Ender’s Game

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Themes and Colors
Love, Empathy, and Destruction Theme Icon
Games, Computers, and Virtual Reality Theme Icon
Morality and Survival Theme Icon
Leadership Theme Icon
Childhood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Control, Manipulation, and Authority Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Ender’s Game, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Childhood and Growing Up Theme Icon

In interviews, Orson Scott Card has argued that adults simply don’t understand children. There was never a point in his life, he’s said, during which he felt like a “child”—in other words, he never thought in the simplistic, sentimental ways that children supposedly think. It’s no surprise that the author of Ender’s Game feels this way—there’s not a single child in the novel who thinks in the “simplistic terms” Card derides. Indeed, it takes us a few pages before we realize that the protagonist, Ender Wiggin, is only six years old—based on the way his mind works, he could be sixteen, or even thirty-six.

And yet in spite of Card’s objections to the sentimentalized ways children are usually portrayed in literature, it’s important to think about the role of childhood in his novel. Children aren’t just tiny adults: to begin with, their youth allows them to be educated and trained for purposes that aren’t their own. This is the point of the Battle School: rather than enlisting seasoned soldiers, the IF enrolls young children in their program. If the IF begins its training programs early enough, then its children will grow into (or be manipulated into) soldiers whose abilities far exceed those of soldiers in previous human wars. With this in mind, the IF forces children to spend their entire waking lives studying and participating in battle.

Paradoxically, even though the IF’s children are trained to enjoy the competition of fighting, the children’s other great advantage over adult soldiers is that they’ve never been in an actual war. Using games, simulations, and propaganda, the IF teaches Ender and his peers to enjoy war, without ever exposing them to mass death, injury, or panic—in other words, the things that make experienced soldiers despise war. The result is an army of brilliant, highly-trained, war-loving soldiers who are nevertheless ignorant—and innocent—of war. At the end of the novel—after Ender destroys the Buggers—Mazer Rackham explains to Ender why this combination of innocence and experience is so lethal. Only a young child, ignorant of the traumas of a battle, could defeat the Buggers, because only a young child could muster the creativity and energy necessary to win such a battle. Childhood, at least according to Orson Scott Card, isn’t so much a state of mind as it is an absence of adult experiences. The IF, recognizing children’s potential for combat, seeks to give them the right experiences for winning a war.

But if Card defines childhood as the absence of adulthood, what does it mean to become an adult? The adults in Ender’s Game who have been tasked with Ender’s education at Battle School are largely indifferent to whether or not Ender grows into a mature, well-adjusted man. Even if they express some guilt over their actions, their overriding goal is always to push Ender into becoming a commander capable of destroying the Buggers. In the interest of doing so, they wage psychological war on Ender, distancing him from his friends and throwing him into dangerous situations.

In the end, Ender grows up, but not because of Battle School or his teachers. Instead, he becomes an adult by atoning for his destruction of the Bugger species. In order to do so, Ender must recognize that he has committed a horrible crime by killing the Buggers. He must then accept that he, more than anyone else, is qualified to understand the Buggers, and finally, he must search for a new home for the Buggers. This takes time and effort, and is just as challenging for Ender as his time in Battle School was. As the final sentence of Ender’s Game (“He looked a long time”) suggests, coming of age isn’t a matter of learning a lesson: on the contrary, to grow up, a child needs to self-reflect, accept that he’s capable of evil, and then try to do good.

Childhood and Growing Up ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Childhood and Growing Up appears in each chapter of Ender’s Game. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Childhood and Growing Up Quotes in Ender’s Game

Below you will find the important quotes in Ender’s Game related to the theme of Childhood and Growing Up.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”
“If we have to.”
“I thought you said you liked this kid.”
“If the Buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”
“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”

Related Characters: Colonel Hyrum Graff (speaker), Major Anderson (speaker), Andrew “Ender” Wiggin
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

In this early quotation, two high-ranking officials in the "International Fleet" (IF) discuss the education they're planning for Ender Wiggin. Ender is a phenomenally brilliant young boy--his intelligence and leadership potential could make him the greatest military commander the world has ever seen. Graff and Anderson's strategy for Ender's education could be summed up as "survival of the fittest." In order to ensure that Ender becomes a first-rate commander (and defeats the biggest threat to humanity, the aliens known as Buggers), they'll bombard him with hostile opponents: rival students, bullies, aggressive teachers, etc. With these teaching methods, they hope to toughen up their prized pupil.

One of the key questions of Card's novel is how people rationalize cruelty and evil to themselves. In the case of Graff and Anderson, the answer is simple: the ends justify the means. Treating a small boy so cruelly might seem harsh, but—in the officials' view—the cruelty is outweighed by the threat of the Buggers invading once again.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

Dad pointed out that the war wouldn’t go away just because you hid Bugger masks and wouldn’t let your kids play with make-believe laser guns. Better to play the war games, and have a better chance of surviving when the Buggers came again.

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin , Peter Wiggin , Mr. Wiggin / Father
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Card explains why games have become so important to the world in his vision of the future. For centuries, people have learned about fighting, war, and strategy by playing games—chess, for example, has trained generals for thousands of years. In the future, Card explains, games continue to train people to fight from an early age. Parents encourage their children to play games in which they fight "Buggers," the alien race that is (supposedly) the archenemy of humanity. By playing games of this kind, children like Ender inadvertently train themselves for a lifetime of war with the Buggers.

One of the reasons that games are so important for the generals and warriors of the future is that they're not real. As the quotation suggests, the death and destruction is "make believe." (The real violence comes later.) By playing games that use fake violence, children gradually become desensitized to the idea of violence itself, so that when it's time for them to fight a real Bugger, they won't feel pangs of guilt or hesitation about killing it. At the end of the novel, it'll become clear how games have taught Ender to suppress his natural feelings of sympathy and compassion.

Chapter 3 Quotes

“They look at you and see you as a badge of pride, because they were able to circumvent the law and have a Third. But you’re also a badge of cowardice, because they dare not go further and practice the noncompliance they still feel is right.”

Related Characters: Colonel Hyrum Graff (speaker), Andrew “Ender” Wiggin , Mr. Wiggin / Father , Mrs. Wiggin / Mother
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Colonel Graff walks a fine line between honesty and manipulation. Graff explains to Ender that his parents—religious people forced to live in a secular society—took a great risk when they had Ender. In Ender's society, it's illegal to have more than two children. The government gave Ender's parents permission to have another baby, because their genetic "stock" was considered to be good for producing future generals. Graff claims that Ender is a badge of pride for his parents—by definition he's a very special child—but adds that he's also a source of shame for them.

Graff's logic is a little confused: he claims that by having "only" one extra child beyond the legal limit, Ender's parents are bringing themselves shame, since they secretly believe that people should have the right to have as many children as they can (particular because of their religion). It doesn't really follow that Ender should make his parents ashamed, simply because they haven't gone far enough in rebelling against a controlling government. Graff appears to be manipulating Ender in order to make Ender more likely to agree to leave his family behind and go to Battle School. Ender, for all his intelligence and leadership abilities, can't quite see through Graff's distortions of the truth.

Chapter 5 Quotes

He could not cry. There was no chance that he would be treated with compassion. Dap was not Mother. Any sign of weakness would tell the Stilsons and the Peters that this boy could be broken.

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (speaker), Peter Wiggin , Stilson , Dap
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

In the course of Ender's time in Battle School, he trains himself to control his emotions. In this quotation, for instance, he forces himself not to cry late at night, even though Dap—the caretaker and self-described "mom" of the new recruits—is offering his support. Although Ender is lonely and misses his family, he also believes that he'll be ridiculed for his weaknesses.

By this point in the novel, Ender has learned not to trust authority of any kind. Even though Dap seems to be a kind, sympathetic man, Ender doesn't trust him. He knows that Dap and Graff are associates; in other words, if Ender exposes any weakness to Dap, Graff will use it against him. Ender's self-control is incredible, but also tragic—this is essentially a six-year-old boy learning how to dehumanize himself in order to survive.

Chapter 8 Quotes

“Ender Wiggin is ten times smarter and stronger than I am. What I’m doing to him will bring out his genius. If I had to go through it myself, it would crush me.”

Related Characters: Colonel Hyrum Graff (speaker), Andrew “Ender” Wiggin
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Colonel Graff tries to justify his behavior to his colleagues at the Battle School. Graff has been manipulating Ender to put him in harm's way: first turning his fellow recruits against him, then sending him to serve with Bonzo. Although Graff's actions have raised some eyebrows, Graff's justification is always the same: Ender's treatment is necessary, because it's the only way to create a first-rate general. Here, Grant offers a further elaboration: Ender will be able to withstand anything that comes in his way.

Graff's pronouncement is a clever rhetorical maneuver. By emphasizing his own weakness and foolishness, Graff creates the impression that he's a modest, cautious man while also suggesting that Ender is more than capable of surviving Bonzo's hostility. In short, Graff undercuts his own achievements and authority in order to justify his actions.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Ender wanted to undo his taunting of the boy, wanted to tell the others that the little one needed their help and friendship more than anyone else. But of course Ender couldn’t do that. Not on the first day. On the first day even his mistakes had to look like part of a brilliant plan.

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin , Bean
Page Number: 161-162
Explanation and Analysis:

Ender is given control of an army at Battle School. On his first day commanding the army, he verbally abuses a young soldier named Bean, making fun of him for his size. Ender immediately regrets his actions and wishes he could take back what he said. But Ender also knows that his priority is developing his authority over his new group of soldiers. For this reason, he doesn't apologize to Bean, but instead moves on with his speech.

Ender's behavior in the scene illustrates the contrast between his cold, calculating manner and his secret compassionate side. Ender was a sweet child, but Graff and his other teachers at Battle School have trained him to be harsh, intimidating, and impressive. Yet in spite of the training he's received, Ender continues to feel the same sense of compassion he always did: Graff hasn't stamped it out of him yet.

In the second half of the novel, Card poses a question: which part of Ender's personality is stronger, his brutality or his compassion? Based on the quote, it would seem that Ender's brutality is stronger: he yells first, then feels sorry later. At the same time, though, Ender had to learn brutality from Graff—his compassion is innate. The fact that Graff has yet to get rid Ender's sense of compassion suggests that it, not Ender's brutality, is the stronger force.

Chapter 13 Quotes

He caught her wrist in his hand. His grip was very strong, even though his hands were smaller than hers and his own arms were slender and tight. For a moment he looked dangerous; then he relaxed. “Oh, yes,” he said. “You used to tickle me.”

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (speaker), Valentine Wiggin
Page Number: 235
Explanation and Analysis:

Ender reunites with his sister, Valentine, back on Earth. One afternoon, they go out to a boat, and Valentine tries to tickle Ender, prompting Ender—like the good soldier he is—to adopt a defensive stance. Ender has been so well trained as a soldier that he naturally treats everyone as a threat, even his own sister. It's only a second later that Ender remembers that Valentine is his beloved big sister, the person he loves most in the world.

Ender's behavior is robotic in this scene, and the robot comparison is pretty accurate. Over the years, Graff and the other teachers at Battle School have reshaped Ender into a lethal weapon who can be manipulated and controlled whenever the need arises. Graff tries to suppress Ender's strongest quality, his compassion. Here, it's clear that Graff has failed to do so: Ender still loves his sister. But Graff has also made Ender a dangerous warrior—someone whom Valentine doesn't really know at all.