OCR A Level Unseen: Wyndham -The Chrysalids

Once again, an essay for discussion. There is no such thing as a perfect unseen, especially in 45 minutes!  A sound file and discussion is below.

The Chrysalids (1955)

The passage, written by a first person narrator, and therefore fundamentally unreliable in terms of the implications of such a narrative voice, is set in a world which seems to be lacking in advanced technology and in which there is a underlying threat of a society in which even thought can be intercepted and studied.

The opening description of the dream world is one of beauty and freedom. Although set in a city ‘clustered’ around the ‘big blue bay’, the freedom of the alliterative description of the bay counteracts the tight structure of the city. Indeed the verb ‘clustered’ could suggest a city which is deliberately gathered together precisely because of the opportunity offered by the bay itself. The sea is often used to symbolise the possibility of freedom and escape, being a liminal marker that is both obstructive and crossable. A similar idea is explored in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go when the clones visit Cromer or Dover and recognise that there is a life beyond the one set out for them, if they might cross it. In this extract, the dream scenario is countered by the recognition that the real world is landlocked – the narrator has never ‘seen the sea, or a boat…’ The ellipsis suggests a thought process cut off in mid-stream as though too upsetting to pursue.

In the dream world the innocent mind from the future sees vehicles redolent of the time of writing – ‘carts running with no horses and fish-shaped things in the sky’. Again his wonder at ordinary 20th century sights suggests a world which has regressed in time, somewhat as England has in Riddley Walker, by Russel Hoban. This similarity is enhanced by the mention of the ‘Tribulation’ wrought by God – not necessarily a Christian God – which possibly relates to some form of Nuclear disaster, a very common fear in the 1950s when this book was written. A world devastated by an unexpressed apocalyptic event is a common Dystopian trope of the later 20th century.

The narrator dreams this view both by day and night – the night is not threatening – the light lying like ‘strings of glow-worms’ suggests a peace and beauty to the scene. One in which man and nature seem to happily coincide.

The narrator is young, though has developed beyond his innocent days – ‘when I was quite small’. He is able to refer to a time ‘when I was still young enough to know no better’ and to the need to ask an older sibling for advice. There are no parents in this narrative. He is aware enough to see the dream as ‘beautiful and fascinating’ but also readily aware that as he gets older and his state of innocence drops away, his visions also fall away at the same time.  This path from innocence to experience with a similar reduction of freedom and thought is reminiscent of the children in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights Trilogy, who gradually lose their freedom to adapt as their Daemons become fixed.  His sister Mary seems to be knowledgeable and understanding although worried – she warns him ‘seriously’, the adverb intensifying the nature of the warning, and refers to a ‘time before’ when the Old People – the capitalisation suggesting a proper noun – a term used of the ancestors as though as part of a folk memory – a very common trope seen in Zamyatin’s We or Orwell’s 1984. She also establishes how unusual he is in having these ‘pictures’ in his head and establishing him as an outsider – a typical narrator in such novels.  His cousin Rosalind, however seems to share the gift of sight.  He and she have a ‘curious understanding’, possibly hinting at a psychic link of some sort which is no doubt explored in the novel.  The name Rosalind is chosen to echo Shakespeare’s Rosalind in As You Like It – a girl of great resource  and an outcast who will find love and understanding when banished to the  forest. Possibly this storyline will be followed.

There is also an unsettling comment in that the narrator is already marked out for observation due to his left handedness.  This ‘sinister’ aspect to his character will no doubt be explored in the novel.

The narrator realises the need for silence and his prepared to bide his time.  We are told that he and Rosalind keep quiet about their gift ‘at that time’. Clearly the passage is from the beginning of the novel and much is being set up for future reference. He ‘did not feel unusual’ he says, possibly suggesting that his older self certainly does.

The passage explores the ideas of a ruined world and establishes the idea of a young man who has visions – not unlike the Father in Mcarthy’s The Road,  – of a better past. He is fascinated, just as Riddley Walker is  by these manifestations of a time before and establishes a hook in the relationship between him and his equally different cousin.

Write a commentary on this passage from a novel published in 1955. Relate your response to the study of Dystopian literature.  Time: 1 hour.

When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city – which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was. But this city, clustered on the curve of a big blue bay, would come into my mind. I could see the streets, and the buildings that lined them, the waterfront, even boats in the harbour; yet, waking, I had never seen the sea, or a boat . . .

And the buildings were quite unlike any I knew. The traffic in the streets was strange, carts running with no horses to pull them; and sometimes there were things in the sky, shiny fish-shaped things that certainly were not birds.

Most often I would see this wonderful place by daylight, but occasionally it was by night when the light lay like strings of glow-worms along the shore, and a few of them seemed to be sparks drifting on the water, or in the air.

It was a beautiful, fascinating place, and once, when I was still young enough to know no better, I asked my eldest sister, Mary, where this lovely city could be.

She shook her head, and told me there was no such place – not now. But, perhaps, she suggested, I could somehow be dreaming about times long ago. 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.

But after that she went on to warn me very seriously not to mention it to anyone else; other people as far as she knew, did not have such pictures in their heads, either sleeping or waking, so it would be unwise to mention them.

That was good advice, and luckily I had the sense to take it. People in our district had a very sharp eye for the odd, the unusual, so that even my left-handedness caused slight disapproval. So, at that time, and for some years afterwards, I did not mention it to anyone – indeed, I almost forgot about it, for as I grew older, the dream came less frequently, and then very rarely.

But the advice stuck. Without it I might have mentioned the curious understanding I had with my cousin Rosalind, and that would certainly have led us both into very grave trouble – if anyone had happened to believe me. Neither I nor she, I think, paid much attention to it at that time: we simply had the habit of caution. I certainly did not feel unusual. I was a normal little boy, growing up in a normal way, taking the ways of the world about me for granted.

John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955)