I may never look at my houseplants the same way again after reading John Wyndham's 1951 classic, The Day of the Triffids. I thought, going into the story, that I knew what it was about, but it managed to stretch my imagination nicely in a few different and occasionally unexpected directions. It elicited just enough dread to make it a good end-of-the-world sort of story, yet not send me totally off the edge.
"For the short time the scene was on I stared at it, fascinated. There was our mysterious rubbish-heap plant grown to a height of seven feet or more. There was no mistaking it--and it was 'walking'!"
That's Bill Masen, our trusty narrator and biologist who had been studying triffids in the days when they were just a curiosity and potentially useful little plant. The day of the triffids should really be, if we're going to think about how the story actually begins, the day of the shooting stars. A spectacular event, so bright they were lighting up the sky, that everyone was in awe watching. Everyone but Bill who was in the hospital for surgery on his eyes, which were covered, so he managed to miss the entire show--the light from those bright green stars cast a hue on those faces looking up a ghastly green. And then promptly blinded everyone. The triffids just took advantage of the situation.
What follows is the realization that the world as we know it, is no more. Bill eventually removes his bandages to find out what the fuss is all about--he has been left alone in his hospital room, aware of the meteor shower/star show yet not knowing the result of everyone's gaze upon it. He can hear something but it isn't until he leaves the hospital that realization dawns on him--everyone is stumbling about unable to see, save a few who were in places or situations where their eyes were not exposed. Bill meets up with a few fellow survivors including Josella Playton, a young woman who is something of a socialite and the pair try and find a way to survive the disaster encountering various groups of people with vastly different ideas of how to manage the situation.
I read The Day of the Triffids along with Stefanie at Weeds (formerly known as So Many Books), and we decided to share our chat about the story using a few questions as prompts. The first half is below and you can find the rest of the discussion over at Weeds.
Let’s talk about triffids and the green stars. Even though the book is called Day of the Triffids, the triffids are not the disaster. It’s the green stars that cause everyone to go blind and is proposed to be a space weapon accident. The triffids are an escaped science experiment that take advantage of the disaster. What’s the point of even having triffids?
(Me): I found this a bit confusing, but it does make the story nicely multilayered. A catastrophe on top of a catastrophe. One you might manage to escape, but then a second one that is so seemingly mundane it becomes the threat that can wipe out humanity--they just need to sit and wait us out, those triffids! Talk about taking advantage of a situation.
A comet shower causes the blindness but maybe it is not those green flashes but a satellite throwing out radiation damaging the sight of anyone who happens to be watching the spectacle from earth. It’s a nice case of what-ifs and a combination that might just seem plausible. Then throw into the mix humans messing with nature and trying to teach the triffids tricks that in the end quite literally just snaps back at them. It is a cautionary tale that seems even more possible now that we do so much genetic engineering than it would have back in the 1950s.
The comet makes an interesting story, but the triffids makes a pretty unsettling and scary story--even better. What harm can a little plant do anyway, right? I’ve only been thinking, though, that why would a triffid (learned behavior?) want to lash out at humans? I guess flesh for them was food? Curious and scary thought of a plant being a carnivore!
(Stefanie): I think of the triffids as giant walking venus flytraps and humans are the flies!
I kept waiting for there to be a direct connection between the green stars and the triffids--alien invasion!--there was definitely an H.G. Wells War of the Worlds vibe going on. But it turns out they are both results of human folly, which is and is not more frightening. I have to admit that the triffids lurking in the hedges was pretty creepy!
What I found most curious was how Bill, our narrator, exonerates humans for the triffids because the triffids were useful for oil and cattle feed. But whatever caused the blindness, that was the horror and the true example of human stupidity. The triffids were just doing what came naturally even though they weren’t natural at all! So I found Bill’s reasoning a bit problematic.
(Me): I hadn’t thought of that--I guess I glossed over his appreciation of the triffids in light of all the rest of the craziness that was going on. He seemed to have a love/hate relationship with them. He was stung once--so twice shy, but you’re right he still saw their value, which after all was said and done was pretty crazy. Once they started learning for themselves at the cost of killing humans, you’d think he would be less enamored. He certainly knew how to get rid of them, but too little too late and by then they had to think about re-inventing the wheel--for pretty much everything. You do wonder how they possibly could get by. Do you think they would have actually succeeded in surviving in the end? (Did you know there is actually a sequel? But I think this is a story that, for me, is best left finished here).
(Stefanie): Yes, a sequel, Night of the Triffids! It sounds absolutely terrible.
Yup, given everything I was surprised that Bill was so "triffids will be triffids" about it all. I may have yelled, "what’s wrong with you?!" at the book. But he still understands them as a threat in the end, maybe, since when he gets to the island his job is going to be doing research to figure out how to get rid of them. He’ll probably come up with some devastating pesticide. I think the humans will survive in the end, though I don’t think it will be as easy as the book makes it seem.
(Me): Job security?! (Just kidding!). I wonder if in the sequel they do get rid of the triffids? Now I am curious, but sometimes it is best to let a story end where it has ended.
Bill encounters a number of different attempts at building a new society based on different ideas and values. What did you think of this? Is Wyndham making a statement?
(Me): I sort of think Wyndham is always making a statement of some kind--or raising possibilities (mostly the type that backfire on people messing with science and nature) both good and bad. And of course it makes for interesting storytelling. I do think he had a way of subtly (or maybe not so much) making his own opinion known by the ways certain groups come and go--their ideas on how to make a better world and how it succeeds, or not. The potential solutions are presented but Bill and Josella discuss, don’t always agree, and then go their own way in the end. It seems he gives the gamut of new societies--from the two extremes (one a very moral one and one completely lawless) and something in between. The extremes ultimately don’t work, but we don’t know how or if Bill and Josella’s group survive either.
I was really curious and am not sure quite what I thought of Josella’s 'sex book' for which she so famously (infamously) is noted to have written. Where did that come from and why? Women characters are always interesting in Wyndham’s books, though Josella plays a much better role (and I especially like Susan) than some of his earlier female protagonists.
(Stefanie): I have not read Wyndham before and I was surprised by all the literary references. With Bill experiencing several different possible social structures it felt kind of like Gulliver in a way--here are the religious dogmatics, here is a police state, etc. We don’t know how the society Bill and Josella eventually move to survives, but I got the feeling Wyndham was telling us their approach was the best one. Bill’s stated desire was to build a new world in which there was no war and humans were more practical and tolerant, which makes sense given the book was published in 1951 and the world was still recovering from the war.
I’m not sure what was going on with Josella’s racy book either. Women in the book are rather stereotypical and Josella comes from a wealthy family, so I wonder if her book was a way to portray her as liberal and free-thinking? But for all that, her job ends up being taking care of the babies. I liked Susan too, she was a sassy little orphan girl. But it bugged me that in thinking of the future, Bill worried about his son getting an education and Susan having a husband and children. Then there was Coker telling women at Tynsham that they have to be useful and can’t be parasites anymore! Sigh.
(Me): Yes, that Coker scene was an eyebrow-raiser for me, too. I know I made a nice little notation in the part where they had the discussion women were meant to just breed in their new society. Oh lord, really? Maybe the sex book was meant to placate all sorts of readers and give the story a little excitement? It did feel a little dated/of the time it was written. Do you think any contemporary novel with this sort of story would have characters who felt the need to actually leave money for the food they were taking, like Bill did initially. I know he didn’t want to jinx himself, that he was still moral by paying for what he was taking, but it kind of seemed a little too silly for me.
(Stefanie): Oh my gosh, Bill leaving money at the store! It cracked me up. Really? The world as you know it has just ended and you are concerned about paying for the food you just took? He didn’t seem all that worried about paying for the alcohol he kept drinking at the pubs!
(Me): Yes, as time went on his morals in terms of being a good member of society did become rather elastic, though certainly nowhere near as lawless as other folks.
I really like John Wyndham. This is the third book I've read by him, following on the heels of Chocky, The Midwich Cuckoos and Stowaway to Mars. I might read H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds as a companion piece as Wyndham is said to have been influenced by it. Just a note on the Modern Library edition I read, (via a very good online reading guide here), the US version has actually been slightly changed and abridged. Had I known that I would have bought the complete UK version!
There have been at least three movie adaptations of the book, which I think I might try and locate and watch. And Stefanie offered some very tempting readalikes, too:
Read alikes, been thinking about this. Definitely War of the Worlds. Also Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller (a classic, but I haven’t read it yet), The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch.