and there was no accounting for them; so it might be that what I was seeing was a bit of the world as it had been once upon a time—the wonderful world that the Old People had lived in; as it had been before God sent Tribulation."

Related Characters: David Strorm (speaker), Old People, Mary Strorm
Related Symbols: Dreams
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

The protagonist of the novel, David Strorm, is immediately depicted as a dreamer--he has vivid dreams about a faraway (whether in time or in physical distance) place. He's something of an audience stand-in, because unlike the majority of the people in his community, he's curious about the outside world, and refuses to accept what he can see and touch as the be-all, end-all.

The novel as establishes a clear contrast between the Old and New worlds. The Old People, we're told, were evil--that's why they were punished by God. Clearly, David lives in a severe, religious society that hypocritically contrasts its own virtue with the evils of the past--a society not unlike Hitler's Germany or even the American South during the years of segregation.


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“And God created man in His own image. And God decreed that man should have one body, one head, two arms and two legs: that each arm should be jointed in two places and end in one hand: that each hand should have four fingers and one thumb: that each finger should bear a flat finger-nail.”

Related Characters: David Strorm (speaker), Nicholson
Page Number: 10-11
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to the guiding ideology of the Wanukians. In David's society, people subscribe to the belief that God created man in his own image--however, people then go on to interpret these words in the most literal manner possible. They believe that God creates human beings to look just like him; therefore, anybody who doesn't look a perfectly "normal" human is somehow imperfect or evil.

The novel shows the ways that religious ideas can be misinterpreted or twisted to fuel racism or create a totalitarian society. The Bible, from which the passage is excerpted, says only that "God created man in His own image"--the Wanukians have clearly added on all the subsequent details to support their hatred and fear of the unknown. This kind of misinterpretation of ambiguous statements is a common aspect of fundamentalist, repressive societies.

“And any creature that shall seem to be human, but is not formed thus is not human. It is neither man nor woman. It is a blasphemy against the true Image of God, and hateful in the sight of God.”

Related Characters: David Strorm (speaker), Nicholson
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we learn more about the "dark side" of David's society. Because David's people believe that humans are made to look like God, it follows (supposedly) that anybody who's abnormal in any way must be inhuman--the creation of the Devil. Therefore, abnormal people must be cast out of society as punishment for their innate evil.

The passage is cited again and again throughout the novel as a justification for the Wanukian society's vicious apartheid--its heartless persecution of those who are "different" in even the smallest ways. People with extra toes or unusual arms are banished from society, supposedly because they're evil and not actually human. It's possible that David's society celebrates the importance of conformity in order to strengthen its community ties--like Hitler's Fascists, they need a scapegoat to feel good about themselves. (One could certainly argue that the novel is a science-fiction riff on Hitler's Germany, mixed with Stalinist Russia and segregationist America--i.e., an indictment of all societies that celebrate one kind of person at the expense of all others.)

Chapter 2 Quotes

“So I learnt quite early to know what Offences were. They were things which did not look right—that is to say, did not look like their parents, or parent-plants. Usually there was only some small thing wrong, but however much or little was wrong it was an Offence, and if it happened among people it was called a Blasphemy—at least, that was the technical term, though commonly both kinds were called Deviations.”

Related Characters: David Strorm (speaker)
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David further explains how his society works. Children, plants, and animals are constantly being measured against their parents for deviations or "imperfections" of any kind. If the offspring are in any way different from their parents (or the Wanukian ideal of "normal") then they're sterilized and banished from Wanuk altogether. In such a way, Wanuk remains exactly the same over time.

David shows us how Wanuk subverts the role of the family: instead of just loving and taking care of their children, a parents' job is now also to root out any children who aren't just like them, and turn these "evil" children over to the authorities. It's also worth noting that the fictional society in the novel seems designed to resist Darwinian evolution. Animals develop over time precisely because offspring develop mutations that allow them to respond to their environment. David's society, however, seems hell-bent on resisting such evolutionary progressions.

Chapter 3 Quotes

“If John and Mary Wender had been there when I woke up struggling and crying, and then lay in the dark trying to convince myself that the terrible picture was nothing more than a dream, they would, I think, have felt quite a lot easier in their minds.”

Related Characters: David Strorm (speaker), Sophie Wender , John Wender, Mary Wender
Related Symbols: Dreams
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the chapter, David has a vivid dream in which he sees Sophie being slaughtered like an animal for the "crime" of having an extra toe on her foot. David is beginning to understand how dangerous difference is in his society--and his dream reflects his awareness that different people can be hurt and even killed for their supposed "evil."

The way David expresses his feelings about Sophie is worth mentioning. Previously, Sophie's parents, John and Mary, have asked David to remain quiet about Sophie's abnormality--they figure that, so long as Sophie's toe remains a secret, she'll be able to remain living in the community. But especially since having this horrifying dream, David doesn't need any reminders from John and Mary about keeping the secret: he now knows full-well that if he tells anybody what he knows, Sophie will be hurt. David's sympathies for Sophie greatly outweigh his loyalty to the religion of Wanuk, even in his subconscious, sleeping self.

Chapter 4 Quotes

“There was only one true trail, and by following it we should, with God’s help and in His own good time, regain all that had been lost. But so faint was the trail, so set with traps and deceits, that every step must be taken with caution, and it was too dangerous for a man to rely on his own judgment. Only the authorities, ecclesiastical and lay, were in a position to judge whether the next step was a rediscovery, and so, safe to take; or whether it deviated from the true re-ascent, and so was sinful.”

Related Characters: David Strorm (speaker)
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

Here David attends an ethics class at school. During the class, he gets another stern reminder of the importance of sameness, but framed in historical and metaphorical language. Supposedly, humanity has been destroyed before because it was too diverse and complex--the only way to ensure that humanity doesn't die out again is to control all social deviations, no matter how small.

One can see, pretty easily, how the "lesson" (propaganda) David receives here can be used to tyrannize human beings. Though the ideas presented here might seem harmless on the surface, when actually put into action they allow for those with power to totally control the "direction" society is to take. This means that the supposed "authorities" mentioned here use the religion of Wanuk to dominate the poeple of their communities.

“Most of the numerous precepts, arguments, and examples in Ethics were condensed for us into this: the duty and purpose of man in this world is to fight unceasingly against the evils that Tribulation loosed upon it. Above all, he must see that the human form is kept true to the divine pattern in order that one day it may be permitted to regain the high place in which, as the image of God, it was set.”

Related Characters: David Strorm (speaker)
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

David lives in a strict, ascetic society, in which man has one purpose and one purpose alone: to return to the "right path" that was supposedly lost during the Tribulation. The only way to get back on this path, it's said, is to be pure and imitate God in all ways. The passage shows how easy it is to use religion--if manipulated by skillful leaders--to manipulate people into doing anything. Because the leaders of the Wanukian religion have God on their side, they can justify anything they command. Even mothers and fathers can be convinced to throw their own children out into the wilderness--as the stakes (the future of all society, supposedly) are too high for loyalty to one's individual children.

Chapter 6 Quotes

“Well, every part of the definition is as important as any other; and if a child doesn’t come within it, then it isn’t human, and that means it doesn’t have as soul. It is not in the image of God, it is an imitation, and in the imitations there is always some mistake. Only God produces perfection, so although deviations may look like us in many ways, they cannot be really human. They are something quite different.”

Related Characters: The Inspector (speaker), Sophie Wender
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David talks to the Inspector--a local figure whose job is to track down those who "deviate" from the proper path of God. By this point in the book, the Inspector has learned that Sophie has six toes, and he wants to know why David, Sophie's friend, didn't alert the authorities to Sophie's supposed evil.

David tries to justify his behavior by saying the obvious: Sophie isn't an evil person and therefore shouldn't be punished. The Inspector retaliates by referring back to the definition of a human being, as outlined in the holy book of the Wanuk religion. There is, of course, no way for David to argue with such a definition. On the surface of things, it's perfectly silly for anybody to say that it's "right" that beings should have exactly five toes--five is a totally random number, the product of millennia of evolution, nothing more. But because David is young (and probably ignorant of evolution), he has no way of arguing with the Inspector, who's essentially using circular logic (this idea is true because it's in the definition of "normal," which is true because it says it's true). Humans in the Wanuk community are so desperate to maintain order that they punish anybody who's the slightest bit unusual, and will use pedantic interpretations of phrases to ruin real people's lives.

“But when people are used to believing a thing is such-and-such a way, and the preachers want them to believe that that’s the way it is; it’s trouble you get, not thanks, for upsetting their ideas.”

Related Characters: Uncle Axel (speaker)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David decides to run away from his society--he's upset at the authorities (including his own father) for punishing innocent people like Sophie. David turns to his trustworthy uncle, Axel, for help. Axel shares David's disgust with many elements of Wanuk society, and yet he doesn't want David to run off into the wilderness. Here, Axel sums up everything David has learned about his society in the last few weeks: the authorities don't want people contradicting their ideas, and even the people themselves don't like being told that everything they've been raised to believe is false.

Another implication of Axel's statement is that figures like priests and politicians don't like dissenters because dissenters challenge their authority, not just the validity of their ideas. The best way for powerful people to maintain their power is to maintain the current statue of society--it's even possible that the tyrants who run Wanuk invented the Wanuk religion as a means of cementing their control.

“But what’s more worrying is that most of them…think that their type is the true pattern of the Old People, and anything different is a Deviation. That seems silly at first, but when you find more and more kinds just as convinced of it as we are ourselves—well you begin to wonder a bit. You start asking yourself: well, what real evidence have we got about the true image?”

Related Characters: Uncle Axel (speaker), Old People
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Uncle Axel points out the arbitrariness of the idea of perfection. While the people of Wanuk are convinced that being a perfect human being entails being a certain height, weight, and skin color, and having a certain number of limbs and digits, there are other people around the world who probably have an entirely different idea of what it means to be perfect.

The book alludes to some of the racially-based acts of violence that occurred during the middle of the 20th century--such as the Holocaust and lynchings in the United States. Such atrocities were motivated by the foolish belief that one kind of human being was superior to the others--even if these beliefs contradicted each other. If one were to put all the bigots and racists in the world in a room together, Axel speculates, they might better be able to see how absurd their beliefs really are.

“Perhaps the Old People were the image: very well then, one of the things they say about them is that they could talk to one another over long distances. Now we can’t do that—but you and Rosalind can. Just think that over, Davie. You two may be nearer to the image than we are.”

Related Characters: Uncle Axel (speaker), David Strorm, Rosalind Morton
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Uncle Axel raises an interesting possibility. Axel knows that David is considered a "mutant" because he has psychic powers. Yet Axel doesn't condemn David for being different from the other people in his society. On the contrary, Axel speculates that in reality, David could be more "perfect" than the other Wanukians. There's no rule that says that perfection correlates with what is most common; in other words, just because David is one of the only people in the community with ESP doesn't mean that he's the mutant. The only relevant factor, according to the Wanuk religion, is whether or not David resembles the "Old People." Axel suggests that David is more like the Old People than his peers--it's rumored that long ago, the Old People could communicate across vast distances, just like David.

The passage reinforces the arbitrariness of the Wanuk definition of perfection. Furthermore, it suggests a number of things: it's possible that the "Old People" Axel refers to are the readers of The Chrysalids itself--people living in the 20th century (when the novel was written) who could communicate using telephones and radios. Although Axel tries to inspire David by telling him that he's perfect, the truth (we recognize) is very different: there is no such thing as human perfection, and anybody who says so is deluded.

Chapter 7 Quotes

“I shall pray God to send charity into this hideous world, and sympathy for the weak, and love for the unhappy and unfortunate. I shall ask Him if it is indeed His will that a child should suffer and its soul be damned for a little blemish of the body….And I shall pray Him, too, that the hearts of the self-righteous may be broken.”

Related Characters: Aunt Harriet (speaker), Joseph Strorm, Emily Strorm
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

Aunt Harriet bravely stands up to Joseph Strorm when Joseph yells at her to pray for forgiveness from God. Joseph is furious at her for bringing a "deviant" child into their house--Harriet has given birth to a baby that, she knows very well, will be banished for being different.

Harriet makes it clear that, while she's still religious, she no longer believes in the hateful, bigoted aspects of the religion of the Wanuk community. She believes that God is a loving, merciful figure who wouldn't punish little children for their supposed imperfections. In all, Harriet seems like one of the sanest and most moral characters in the novel, a voice of reason in a world of institutionalized insanity.

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.

Chapter 9 Quotes

“Of course they should be burnt like they used to be. But what happened? The sentimentalists in Rigo who never have to deal with them themselves said: ‘Even though they aren’t human, they look nearly human, therefore extermination looks like murder, or execution, and that troubles some people’s minds.’”

Related Characters: Jacob (speaker), David Strorm
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, we're introduced to Jacob, an old, mean farmer who sincerely believes that deviants and undesirables should be burnt to death as punishment for their sins. Jacob explains that until quite recently, the Wanuk society did burn deviants--but recently, a group of so-called sentimentalists convinced the authorities to merely sterilize and banish the deviants instead. This new "leniency," Jacob believes, is the reason for the latest batch of bad crops in the community.

Jacob believes that his beliefs are perfectly sensible--he's so confident that the deviants in his community aren't human that he doesn't attribute any human feeling whatsoever to them. Thus, he believes that they should be burnt, and condemns those who are too sympathetic to do so as weak and cowardly. Jacob sneers at the natural human sympathy that leads most people to refrain from such acts of violence--thus behavior, Jacob smugly insists, is just a form of weakness, and goes against the difficult morality of the "truth."

Chapter 12 Quotes

“But what’s got them so agitated about us is that nothing shows. We’ve been living among them for nearly twenty years and they didn’t suspect it. We could pass for normal anywhere. So a proclamation has been posted describing the three of you and officially classifying you as deviants. That means that you are non-human and therefore not entitled to any of the rights or protections of human society.”

Related Characters: Michael (speaker), David Strorm, Petra Strorm, Rosalind Morton
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Michael, a fellow psychic, informs Rosalind and David that they're been found out and placed on a "wanted" list. The list establishes that David and his peers aren't human beings at all--they're non-human deviants who can be arrested or even killed on sight.

As Michael acknowledges, the authorities in Wanuk don't just want David and his friends dead because they're different--they're personally outraged that psychics have managed to survive undetected for so many years. There seems to be a personal animosity in the authorities' vendetta against the psychics, one that won't be satisfied until David and the others are dead. The scene establishes how easily the community of Wanuk can deprive people of their rights--one piece of paper, and David is suddenly no longer human.