The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Bill Masen wakes in a hospital with bandages over his eyes. Finally, he will be able to expose his eyes to light — if only a nurse or doctor would come to remove the bandages. Well, no one is left to help Bill because a gnarly comet has blinded every person that watched its lightshow. Bill removes his bandages, leaves the hospital, and learns that English civilization — perhaps human civilization — has collapsed due to mass blindness.
Without its ability to see, humanity loses its place atop the food pyramid. A new creature now dominates: the triffid. A triffid is a tall plant. It eats insects. It can use its stalk as a whip, which is deadly because it contains poison. Though a triffid can’t just eat a person, python style, its prehensile stalk can tear and consume the flesh from a rotting corpse. Worse, the triffids can walk. And they can talk to each other! Each triffid has three sticks that beat a code against its stalk. Without humanity, reliant on sight, to control their population, the triffids soon take over.
Originally published in 1951, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids offers two post-apocalyptic novels for the price of one: a blinding comet and the triffids. The Day of the Triffids largely established Wyndham’s career in science fiction, but how does it speak to today’s readers?
To some extent, it holds up remarkably well. In fact, Wyndham’s plotting and themes often seem prescient and perhaps even influential.
Although Wyndham’s villains are shrubberies, the novel strongly recalls contemporary zombie stories. Like Rick Grimes in Walking Dead or Jim in 28 Days Later, Bill wakes up in a hospital after the world has largely ended. The triffids actually seem more like zombies than one might expect. Consider this passage describing the Walking Vegetables:
A crunch on the gravel brought me back to the present. A triffid came swaying down the drive toward the gate.
While imagining this scene, I realized I was imagining Rick Grimes’ encounter with the zombie child in the first episode of The Walking Dead. Like the walkers, the triffids are not especially graceful, but if they get too close, they can be very dangerous. Never forget that a single sting will kill most people.
And Wyndham shows more than once that the triffids are not the only threat that remains. The blinded survivors often attempt to enslave those that can see in order to survive. If the blinded hear a car, they’ll swarm it, groping inside for people that can see. At one point, a band of blind survivors demand to be provided for, but they are repeatedly denied, for many of the same reasons that Garrett Hardin would later outline in “Lifeboat Ethics.”
Many of the questions that Wyndham asks here appear in other post-apocalyptic novels. As he considers the collapse of civilization, Bill finds himself realizing that that he knows:
…practically nothing, for instance, of such ordinary things as how my food reached me, where the fresh water came from, how the clothes I wore were woven and made, how the drainage of cities kept them healthy. Our life had become a complexity of specialists.
This anxiety over specialization is not uncommon in the genre, which often glorifies survivalists for their gritty, back to basics perspective on life. Again, Wyndham appears to be building on the same groundwork as later authors. And like so many other stories in the genre, Bill’s adventures offer perspective on our own society. We gripe, but we live in a world of global transportation networks ready to “carry one thousands of miles safely and in comfort.” Looking back, the mundane world, pre-collapse, seems like a utopia.
Although The Day of the Triffids in many ways seems to anticipate later post-apocalyptic novels, contemporary readers may struggle with it.
For one thing, Wyndham rushes his collapse. Bill leaves the hospital and already there’s nothing left of society – the state’s destruction, because of blindness, is assumed. There’s no reference to it. It gets stranger: at one point, Bill goes into an apartment and finds a lot of food. He goes into the hallway and watches as a blinded couple from down the hall leaves their apartment and jumps out a window, committing suicide because there’s no food left in their apartment. For one thing, speak up, Bill! For another, there’s plenty of food left in the apartment next to theirs. Although the scene is supposed to be touching, it lacks credibility. Given that Wyndham was writing about (and to) a post-war audience that endured Germany’s bombings, I struggled with the idea that the English would ignore the “keep calm and carry on” mentality they’re so often remembered for. Doesn’t everyone know that hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way?
Wyndham’s depiction of women will almost certainly try the patience of contemporary readers. We meet the female lead, Josella Playton, after she has already been leashed to a blinded man. Bill frees her. Reflecting on her bondage, Josella decides that the man that had leashed her:
…wasn’t perhaps too bad a man really. Only he was frightened. Deep down inside him he was much more frightened than I was. He only started beating me like that because he was drunk and I wouldn’t go into his house with him.
Perhaps the beating wasn’t so bad. Perhaps the only reason he wanted her to go into his house was so that she could feed his dog. However, I couldn’t help feeling that Josella has an unconvincing aptitude for forgiveness.
This rationalization of misogyny is not uncommon in the novel. When Josella is given the chance to tell her story, her dialogue is immediately dismissed as “prattle” and summarized by Bill for the sake of efficiency. In another scene, Bill comes across a mob of blinded men led by one man that can still see. One of the blinded men asks for a woman and the ringleader pushes a blinded woman into his arms. Bill attempts to intervene, and fails. He afterward reflects that the women will be glad to be with that mob soon enough since they’ll be able to find food.
Let’s return to the plot. The most promising plan for the future that Bill finds concludes that polygamy (several women/ man) is the best way to rebuild humanity’s population. In her book of essays, In Other Worlds, Atwood points out that totalitarian societies always attempt to control reproduction, but here it’s accepted as the most logical plan to replenish the population. Bill agrees with the plan, though he is horrified at the idea of maintaining a sexual relationship with Josella as well as two blinded women. So Josella, who also finds the plan logical, offers to choose two women for him. At first glance, this sort of conflict is one of the best parts of The Day of the Triffids: if everything is lost, what social norms that we take for granted become irrational or impractical? And this fantasy of “starting over,” freed from past conventions, appears in almost every post-apocalyptic narrative. Then again, the only woman that speaks out against (and is allowed two sentences of dialogue) the polygamy plan is depicted as a narrow-minded prude. It felt at times like the novel was not introducing questions so much as lecturing.
The Day of the Triffids will appeal to some contemporary readers and annoy others. It’s often fascinating to compare and contrast this post-apocalyptic narrative to its followers, and I often stopped reading in order to jot down notes about the Wyndham’s narrative choices. Still, the depiction of women in the novel is often trying, even taking into account that it was written in 1951. How prescient are you if your female characters are so often unconvincing to future audiences? Post-apocalyptic fiction enthusiasts and fans of mid-20th century science fiction will almost certainly enjoy The Day of the Triffids. Other readers should tread carefully.
(I was thinking “thank goodness for those hospitals” myself!)
It seems like the best insight is the fact that as post-agrarians and city-dwellers, we have lost connection with our food, water and shelter sources. For 1951, that does seem prescient. The connection between triffids and zombies seems unavoidable.(And yes, why doesn’t Bill stop the couple, go next door and grab them some food? Seems like Wyndham sacrificed plausibility for drama.)
The misogyny seems a little hard to take, though. It sounds like the writer had “issues!”
I wondered if it was the author, too. However, I have started the first dozen pages of another Wyndham novel and it’s so far quite good. Knock on wood, eh?
I vaguely recall enjoying the movie adaptation quite a bit as a kid. Wonder how women fared in that version–about the only specific I actually remember is the way the plants turned toward their potential victims (if I”m even remembering that right). Any time I pick up an old work, I gird myself for the possible cringe-fest it might be thanks to its casual misogyny.
I also try to gird myself, but the “prattle” section was pretty blatant:
I mean, just don’t ask that question if you don’t care and then summarize it.
Right. Why not just shift into indirect narrative: “She told me that she was the fourth of seven children and… ” etc.
Also: I really like how the cover artist makes the novel appear to be a zombie story — the hand rising out of the earth amidst a bunch of harmless plants.
Tried to read this one last year with high expectations, but gave up after less than 100 pages. It just seemed like such a very proper British disaster story, and the early portion was pretty boring. The characters got irritating to the point where I was rooting for the triffids! I also tried The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned), but this too ended up DNF. I don’t find H.G. Wells novels dated much at all, but Wyndham and I just don’t connect.