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.
Morality and Survival Theme Icon

At the beginning of Ender’s Game, Ender Wiggin faces a difficult choice. He’s bullied by a schoolboy named Stilson, and one afternoon, Stilson pushes Ender, and Ender decides that he has no choice except to fight back. Ender gains the upper hand in the fight, and knocks Stilson to the ground. Ender realizes that he can either walk away and expect to face Stilson tomorrow, or kick him while he’s down, effectively winning all the “future fights.” Ender makes a decision that few have the stomach for: in order to protect himself, he kicks Stilson while he’s already down, inadvertently killing him. It is this act of calculated violence that ultimately wins Ender a place in Battle School.

Ender’s attack on Stilson is thus both defensive and preemptive: he didn’t want to fight Stilson, but when he does, he doesn’t show Stilson the mercy that most people would. We might ask, then, if it’s ever right to attack an enemy before the enemy has struck first—or if it’s only morally acceptable to defend oneself from one’s opponents. As the book goes on, Card poses a far more challenging version of this question: is it morally justifiable to attack an entire species (the Buggers) that’s known to be dangerous to human beings, even if the species shows no signs of wanting to fight again?

For most of his time at the Battle School, Ender doesn’t have the willpower to attack his opponents preemptively—his innate sense of right and wrong tells him that he has to wait to fight back. In the virtual reality game he plays with the Giant, however, Ender ultimately decides to “think outside the box” and attack the Giant. This only happens after dozens of rounds in which the Giant kills and eats him, though—Ender doesn’t consider the Giant a threat until it’s overwhelmingly obvious that the Giant leaves him no other way to survive. A more disturbing example of Ender’s defensive instincts comes when Ender learns that Bonzo Madrid wants to kill him. Ender avoids Bonzo for as long as he can, finally fighting him in a shower when Bonzo corners him. Ender hits Bonzo defensively, then finishes the fight to ensure (preemptively) that Bonzo will never hurt him again. Ender is devastated by his own actions—he can’t handle the guilt of a preemptive attack, even when there’s good evidence that he’d be dead if he had waited any longer to act.

By the time Ender arrives at Command School, he’s come to understand that the Bugger War itself is a problem of preemptive strategy. He learns that the Buggers have shown no signs of wanting to hurt human beings since their first invasion—there’s a decent chance that they want nothing more to do with Ender’s species. But Colonel Hyrum Graff argues that this simply isn’t good enough: humans must attack the Buggers preemptively to guarantee victory. Ender can’t entirely agree with Graff’s point of view, even when his new teacher, Mazer Rackham, tries to teach him to attack his opponents before he even knows that they’re opponents. It becomes clear that Ender, a moral person, could never choose to preemptively murder an entire species. It’s for this reason that Mazer and Graff lie to Ender about his computer games, not telling him that he’s killed the Buggers until it’s too late for him to change his mind. Previously, we had assumed that Graff’s answer to the question of preemptive genocide was an enthusiastic “yes”—but Card shows us that even Graff doesn’t have the willpower to kill so indiscriminately. This is why he gets Ender to kill for him, and gives Ender the alibi of not knowing that his computer games were real.

In the end, Ender’s Game suggests that the answer to the question of preemptive offense isn’t “yes” or “no”—it’s simply too enormous a question for any human being (even a hardened soldier like Graff, let alone a child like Ender) to answer. Furthermore, Card suggests that the question itself is a false dichotomy. Ender realizes that the challenge of the Buggers isn’t “kill or be killed” (just as the Giant’s challenge wasn’t really “drink this potion or drink the other one”), but rather, “kill or understand.” Although Ender realizes his mistake too late, he gets a second chance, and resolves to devote the rest of his life to understanding Bugger society and repopulating the Bugger species.

Morality and Survival ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Ender’s Game related to the theme of Morality and Survival.
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

“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.

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 8 Quotes

“There is no war, and they’re just screwing around with us.”
“But why?”
“Because as long as people are afraid of the Buggers, the IF can stay in power.”

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (speaker), Dink Meeker (speaker)
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

One of Ender's superiors in his new army, Dink Meeker, tells Ender his theory. Dink believes that the International Fleet, or IF, is manufacturing rumors of a Bugger invasion in order to maintain power. The IF has a virtual monopoly on the world's greatest military leaders: it runs tests around the world to harvest the best minds and train them for years in a secure location (Battle School). The IF can always justify the tremendous power it exerts over the world by saying that Battle School is necessary for defeating the Buggers. In short, it's in the IF's interest to manufacture a story about an impending Bugger invasion.

Although Ender dismisses Dink's theories for a number of reasons, Dink's ideas are relevant because they reinforce the notion that the IF will use deception and manipulation to get its way. As we've already seen, the IF will lie to children in order to get them to come to Battle School—it doesn't seem to be assuming too much to say that it would also lie to the people of the Earth.

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.

Chapter 14 Quotes

“I surprised you once, Ender Wiggin, Why didn’t you destroy me immediately afterward? Just because I looked peaceful? You turned your back on me. Stupid. You have learned nothing. You have never had a teacher.”

Related Characters: Mazer Rakham (speaker), Andrew “Ender” Wiggin
Page Number: 262
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Ender meets his new mentor, Mazer Rackham, the legendary pilot who defeated a Bugger invasion years before. Mazer poses as a demented, harmless old man. He lashes out at Ender once, but before Ender can retaliate, he assumes a harmless position on the floor. Ender is too sympathetic to attack Mazer while he's sitting on the floor—his natural compassion takes over. But when Ender isn't paying attention, Mazer attacks him again—much harder—and then chastises him for being foolish enough not to hit Mazer when he had the chance.

Mazer's actions are intended as a metaphor for the Bugger invasion: the Bugger attacked humanity once, but didn't succeed in destroying it altogether. While some people doubt that it's worthwhile to attack the Buggers when they're not an immediate threat to Earth, Mazer insists otherwise: humans must exterminate the Buggers, just as Ender should have attacked Mazer when he was on the floor.

In a broader sense, Mazer's lesson for Ender signals that Ender is about to have his last drops of compassion and sympathy beaten out of him. In the past, Ender has attacked opponents when they're already hurt. But even Ender refuses to hurt a weak-looking old man—he's not a monster. Mazer will push Ender to be brutal at all costs, for the sake of humanity. Mazer's lesson also reminds Ender of what he's known all along: his teachers are his enemies, hurting him and reshaping him into a monster so that he can win their war for them.

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

“We got the judges to agree that the prosecution had to prove beyond doubt that Ender would have won the war without the training we gave him. After then it was simple. The exigencies of war.”
“Anyway, Graff, it was a great relief to us. I know we quarreled, and I know the prosecution used tapes of our conversation against you. But by then I knew that you were right, and I offered to testify for you.”

Related Characters: Colonel Hyrum Graff (speaker), Major Anderson (speaker)
Page Number: 306
Explanation and Analysis:

In the aftermath of the Bugger War, Graff is prosecuted for criminal behavior. He's accused of turning Ender Wiggin into a monster: encouraging him to hurt other children and ultimately murder an entire race of creatures. As Graff explains here, he was able to get acquitted very simply: he just argued that Ender's brutal training was necessary for winning the war against the Buggers—in other words, to be against Graff is to be against humanity.

Graff's legal victory reminds us that Ender was only ever a pawn for the IF, and remains a pawn even after the Bugger Wars. As Graff makes very clear, Ender's only purpose was to defeat the Buggers: Graff cynically crammed him with lessons in violence and brutality, never caring about (or choosing to ignore) the fact that Ender might be permanently warped by this "education." And even now, after the Bugger Wars, Graff's judges are forced to admit that the ends justify the means: Ender's prolonged torture at Battle School (he's forced to murder children, for example) is less important than humanity's victory against the Buggers.