The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney: Summary, Meaning & Analysis

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson explores the plot, characters, setting, and conflict in Jack Finney's ''The Body Snatchers'' (1955). We will also examine several possible interpretations of the novel and its themes, including political, cultural, and psychological approaches.

The 'Seedy' Underbelly of an All-American Town

Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers (1955) is set in a small California town called Mill Valley. The story he tells of a clandestine alien invasion and the upright citizens who stand against them has had an infectious effect on American culture ever since. The novel spawned four movies and inspired an entire generation of paranoid horror films and literature.

Downtown Mill Valley, 1950s
mill valley

Suspicions

Dr. Miles Bennell has lived in Mill Valley all his life. One day his teen crush Becky Driscoll drops by his office. She's concerned about her cousin, Wilma, who appears to be suffering from some kind of delusion. Wilma says her Uncle Ira isn't himself. He expresses emotion, but only as a pretense. Miles can only imagine one possible cause; Wilma must be delusional. He refers her and several other patients to a psychiatrist, Dr. Mannie Kaufman.

The events take an ominous turn when local author Jack Belicec and his wife Theodora ask for Miles's help. At the Belicec's house, Miles and Becky witness an inexplicable sight. In his basement, lying on the pool table, is a cold, nondistinct human body.

Miles contacts Mannie Kaufman directly, and the psychiatrist reassures him these anomalies can only be the result of a mass delusion or hallucination.

''A Silent Explosion of Pure Panic''

In the next week, several patients return to the doctor's office to recant their claims. Dr. Kaufman has changed their minds. But Miles is skeptical.

That night, Miles finds giant seed pods in his basement. They've split open, and a fluffy substance is spilling out. Miles observes the transformation of the pod's gray fluff into the beginnings of a human form. ''A silent explosion of pure panic'' hits.

Seed pods
seed pods

Miles takes Becky to his office where he has a supply of Benzedrine, an amphetamine, to help them stay awake, as they're afraid to fall asleep. In the town square, they observe villagers congregating. Something is wrong. The crowd is too calm, too quiet. Then the pickup trucks start to arrive, distributing pods.

The Transformation

Mannie Kaufman arrives and tries to reason with them. Miles convinces Mannie to lock them in the office and station his goons at the door. Alone together now in the doctor's office, Miles and Becky declare their love for each other. Full of desperation, Becky decides to fight: ''We can't lose by trying.''

Miles dusts off two anatomical skeletons from storage. Miles and Becky conspire to trick the pod people into transforming the pods into these skeletons. Miles and Becky watch as the transformation occurs. The skeletons disintegrate into a pile of dust.

Now Miles and Becky run for it.

The Escape

Miles and Becky mask their emotions as they walk down Main Street. They make it to a footpath that weaves through the hills. If they can get to the highway, they might be able to hitchhike into the city. Farmland separates Mill Valley from the highway; two miles of open field, where pods are being harvested. Miles and Becky pause at a barn to catch their breath. Pods are stacked floor to ceiling. Inspiration strikes. Miles and Becky take gasoline, spray it all over the pods, and light it on fire. Out of the fire, the pods rise into the sky and float toward the moon.

In the end, the pod people decide trying to colonize Earth might be an exercise in futility. Judging by the stubborn strength of Miles and Becky, the aliens attribute human beings with the unique qualities of defiance and perseverance. The aliens won't succeed against a race that would fight to the end.

Miles, Becky, Jack, and Theodora are the last surviving humans in Mill Valley. Miles describes the town as dead, but in a few years new people move in, and Mill Valley comes back to life again.

Political, Cultural, and Psychological Interpretations

In The Body Snatchers, Jack Finney layers then-contemporary anxieties of communism and nationalism with cultural and psychological themes of community and mass hysteria. The novel can be read in several ways: as an allegory for communist invasion, and as a satire over the 1950s anxieties of otherness.

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