David tells the reader that Aunt Harriet’s suicide was the most disturbing event in his life so far. He dreams of her lying in the river, holding her baby. The fact that even the slightest abnormality could result in death frightens David, and he prays to God to make him normal. The next morning, however, he is still able to communicate with Rosalind. David was so young when Sophie had to flee that he did not fully understand what was happening, but he is now terrified that someone will find out about his ability.
David is deeply disturbed by Aunt Harriet’s death because it forces him to think critically about himself. For the first time, he realizes that his abnormalities could put him in mortal danger. Even though he has been taught that Deviations are godless, he turns to God and prays that He will rid him of his ability.
David tells Uncle Axel about the conversation he overheard between his mother and Aunt Harriet. Uncle Axel responds, once again, that no one can be certain of what is normal. He questions why the people of Waknuk spend so much time trying to emulate the Old People if they were destroyed by Tribulation. He cannot understand why God might want to punish a people for sinning, but also cannot understand how the resulting deviations fit into that plan. To him, the rampant mutations are “beneath the wisdom of God.” David quotes back to Uncle Axel the sayings he has heard at church, but Uncle Axel tells him that these are meaningless and empty words, and that even the preachers themselves do not understand them.
Just as Uncle Axel questions traditional ways of knowing in Waknuk, he also challenges the town’s leaders obsession with history and tradition. He does not understand why the authorities would want to return to a way of life that brought about Tribulation. Although David often does not understand the sayings he learns in church, he still mechanically quotes them when faced with the unknown. The ideas he has been taught stay with David, even if he does not believe in them or internalize them. Axel voices Wyndham’s idea that words are empty without personal experience or proof.
Uncle Axel asks a lot of philosophical questions about whether there is any point in trying to be like the Old People in a world that is totally different from theirs, and one that might just end in another Tribulation. David does not understand most of what he is saying. Uncle Axel, knowingly speaking heresy, tells David that it is not the Definition that defines a man, but rather his mind. He does not take issue with the church’s insistence on getting rid of deviations—not because he believes deviations to be impure, but rather unhelpful. He tells David that no one needs multiple arms and legs. He believes that man’s mind is more important than his body, and that David and Rosalind have reached a new level of the mind that they should value rather than wish away.
Uncle Axel takes a Cartesian perspective on what makes a man. Like the philosopher Descartes, who famously said, “I think, therefore I am,” Uncle Axel locates the essence of a human not in a body that looks human but in the presence of a mind. The quality of a person’s mind, he suggests, determines the quality of a person. David should not wish away his ability, but rather value it for all that it makes available to him. His telepathy is not a Deviation, but in fact a sign of progress and evolution.
David tells the reader that he only starts to understand what Uncle Axel was saying when Michael (a member of the group of telepaths) goes to school. One of the others in the group, Walter, had stopped communicating, and everyone feared that his ability may have been found out. Uncle Axel discovers, however, that this was due to an accident rather than someone’s finding out the group’s ability. They decide to learn each other’s names—Michael, Sally, Katherine, Mark, Anne, Rachel, and Rosalind—to avoid any future stress or confusion.
Just as the incident with Sophie prompted the think-togethers to become a real group, the disappearance of one of their members forces them to learn each other’s names. It takes a number of events like these for the group to realize just how much they will need to work together to stay alive.
Michael’s parents decide to send him to school in a neighboring town, and Michael shares what he learns with the others in the group. When the group thinks about his lessons together, everyone in it is able to understand the lessons better than they could on their own. David enjoys his increased access to knowledge, but notes that it also poses a problem for the group. Everyone needed to remember how much he or she was supposed to know and to pretend to know less than they did. Although there are a few slip-ups, they live for six years without being caught, until another person joins their group.
David only sees the value of his ability when it becomes clear to him that multiple minds thinking about a problem are more powerful than a single mind thinking about the same thing. Over and over again, his experiences convince David of things he does not understand or believe when learned through words. But, just as the Waknukian’s ignorance of the world makes them happy, David’s increased knowledge leads to greater responsibility.