When a day that you happen to know is a Wednesday starts off sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’
- Wyndham, p.1, 1951
The Day of the Triffids is a post-apocalyptic genre piece pure and simple. Written in 1951 by British author John Wyndham the book tells the story of Bill Masen who, after waking up blindfolded in hospital and discovering everyone in the hospital has been blinded after viewing a spectacular meteor shower the night before, stumbles out of his room and into London.
Trying to navigate safely through the chaos of this “Groping City” and come to terms with the radically-changed circumstances Masen encounters Josella, a woman who can see and is being forced to act as a seeing-guide for a sadistic newly-blind man. After rescuing her they attempt to safely navigate the new world they woke up too and face an emerging threat: nine-foot tall venomous, carnivorous plants that can walk named “triffids”, who are taking advantage of the paradigm shift and are beginning to actively hunt the blind populace.
Despite having many tropes familiar to 1950 post-atomic matinee features (references to the Soviet Union describe it as a land cloaked in secrecy and mystery) Wyndham has created something that feels unique and exciting, providing readers with a vivid and thought-out alternative universe. In the lengthy second chapter (The Coming of the Triffids) Masen gives the reader an in-depth history of how the triffids came to be with such authenticity and authority that you can fool yourself into thinking that such a bizarre and improbable entity could exist.
However clunky this chapter feels when considering the straight-forward rhythm of the rest of the book it is necessary exposition. In this chapter Wyndham expels any camp elements surrounding the triffids and highlights the threat they present to humanity, all the while showing our complacency with them as they are harvested for oils and other resources. The stinger that makes the triffids so dangerous (and resulted in our protagonist being sent to hospital in the first place) can be safely removed and makes the triffid a trendy addition to a person’s garden but can lessen the purity of the oils extracted, as a consequence farmed triffids are left “undocked”. In this same chapter Masen is talking with a co-worker at one of these farms who surmises:
We can see, and they can’t. Take away our vision, and the superiority is gone. Worse than that – our position becomes inferior to theirs because they are adapted to a sightless existence, and we are not.’ (Wyndham, p. 37, 1951)
At the novel’s heart is a road trip book. Travelling through the quickly devolving social landscape Masen sees nature’s reclamation of the modern world through the encroaching threat of the triffids. Wyndham wisely does not introduce the triffids immediately, instead choosing to focus on integrating the reader into this new world. By making the cataclysm something that we would naturally be drawn to the reader is forced to acknowledge that if they were in the same situation they would view the meteor shower and become one of the blind masses who, if they don’t succumb to hazards such as staircases, will be hunted by the triffids. Told with a first-person narrative we do not leave Masen’s point-of-view, instead we stay with him for the book’s duration.
Wyndham writes Masen as an unflappable and capable protagonist, adept at surviving in a hostile environment thanks to his previous line of work and intuitive nature. He moves from situation to situation with relative ease. His reaction to this new way of life fits in squarely with author Brian Aldiss’s description of a “cosy catastrophe”; in which nearly everyone except the protagonists has died, leaving them free to exploit the riches of the dying world (hotel suites, automobiles etc.) and enjoy a somewhat “cosy” existence at least for a while. This cosiness is also conveyed in the way Wyndham writes Masen’s train of thought:
It wasn’t just the brandy, for it persisted. I think it may have come from the sense of facing something quite fresh and new to me. All the old problems, the stale ones, both personal and general, had been solved by one mighty slash. Heaven alone knew as yet what others might arise –and it looked as though there would be plenty of them – but they would be new.” (Wyndham, p. 47, 1951)
Out of the ruins of the former world Masen encounters several groups of people, both sighted and blind, who are attempting to rebuild society with the end goal being restoration. The first group he encounters proposes a polygamous society intent on populating the planet with as many sighted people as possible, but they are discriminatory towards blinded men. The idea of polygamy leads to a schism within the group and the kidnapping of several individuals including Bill and Josella. The next group Bill encounters is lead by Coker and attempts to scavenge rapidly-dwindling resources by creating chain gangs, each guided by a sighted person. Bill is assigned to one and Josella to another. They are separated for a few chapters before being reunited outside of the city all the while viewing the breakdown of ordered society and the failure of these groups and others like them.
Throughout all of their adventures there is no word from the former government at all except for rumours and postulation. What began as a slow “invasion” by the triffids accelerates substantially as the story progresses. By the final chapter a moat of triffids, separated by an electric fence from Bill and Josella’s property in Sussex, represents a very certain existential threat to their way of life. Wyndham uses the overwhelming numbers of triffids bearing down on our protagonists to reinforce the futility of fighting against nature: in the end the planet will reclaim all that has been taken.
Wyndham compounds this point of view by remarking that scientific hubris, coupled with humanity’s thirst for progress, is what created the apocalyptic scenario. It is presumed the triffids were created by the Soviet Union as part of some insidious genetic experimentation, and much later in the book Bill puts out the theory that the meteor shower responsible for the blinding of the planet might has actually been an orbiting weapons system that either prematurely activated, or fell to earth and in burning up in the atmosphere created the dazzling, yet deadly, showcase that fateful night. Whatever the reasons for both occurrences they are never fully explained. This is the end of the world and the consequences of that one night viewed through the eyes of one man.
In The Day of the Triffids Wyndham chooses to focus on a single point of view instead of muddying the narrative. In doing this he creates a richer story and an environment brimming with diverse and interesting characters, calling to mind H.G. Wells’ standard-setting The War of the Worlds that was released roughly 50 years earlier. In working hard to fill in the details of what a triffid is, how it functions, and how mankind reacted to it Wyndham has made what could have easily been B-movie fodder and turned it into something all-too-real and genuinely terrifying. This is a book that rewards its readers on multiple re-reads, and one you aren’t likely to forget.
The Day of the Triffids was first published in 1951 by the Penguin Group.