The Children of Men

by

P. D. James

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The Children of Men: Chapter 1  Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Theodore “Theo” Faron, writing in his diary on Friday, the first of January, 2021, describes the early-morning pub-brawl death of Joseph Ricardo, the last human being to be born on earth. Theo has heard the news on the State Radio Service in Britain while sitting down to begin the “diary of the last half of his life.” Theo sees Ricardo’s death as “a small additional justification” for starting a diary—it is also the first day of a new year, and Theo’s fiftieth birthday.
Theo begins his diary on what he sees as a fortuitous day, though a difficult and sad one for a world mourning the death of an individual who had represented the last vestiges of hope for a future. The info about Ricardo also introduces the book’s apocalyptic setting and major conceit—that humanity has become infertile. Theo’s journal-writing is seemingly the first action he’s taken to counteract his own despair in a long while.
Themes
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Fatalism and Despair vs. Action and Hope Theme Icon
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Theo has no plan to leave his diary behind as a record, believing there could be no possible interest in it. Theo is an Oxford historian who is “divorced, childless, [and] solitary,” and his only “claim to notice” is the fact that he is the cousin of Xan Lyppiatt, the dictator and Warden of England.
Theo, as the text will soon reveal, has a difficult relationship to his own personal history. His role as a historian means that he often lingers in the past, but doesn’t feel that his own life is or will be of any historical value. 
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“All over the world,” Theo says, different countries are in the process of storing important books, manuscripts, paintings, musical scores, artifacts, and other “testimony for the posterity we can still occasionally convince ourselves may follow us,” or for alien life to encounter if they should ever descend upon earth.
The historical preservation of important art and documents in preparation for the slowly-encroaching end of humanity represents the entire world’s descent into fatalism, even as they cling to a scrap of hope that the world as it was will be remembered by somebody.
Themes
History, Mythology, and Memory Theme Icon
Fatalism and Despair vs. Action and Hope Theme Icon
Apocalypse: Revelation, Renewal, and Redemption Theme Icon
Globalism vs. Isolationism  Theme Icon
Theo recalls a time two decades ago when the search for the last known birth of a human on earth became a “fierce and acrimonious international contest.” Though the true last human birth, Theo says, could never possibly be recorded accurately, the “winner” was ultimately Joseph Ricardo, born in Buenos Aires on the nineteenth of October, 1995. In the wake of Ricardo’s death, Theo doubts that the world will have the energy to search for and name the new youngest human on earth.
The “contest” Theo describes is essentially the last time the globe came together in pursuit of a single goal—even though there was bitterness and competition involved. Theo doesn’t believe that a new winner will be declared, representing his perception of humanity’s descent into despair, ennui, and lack of ambition.
Themes
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Fatalism and Despair vs. Action and Hope Theme Icon
Globalism vs. Isolationism  Theme Icon
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Humanity is “outraged and demoralized,” Theo says, more than anything by its failure to discover the root cause of mass infertility. Western science has been a “god” which has now come up short. In the continued absence of any answers, the world soon resigned itself to accepting that mass infertility was not “a malfunction which would [soon] be corrected.” Year 1995 became universally known as Year Omega, and soon the nations of the world stopped cooperating together toward an answer or a cure because “the prize [of finding it first] was too great.” International espionage became commonplace once again, and tensions between nations swelled.
Theo’s memories of the despair that followed Year Omega still haunt him. The world has fallen into a giant collective slump, so to speak, and is unable to rustle up any semblance of hope that the infertility crisis will ever be reversed. The hope that science represented no longer holds any weight at all, and instead of rallying together or doubling down on a solution, the nations of the world turned on one another and became even more mired in ineffectiveness and failure.
Themes
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Fatalism and Despair vs. Action and Hope Theme Icon
Apocalypse: Revelation, Renewal, and Redemption Theme Icon
Globalism vs. Isolationism  Theme Icon
Power and Ambition Theme Icon
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Now, Theo says, there is much “less anxiety” and absolutely no hope where finding an answer or a cure is concerned. Humanity’s collective interest in sex has dwindled steadily, and national government-sponsored pornography shops have sprung up in an attempt to “stimulate flagging appetites.” British society has become obsessed with leisure and pampering.
Though humanity clings to hope in small ways, the general atmosphere is one of total despair. Sensuality has taken the place of sexuality, as there is no hope for procreation—just as global society has become self-centered, so has individual identity.
Themes
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Fatalism and Despair vs. Action and Hope Theme Icon
Globalism vs. Isolationism  Theme Icon
When the Year Omega arrived, it shocked and terrified the human race; “even frozen sperm” lost its potency and this, in the human imagination, took on “the pall of superstitio[n], witchcraft, divine intervention.”  When the generation born in 1995 reached sexual maturity and testing still showed that not one of them was fertile, Theo says, suicide increased on a global scale. Xan was already the Warden at that point, and attempted to discourage the spread of the epidemic by “imposing fines on the surviving nearest relations.” The plan worked, and the suicide rate fell, but a universal ennui—a depression or malaise—gripped the planet.
Theo’s observations of the new fears, mythologies, and systems that cropped up in the wake of Year Omega describe a world of panic and terror, which contrasts with the ennui, stagnancy, and flat despair which overtook most of humanity once the reality of the situation set in. Humanity has been sentenced, in a way, to languish in and bear witness to its own decline—action-taking of any kind, toward a cure or toward escape, is discouraged.
Themes
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Fatalism and Despair vs. Action and Hope Theme Icon
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Theo claims that humanity can now “experience nothing but the present moment,” and that the fleeting nature of joy, beauty, and pleasure has become even more sharply defined because of the lack of any real future. Playgrounds have been demolished, schools have been boarded up, and video and audio recordings of children have become a kind of “drug.”
The descriptions of humanity’s descent into fatalism paint a picture of a world desperate to both cover up and idealize its past. The simultaneous allure and pain of the past and lack of a future creates an imbalance in the present moment.
Themes
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The children born in the year 1995, Theo explains, are now known as Omegas—they are an “exceptionally beautiful” but also “cruel, arrogant, and violent” race apart who have been treated all their lives as “young gods.” The Omegas often band together in gangs known as Painted Faces, who hide out in the countryside and terrorize travelers. Theo recalls having a group of undergraduate Omegas in his classes. They were “disruptive and bored,” unable to see the point in studying human history any longer.
The ways in which the Omega generation is separate from the rest of society symbolizes the world’s newfound reverence for any symbol of fertility and childhood, or the hope thereof. The Omegas’ cruelty, disinterest in history and society, and tendency toward violence then represent a kind of action born out of fatalism and directed toward that fatalism, rather than toward hope, change, or renewal.
Themes
History, Mythology, and Memory Theme Icon
Fatalism and Despair vs. Action and Hope Theme Icon
Apocalypse: Revelation, Renewal, and Redemption Theme Icon
Power and Ambition Theme Icon
Related Quotes