“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”
In a sense, John Wyndham’s opening line in The Day of the Triffids perfectly sets the tone for everything that follows. Forget the sci-fi battle waged between aggressive plants and humans, forget the foray into a post-apocalyptic future where most people are blind- this novel is more concerned with the disruption of man’s routine. Sundays will never sound like Sundays again, Wednesdays become meaningless, and mankind gets thrown into the river with no life-raft in sight.
Released in 1951, at a time when dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels were thriving in the wake of World War Two and the looming shadow of the Cold War. People were tense, nuclear war was a real threat, and the future never looked so terrifying.
What separates Day of the Triffids from other novels of the genre is that it is a wholly personal tale. Set in England, Bill Masen is one of the lucky few who can still see after an unusual meteor shower has blinded vast swathes of the population. As if that wasn’t bad enough, triffids – large plants that can walk, and even attack – have sensed the despair, deciding now is the perfect time to break free from gardens and seed nurseries everywhere and subjugate those pesky humans.
So, a novel about killer plants.
Not something that traditionally lends itself to philosophical debates, granted. But that is essentially the beauty of Wyndham’s novel.
We are taken on a journey of self-discovery through Bill’s eyes, as society crumbles and every last fragment of normality is broken. We feel his loneliness, his rage, his love and his futility.
Is he ‘lucky’ to be able to see, in a world where few can? Is he superior to someone who cannot? At what point does one life become more important than another, when humanity’s very survival is threatened? Bill is faced with constant stream of moral dilemmas, each one more pertinent and tougher than the last, and as a reader, you begin to feel the weight of the world on your own shoulders too. The weight of unwanted responsibility, but a responsibility that you simply can not turn your back on.
The novel is not concerned with the epic story of mankind. Moreso, it plunges into the heart of survival. It deals with the daily struggle of those trying to care for loved ones, finding safety, and sometimes simply finding the right bottle of spirits. It’s these basic, primal moments that draw the reader in and make us feel connected to the world presented. It brings a humanity to the tale that many novels – not just post-apocalyptic– struggle to do.
Yes, the novel indulges in flights of philosophy quite often, but always in a distinct and thoughtful manner. Perhaps nature is simply reclaiming what is rightfully hers, and humans are in fact the real enemy. Throughout, we meet characters who react to the disaster in vastly different ways, and ponder over questions of right and wrong. With society crumbling, looting and theft become the norm, and traditional values and religion all get called into question.
The Day of the Triffids is an elegant tale, crafted through Wyndham’s wonderfully poetic and concise hand. Best described as a ‘cosy catastrophe’, it is interested in the individual’s emotion when faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to overcome.
Sadly however, you’ll never be able to look at plants the same way again.