Yesterday’s post on ‘The Day of the Triffids’ was getting overly long, and I wanted to spend some time looking more closely at the scene below from chapter 5, ‘A Light in the Night’. I think it demonstrates Wyndham’s “less is more” technique. it also provides a further perspective on the question of how to respond to overwhelming tragedy from which there appears no escape.
Bill and Joella have found a flat in which to hide overnight on the first night after the mass-blinding. They have chosen an opulent third floor flat to celebrate what they both think will be their last night of ‘civilised’ living. While Joella is out scavenging for clothes, Bill witnesses the following scene. I have included it in full because I think it merits it:
“As I stepped outside, another door farther down the passage opened. I stopped, and stood still where I was. A young man came out, leading a fair-haired girl by the hand. As she stepped over the threshold he released his grasp. “Wait just a minute, darling” he said.
He took three or four steps on the silencing carpet. His out-stretched hands found the window which ended the passage. His fingers went straight to the catch and opened it. I had a glimpse of a fire-escape outside. “What are you doing Jimmy?” she asked. “Just making sure” he said, stepping quickly back to her and feeling for her hand again.
“Come along darling”. She hung back. “Jimmy I don’t like leaving here. At least we know where we are in our own flat. “How are we going to feed? How are we going to live? In the flat darling we shan’t feed at all, and therefore not live long. Come along sweetheart don’t be afraid”. “But I am Jimmy, I am”. She clung to him and he put one arm around her.
“We’ll be alright darling, come along”. “But Jimmy that’s the wrong way…” “You’ve got it twisted round dear. It’s the right way”.
“Jimmy, I’m so frightened. Let’s go back”. “It’s too late darling”. By the window he paused. With one hand he felt his position very carefully. Then he put both arms around her., holding her to him. “Too wonderful to last”, he said softly. “I love you my sweet, I love you so very, very much”. She turned her lips up to be kissed. As he lifted her he turned and stepped out of the window…
I found this is a chilling scene. It is mutely observed by the narrator. He makes no attempt to intervene, not a sound. He could have tried to help this loving young couple, but decides to do nothing. Passively he accepts the young man’s judgment that death is the preferable option for the blind. Note by the way that this is clearly a murder/suicide – the young girl is frightened and suspicious (perhaps they have already discussed their options previously).
Bill’s observation is detailed – he watches them carefully. He describes events more in the manner of an omniscient narrator than an observer, without judgment. He glimpses the fire escape outside, hears the fear in the girl’s voice, counts the man’s steps to the window, and notices that he finds the catch easily, rather than fumbling for it. He records their conversation word for word, even the telling repetition of ‘very’ in the final line. The fact that he records this scene in such detail, when he looks away from so many others that must be occurring all around him, suggests he feels it has a particular significance.
Bill has already seen a suicide by jumping earlier in the novel, by a doctor in the hospital; he also has met a man in a pub who goes to join his wife and children in death by gas after getting properly drunk:
“Wha’s good of living blind’s a bat?. . . Thash what my wife said. An’ she was right-only she’s more guts than I have. When she found as the kids was blind too, what did she do? Took ’em into our bed with her an turned on the gas”
Suicide is a rational, sensible, even brave, option in the new world, is the implication.
The scene ends with an ellipsis and a paragraph break. In the next scene no mention is made of what Masen has witnessed – he chooses not to tell the reader (nor Joella) what happens to the couple after this point. A more horrific description would have followed their fall, the screams, the crunch of mangled bodies on pavement, the blood slowly pooling. Wyndham gives us none of this, just those three little dots after the word “window”.
Is this an example of the author protecting the reader from the worst of the apocalypse, making it more cosy? It is interesting that it is Bill only who witnesses this scene – Joella is conveniently out ‘shopping’. Personally I found the scene powerful and effective, and a description of their fall and death would have added little. The reader is left to fill in the gaps with their imagination. But I accept that this narrative approach allows readers to also look away if they choose, to decide not to engage emotionally with the enormity of what is being shown, as Bill effectively does.