Ender’s Game

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Love, Empathy, and Destruction Theme Analysis

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Love, Empathy, and Destruction Theme Icon

Halfway through Ender’s Game, Ender Wiggin tells Valentine, his sister, his views on love and hate: “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.” This sentence can be said to sum up the paradox of Orson Scott Card’s novel: the deadliest warrior isn’t a warrior at all. Ender is a good, kind child who sincerely loves his friends and family—and yet it’s because he’s a good, empathetic person that he’s also capable of the most brutal and ingenious acts of violence.

At the beginning of the novel, Ender attacks a boy, Stilson, who’s bullying him. He succeeds in overpowering Stilson, and contemplates walking away when he’s ahead. But because Ender is capable of understanding the way his opponent’s mind works, he realizes that he’d have to fight Stilson again and again if he walked away now. As a result, he decides to kick Stilson in the face, eventually killing him. The same empathy and understanding that allow Ender to form loving relationships with Valentine or with his friends also compel him to fight brutally. It is for this reason that Ender is recruited by the International Fleet and sent to Battle School.

Over his years in school, Ender echoes his fight with Stilson in conflicts with his jealous rival Bonzo Madrid, with opponents in the “battleroom,” and eventually with the Buggers, the alien force that he’s asked to kill. Each time, Ender’s kindness and empathy allow him to understand others (even the Buggers, an alien species), and each time, this understanding enables him to hurt or even kill these others. Ironically, a “meaner” child, like Ender’s brother Peter, wouldn’t be able to get inside his opponent’s head, and therefore wouldn’t be capable of the same acts of destruction.

Toward the end of the novel, it seems that the International Fleet has been right all along: the most dangerous warrior isn’t a cruel bully like Stilson or Peter—instead it’s a calm, empathetic child like Ender. And yet the book doesn’t end on such a pessimistic note. Even if Ender has the power to be a terrible warrior, he only becomes one because of the manipulations of the IF. Left to his own devices, Ender discovers that he has the power to be an agent of peace as well as war. He travels across the galaxy with Valentine, and becomes the leader of a new, peaceful colony of humans. More importantly, he discovers that the Buggers left him a single pupa, capable of repopulating the Bugger race. Instead of giving in to the destructive instincts the IF has worked so hard to instill in him, Ender decides to take the pupa to another world, giving the Buggers a new home. In the final chapter of the book, Scott implies that Ender finds a home for the Buggers after years of searching. Although Ender is responsible for the destruction of an entire species, he atones (in a way) for his crimes by bringing the species back from the dead. Even if love and empathy can be manipulated for violent purposes, by themselves these qualities have a much greater potential for good.

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Love, Empathy, and Destruction ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Ender’s Game related to the theme of Love, Empathy, and Destruction.
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

But he did not reach for a pillow to smother Ender. He did not have a weapon.

He whispered, “Ender, I’m sorry, I know how it feels. I’m sorry, I’m your brother. I love you.”

Related Characters: Peter Wiggin (speaker), Andrew “Ender” Wiggin
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

In one of the most poignant passages in the novel, Ender's brutal older brother, Peter Wiggin, offers Ender a surprising apology. Peter has spent the entire day tormenting Ender—criticizing him for being a "Third," and even threatening to kill him—and yet here, late at night, Peter doesn't try to hurt Ender. On the contrary, he apologizes and insists that he loves Ender.

It's crucial to recognize that Peter and Ender are speaking alone. In public, or even when he's with Valentine Wiggin (the middle child), Peter has a chip on his shoulder about being inferior to Ender. In a society where the government has to grant special permission for third children to be born, Ender is living proof that Peter isn't good enough to fight the Buggers in Battle School. Although Peter doesn't like appearing weak or second-rate around other people, he's more likely to let his guard down when he's alone.

Alternatively, this sene might just be Peter manipulating Ender, similar to the way he usually does—but this time by acting unpredictably and making Ender think that he's truly compassionate, in order to make Ender let his guard down. We are never given an inside look at Peter's consciousness, and he remains an intriguing and frightening character throughout the book.

Chapter 3 Quotes

“Tell me why you kept kicking him. You had already won.”
“Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones, too, right then, so they’d leave me alone.”

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (speaker), Colonel Hyrum Graff (speaker), Stilson
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Colonel Graff, a powerful military commander, asks Ender why he brutally kicked a bully, Stilson. Stilson was teasing Ender, and Ender responds by knocking Stilson to the floor. But instead of walking away, Ender decided to kick Stilson while he was down, brutally injuring his opponent (and, we later learn, killing him). As we learn here, Ender chose to hurt Stilson because he recognized that it was the right strategy: Ender didn't just want to avoid Stilson for a couple of days; he wanted Stilson, and all the other bullies, to leave him alone forever.

Ender's explanation for his behavior is cool, calm, and chilling—he's motivated by logic, not passion. As Graff acknowledges, Ender's eerie calmness makes him a great general: where other human beings would naturally refrain from hitting an injured opponent, Ender ignores his own sense of compassion in order to win the war, not just the battle. The paradox is that Ender's brutality is a form of compassion: in order to make the decision to hit Stilson, Ender has to be perceptive and understanding enough to know what kind of person Stilson is (i.e., to know that Stilson will never leave him alone). Ender's personality is a mixture of coldness and empathy that's far more dangerous than coldness could ever be by itself.

“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 6 Quotes

He hadn’t meant to kill the Giant. This was supposed to be a game. Not a choice between his own grisly death and an even worse murder. I’m a murderer, even when I play. Peter would be proud of me.

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (speaker), Peter Wiggin
Related Symbols: The Giant
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Ender plays a game called the Giant's Drink. In the game, Ender faces off against a computer-generated giant who forces him to choose between two drinks, one of which is poisoned. Ender finally wins the game by simply attacking the giant, killing him brutally. Ender feels a sudden rush of guilt after murdering the giant. He doesn't want to believe that he's a violent, brutal person—he's always tried to distance himself from Peter, his older brother (a cruel bully, as we've already seen).

The scene also provides some important foreshadowing for the climactic events of the novel. Ender finds the confidence and creativity to fight the giant so brutally because he thinks that this is just a game—the artificiality of the Giant's Drink allows him to be crueler and more destructive than he would be in the real world. It's also crucial to notice that Ender, in spite of his compassion and guilt, doesn't feel guilty for his actions until after he's finished. This is what makes Ender such a great soldier: he's smart and empathetic enough to understand his opponents, but he can also suppress his sense of compassion until after his opponents are dead.

Chapter 9 Quotes

That’s how they think of me, too. Teacher. Legendary soldier. Not one of them. Not someone that you embrace and whisper Salaam in his ear. That only lasted while Ender seemed a victim. Still seemed vulnerable. Now he was the master soldier, and he was completely, utterly alone.

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (speaker)
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

As Ender becomes more successful at Battle School, he gets a reputation for being a "legend." Although there are some advantages to being seen as a legend—fewer people bully him, even if more people hate him in secret—Ender finds his new life lonely and isolating. Even the people who respect him deeply can't see him as a peer or friend: they think of him as an abstract role model, someone to be emulated and respected but not befriended. Ender's transition from frightened young student to intimidating general is especially poignant because he remembers a time when he had friends in Battle School, such as Alai (the student who whispered "Salaam" in his ear).

Ender's sadness in this quotation proves that Graff has been successful: Graff's goal, after all, was to alienate Ender from his fellow troops in order to make him focus solely on strategy. As Ender becomes more successful in school, the tortures and challenges Graff puts in his way have to become more elaborate: at this point in the novel, Ender's "challenge" involves facing this deep, existential sadness.

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.

I made sure they all noticed you today. They’ll be watching every move you make. All you have to do to earn their respect now is be perfect.

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (speaker), Bean
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

Ender tries to justify his behavior to Bean, the soldier he verbally abused in front of his new group of soldiers. The justification Ender gives Bean is uncannily similar to the explanation Graff offered Ender at the beginning of the novel: like Graff, Ender is manipulating Bean's peers against him in the hopes that Bean will rise to the challenge and become a stronger, better soldier.

Ender's behavior toward Bean proves that Graff's training is working. Even though Ender hates Graff for hurting him and turning him against his friends, Ender emulates Graff's behavior reflexively—it's a classic example of "mimetic behavior" (copying someone else). Ender's actions also suggest that his definition of good leadership is changing somewhat. While he continues to aspire to kindness and compassion, he recognizes that there are times when he needs to be cruel and even abusive to his own troops, in order to build their loyalty. Ender has become the thing he hates most: a cruel, calculating commander.

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.

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (speaker), Valentine Wiggin
Page Number: 238
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Ender Wiggin tells Valentine what he's learned about the role of compassion and empathy in fighting. Ender has always been a particularly compassionate person, as well as a particularly brutal one. For the most part, Ender and the people who know him have thought of these two sides of Ender as strictly separate, even opposite. Ender, however, argues that the greatest brutality is only possible with compassion. Unlike a mediocre bully like Stilson or Bonzo, Ender is smart and empathetic enough to understand his opponents deeply. It's his sense of understanding that allows Ender to defeat his opponents with such ease: because he knows and loves them, he knows how to destroy them.

Ender's speech partly explains why his time in Battle School is so agonizing. Over the course of his years away from Earth, he's instructed to compete for success, hurting anyone who gets in his way. Ender tries to build friendship and collaboration between his peers, but at every turn, Graff and the other teachers turn him against his friends. Yet the passage also hints at a path to redemption for Ender. Ender is taught to hate the Buggers, but he's also capable of boundless love for them. In the end, Ender's capacity for love leads him to protect and nurture the Buggers, atoning for his genocidal crime.

Chapter 14 Quotes

Forget it, Mazer. I don’t care if I pass your test, I don’t care if I follow your rules, if you can cheat, so can I. I won’t let you beat me unfairly—I’ll beat you unfairly first.
In that final battle in Battle School, he had won by ignoring the enemy, ignoring his own losses; he had moved against the enemy’s gate.
And the enemy’s gate was down.

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (speaker), Mazer Rakham
Related Symbols: The Battleroom
Page Number: 293
Explanation and Analysis:

In the novel's climactic scene, Ender faces an opponent (which he believes to be a computer simulation) more dangerous than any he's ever seen. Badly outnumbered, Ender isn't sure how to react. After a moment's thought, he decides to "cut the Gordian knot" once again. Ender decides to "win" the game by breaking the rules; sacrificing huge chunks of his own army in order to exterminate the Buggers at their source. Ender has the creativity to break the rules because he remembers the un-winnable battles he won in the Battle Room by breaking similar sets of rules.

The tragedy of Ender's decision is that he's willing to exterminate his opponents because he's convinced it's "just a game." In reality, though, the game is real. Thanks to Graffs' deceptions, Ender has been commanding real troops against a real enemy, and by winning the battle, he's won the Bugger War forever.

Ender's "victory" in this scene proves how well his education at Battle School has taught him to think of violence as a mere simulation. Although he's a uniquely compassionate, loving boy, he never has any qualms about sending troops to their deaths or murdering millions of Bugger opponents—but this is only possible because he's convinced that the game and the real world are separate, and that he's participating in the former.

In a broader sense, though, Ender's defeat of the Buggers illustrates how completely the IF commanders control him. After decades of running tests on their prized pupil, Graff and his colleagues know exactly how Ender's mind works. They know when he'll keep pushing, and when he'll crack under pressure. Ironically, "cracking under pressure" is exactly what Graff wants Ender to do in this scene:  Ender inadvertently exterminates the Buggers because he's sick of battle simulations, and wants a break.

Graff lies to Ender about the reality of the game for two reasons, one kind, one selfish. Graff wants to protect Ender from the guilt of consciously choosing to murder the Buggers—a decision that no single human being could possibly make. At the same time, Graff lies to Ender because he wants to make sure that Ender completes his assignment instead of compassionately refusing to commit mass murder. It's cowardly of Graff to place the burden of genocide on Ender's shoulders, and—as we'll soon see—the fact that Ender didn't know the game was real doesn't make him feel any less responsible.

Chapter 15 Quotes

“Val,” he said, “I just want one thing clear. I’m not going for you. I’m not going in order to be governor, or because I’m bored here. I’m going because I know the Buggers better than any other living soul, and maybe if I go there I can understand them better. I stole their future from them; I can only begin to repay by seeing what I can learn from their past.”

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (speaker), Valentine Wiggin
Page Number: 314
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Ender spells out the path he must take to atone for his war crimes. Ender has exterminated the Buggers altogether: as far as he can tell, an entire alien race has been wiped out. He feels incredibly guilty for his act of murder, and wants to do something to make up for his own actions. Ender doesn't think he can bring the Buggers back from the dead, but instead, he tries to use his intelligence and knowledge of the Buggers to respect their culture and history.

Ender's actions remind us of his greatest asset as a commander and as a human being: his military prowess and his compassion are one and the same. As Ender reminds us, he's the world's greatest living authority on the Buggers: if he wasn't, he wouldn't have been able to defeat them in battle. Because Ender understands his enemies, he knows exactly what to do to defeat them.

In the past, Ender's compassion has always been subservient to his talents as a commander: i.e., his compassion has enhanced his commanding, not the other way around. But in the final chapters of the novel, the tides turn. Ender hopes to use his compassion for good, learning about the Buggers and balancing out his past crimes.

And always Ender carried with him a dry white cocoon, looking for a world where the hive-queen could awaken and thrive in peace. He looked a long time.

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin
Related Symbols: The Hive-Queen Pupa
Page Number: 324
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, Ender makes a surprising discovery: a single Bugger cocoon, containing a new Queen fertile enough to repopulate the entire Bugger race. Ender learns that the Buggers have chosen him to repopulate their species—although he defeated them in battle, they've also sensed his love, compassion, and understanding. Ender goes out into outer space, looking for a place where the Buggers can live in peace.

Card doesn't describe (until later novels in the series) exactly how Ender goes about finding a new home for the Buggers. But the key sentence in the passage is, "He looked a long time." The past-tense might suggest that Ender's quest to repopulate the Bugger species eventually came to an end. But more importantly, Card makes it clear that it takes Ender a "long time" to find a home for the Buggers. Ender is atoning for his sins: punishing himself by working hard to help the Buggers. There's a kind of spiritual justice in the fact that Ender spends years carrying the cocoon: he's trying to balance out the years during which he was trained to kill the Buggers. In the end, however, Ender's good deeds (seemingly) outweigh his past sins.

Card's optimistic (and, it's sometimes suggested, highly religious) ending proves that Ender is a good man, not a monster. He has the potential to do evil—as all human beings do—but because he's also been blessed with the ability to love and work hard, he can overcome any evil he's done in the past.