One night, David hears a baby cry in his house. He is surprised because he had not noticed that his mother was pregnant, and there was no baby in his house earlier that same night. No one mentions the cry the next day because a baby cannot be called a baby until it is issued a Certificate of Normalcy by the Inspector. The Inspector delays his house call as long as possible to anger Mr. Strorm, and as a result, everyone in the Strorm house must pretend that Mrs. Strorm has not just given birth. The wait is stressful for the family, particularly because the last two times David’s mother has given birth, the children were not deemed normal. According to Waknukian law, a husband may cast out a wife that bears three abnormal children. Eventually, however, the child is deemed normal by the Inspector, and she is named Petra. David tells the reader that no one could blame the inspector for his decision, because Petra indeed looked like she would be normal.
That the birth of a baby must go unremarked upon until the child is verified by an Inspector shows how pervasive the cult of normalcy in Waknuk really is: it affects even the earliest moments of a person’s life. Giving birth is not a joyous occasion, but rather a terrifying one because the child might be deemed abnormal and taken away, presumably to die. The system for determining and confirming normalcy, however, is overly reliant on physical appearance and written words. Despite the fact that Petra looks normal and is recorded as being normal, she is not, as we will later find out.
A few days later, David’s Aunt Harriet, his mother’s sister, arrives at his house. David is hiding to escape having to work in the room adjacent to his mother’s, and he overhears Harriet’s with her sister. Harriet has brought a baby with her, and she tells David’s mother, Emily, that the news of the birth of Petra was “like God answering a prayer.” It becomes clear that Harriet has been unable to obtain a Certificate for her own child, and she hopes that she might trade the child with Petra for a day in order to trick the Inspector and acquire a Certificate.
Like Elias’ Strorm’s wife and Uncle Axel, Aunt Harriet is a further example of the fact that a willingness to question authority runs in David’s family. The fact that she turns to her sister for help suggests that family bonds are typically important in Waknuk—potentially more so than religion.
David’s mother is furious at Harriet for bringing a Blasphemy into her house. Harriet asserts that the baby is lovely, other than her Offense. Like Emily, Harriet has given birth to two abnormal children, and she tells her sister that she could not bear to have another child taken away. She also fears that her husband will banish her. Emily shows no compassion toward her sister and asks Joseph to throw her out. Joseph rails against Harriet for her sin and tells her to pray for forgiveness. Harriet asserts that she is not ashamed and that she will only pray for more “charity,” “sympathy,” and “love” in the world.
Wyndham challenges the reader to examine his or her own convictions by creating a scene that is clearly immoral to the reader and righteous to the characters. This moment is also an example of how easily religion and the greater good can be manipulated and perverted into serving as a justification for a horrible action.
Harriet rides away on a horse. Joseph is dismayed that she was so arrogant as to not be ashamed of her sins. He is furious that she would dare to “speak heresy” in his house. Emily begins to cry—something that David has never heard before. David, unable to see into the room, wonders what the child’s Offense was. The next day, he learns that Aunt Harriet’s body, as well as the body of her child, has been found in the river. No one mentions her baby again.
Aunt Harriet’s death speaks to the severity of the Waknukian religion. The shame of bearing a deformed child is so great that suicide is preferable to anyone finding out. She does not want her child to live as an outcast in the Fringes, and believes that death is a better option for both of them.