The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

A few years ago I read John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos and loved it, which was a nice surprise as I very rarely choose to read science fiction. It has taken me a while to get round to reading another book by Wyndham, but now that I’ve finally read The Day of the Triffids I’m pleased to report that I found this another enjoyable, if unsettling, read.

The story is set in a world very similar to our own, but for one small but very significant difference: the presence of a species of plant known as the triffid:

There must have been plenty of them about, growing up quietly and inoffensively, with nobody taking any particular notice of them – at least, it seemed so, for if the biological or botanical experts were excited over them, no news of their interest percolated to the general public. And so the one in our garden continued its growth peacefully, as did thousands like it in neglected spots all over the world.

It was some little time later that the first one picked up its roots and walked.

Apart from the ability to walk, another characteristic of the triffid is its long stinging arm with which it lashes out with unnerving accuracy at anyone who gets too close. At the beginning of the novel, our narrator, Bill Masen, is in a London hospital with a bandage over his eyes, having been stung in the face by one of these vicious plants. Because of this, Bill misses out on seeing a spectacular display of meteors which light up the sky with green flashes all over the world.

The next day, when he tentatively removes his bandages, Bill is relieved to find that no damage has been done to his eyes – but on venturing out of his hospital ward, which is strangely quiet that morning, he makes a shocking discovery. It seems that everyone who watched the meteor shower in the sky last night has suddenly and mysteriously gone blind, meaning that Bill is one of the few people left in the world who is able to see.

When I read The Midwich Cuckoos, one of the reasons I liked it so much was that the focus was on a small community trying to deal with the consequences of one strange occurrence and the ‘science fiction’ elements were quite subtle. With giant killer plants, flashing lights in the sky and sudden worldwide blindness, those elements are a lot stronger in The Day of the Triffids, but there’s still the same sense of the ordinary blending with the extraordinary.

It’s never entirely clear what caused the blindness – or the introduction of the triffid to the planet – but there are hints of biological and chemical warfare (it’s worth remembering that the book was published in 1951, in the early years of the Cold War). But maybe the causes are not really important; what is important is the reaction of the characters to the post-apocalyptic world in which they find themselves. And I found the way most people reacted quite depressing – fighting, rioting, looting shops and stealing food. The most memorable section of the novel, for me, was the part immediately following the onset of the blindness, where Bill leaves the hospital to find that the world – or London at least – has descended into chaos:

We had turned a corner to see the street seventy yards ahead of us filled with people. They were coming toward us at a stumbling run, with their arms outstretched before them. A mingled crying and screaming came from them. Even as we came into sight of them a woman at the front tripped and fell; others tumbled over her, and she disappeared beneath a kicking, struggling heap. Beyond the mob we had a glimpse of the cause of it all: three dark-leaved stems swaying beyond the panic-stricken heads.

Personally, I think the idea of seven-foot tall plants uprooting themselves and walking around the streets is terrifying enough without all the other things that happen in the novel! The triffids play a surprisingly small part in the novel, though; much more time is spent on the implications of the blindness, the opportunity for shaping a new society and the varying opinions of what that society should be like. The role of the triffids in the story, I think, is to show how precarious our position is in the world and how just one small change (such as the loss of our eyesight) can result in the conditions being right for another species to gain superiority.

Although I preferred The Midwich Cuckoos, The Day of the Triffids really is a fascinating novel. Now I need to decide which John Wyndham book to read next.

36 thoughts on “The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

  1. Lark says:

    This is one of those books where I’ve been aware of the title for years, but never knew what it’s about. So I’m glad you reviewed it. Now I know. And next time I see this book, I just might check it out. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I wasn’t sure what it was about either until I read it. I knew about the plants, but not the blindness. It’s definitely worth reading, next time you come across it!

  2. calmgrove says:

    I seem to remember his The Kraken Wakes was in a similar apocalyptic vein, with giant alien slug-like creatures causing havoc and societal breakdown. I enjoyed it but it’s probably a little close to the triffid scenario if you’re looking for something different. Trouble With Lichen perhaps? Can’t recall anything about it having read it so long ago, but would probably consider it now.

    • Helen says:

      I would like to read The Kraken Wakes, but if it’s similar to this book I think I’ll try one or two of his others first. Trouble With Lichen sounds intriguing!

  3. Elle says:

    He wrote a brilliantly unnerving book called Chocky, about a little boy whose “imaginary friend” is not as imaginary as it ought to be. It’s not as well known as Triffids and Cuckoos, but I’ve never forgotten it.

  4. FictionFan says:

    Glad you enjoyed this one! I have it down for a re-read as part of my Classics Club list. Wyndham has always been one of my favourite sci-fi writers, even though I don’t think he really fits into that category very well. I second Elle’s comments about Chocky – one of his very best, I think. I suspect it’s because it wouldn’t work so well as a movie that has caused it to be less well known. His short story collection The Seeds of Time is also a lot of fun, and really shows off his imagination and range, from horror to humour and all points in-between…

    • Helen says:

      I think one of the reasons I like Wyndham’s books so much is that they don’t fit neatly into the sci-fi category. You and Elle have both made me curious about Chocky – I think I’ll have to read that one soon!

  5. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

    John Wyndham is one of my all-time favourite authors – one of only a handful of Sci-fi authors – I don’t read much of the genre. I love him because it isn’t all technology and space travel, but ordinary lives impacted by the extraordinary. I have all his books and regularly re-read them, so hard to recommend your next one – they are very diverse. I’m of a certain age when ‘The Trouble with Lichen’ has resonance… And I’m not particularly keen on spiders, so when I want to be unsettled I re-read ‘Web’… If you currently are involved with children maybe try ‘Chocky’ But all of them are interesting in different ways.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t read much of this genre either, but I’ve really enjoyed both of the John Wyndham books I’ve read, for the reasons you’ve mentioned here. Most of his others sound appealing, but I’m particularly interested in Chocky and Trouble with Lichen.

  6. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

    PS We have a lot of Giant Hogweed around here – on the river banks etc. I’ve always wondered if it was that plant that inspired the Triffids.

  7. Yvonne says:

    I’m not much into science fiction these days, but remember reading The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Kraken Awakes in high school. Loved all three.

  8. Sandra says:

    I read a lot of John Wyndham many years ago and loved them, though like you, science fiction is not a genre I would now say that I enjoy. The book that stays with me from those readings is The Chrysalids. I would also say that I don’t enjoy dystopian novels yet in many ways this can be described as such. I still have my original copies. Perhaps a re-read one day!

    • Helen says:

      I would probably have enjoyed Wyndham’s books when I was at school too, but I never had the opportunity to read them then. There are very few books that I had to read for school that I do remember liking!

  9. jessicabookworm says:

    I am so pleased to hear you enjoyed this – I read it quite a few years ago now and I thought it was great. While this is science-fiction, I totally agree that the meteors and Triffids aren’t the main focus instead it how humans choose to act in these situations. Sadly I haven’t read anything else by Wyndham, perhaps I should try The Midwich Cuckoos next 🙂

  10. The Book Whisperer says:

    I can remember this being on TV when I was a child and have been meaning to read it for years. I loved The Midwich Cuckoos too and Chocky was a great (and short) read too. I read The Chryssalids about 30 years ago at school (showing my age now!) and keep thinking I should read that again as I do remember really enjoying it. Great review.

    • Helen says:

      I’m leaning towards reading Chocky next, especially as it’s short. I like the sound of The Chrysalids as well, so it’s good to know that you enjoyed that one!

      • buriedinprint says:

        I remember the televised version as well; I absolutely loved it but it also scared me something fierce. When I think back to it now, I figure it must have looked rather ridiculous, given how preposterous some other sci-fi films/shows look from that time, but it got to me all the same. I figure something of that’s lingered in me at some deeper level because I’ve picked up copies of several of his books but have never managed to read one yet! I know, I know: I should. But…

  11. eduardodefrutos says:

    The other day I saw the adaptation of this novel into the cinema. I didn’t know it was a 1951 book. Although I haven’t read the novel, from what you say in your review, the adaptation seems fairly accurate to it.

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t seen the adaptation, though I would like to watch it now that I’ve read the book to see how it compares. I’m glad you think it sounds quite accurate. 🙂

  12. J.E. Fountain says:

    Hi Helen, I just finished The Day of the Triffids. I liked it, didn’t love it…mostly because I thought it was too short, especially the second half. I will definitely read more Wyndham though. Perhaps I’ll try The Midwich Cuckoos next.

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