Though the word “apocalypse” has, in popular imagination, come to symbolize a cataclysmic, world-ending event, its true meaning is “an uncovering,” or “a disclosure of knowledge or revelation.” The word “apocalypse” does not appear once within the text of The Children of Men and though there is no one large, cataclysmic revelation, the creeping realization that humanity would be unable to reproduce was, in a sense, the moment of apocalypse, and the revelation that has followed has been chaotic and fatalistic. In this way, the novel is both a post- and pre-apocalyptic narrative; the moment of apocalypse occurs before the novel begins, but the revelation and its fallout are still taking place, and the true moment of final “uncovering”—the end of the human race—will not come to pass for many more years. Apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic narratives do indeed focus more than anything on what is revealed in the wake of a society or a world hitting a point of no return, and The Children of Men is no different. By first focusing on the horror, cruelty, and despair that is revealed in the wake of mass infertility, and then on the forces that combat those evils, P.D. James argues that it is only through an “apocalypse,” or a revelation, that true renewal and redemption—of society, of humanity—is possible.
The cruelty, despair, and pain of the human race as they wait for their inevitable end both grows out of and feeds into their lack of hope for renewal or redemption. Because humanity has been unable to determine a cause for its mass infertility, the inevitable question has seeped into society: whether mass infertility was some kind of divine punishment, and whether humanity has been barred from any redemption at all. “Perhaps His experiment went wrong, sir,” wonders a driver ferrying Theo to a meeting with Xan and the Council. “Perhaps He’s just bagged. Seeing the mess, not knowing how to put it right. Perhaps He only had enough power left for one final intervention. So He made it.” The role of the divine in the extinction of humanity seems to be just on the tip of everyone’s tongue—the fear that redemption is impossible because God has made it impossible is perhaps what has contributed to the intolerable cruelty humanity has sunk into in the absence of any real answers. The Bible verse from which the novel takes its title reads: “Lord, thou hast been our refuge: from one generation to another… Thou turnest man to destruction: again thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men. For a thousand years thy sight are but as yesterday: seeing that is past as a watch in the night.” Theo reads this verse aloud while Luke, one of The Five Fishes and the father of Julian’s unborn child, is buried, and its themes of repetition, renewal, and redemption in posterity mirror the ache for renewal that the characters listening—not to mention the country, or the larger world—all feel. Though man will “turn to destruction,” the “refuge” a higher power represents comes from the knowledge that the past, in all its chaos, has been witnessed, and the future is assured.
Though all hope seems lost, an opportunity for redemption—of humanity, of society, of decency—eventually does arrive in the form of Julian’s pregnancy, a miraculous event which is a major uncovering and revelation in and of itself. The birth of Julian’s child signals the opportunity for a future. What that future will look like, neither the characters—nor James herself—seem to know. Whether humanity has slid too far into cruelty and despair to ever be redeemed remains to be seen. However, just the idea that a future might exist, that humanity has the opportunity to be renewed, restored, and given a second chance, turns the traditional apocalyptic (or post-apocalyptic) narrative on its head.
However, the dark side of renewal—and the fear that redemption might not actually be possible — also isn’t far from James’s mind. After the birth of Julian’s child, Theo kills Xan—who had tracked them to the woodshed after learning of Julian’s pregnancy, with plans to marry her and present the child as his own in hopes of consolidating power not just over Britain but perhaps the entire world. After killing Xan, Theo removes Xan’s ornate Coronation Ring Xan—the ring being a physical symbol of Xan’s unquestioned, self-ordained power—and places it on his own finger. In imbuing her protagonist—the character who has gone on the most nuanced journey toward redemption—with the seeds of lust for power, James argues that perhaps renewal is not always pure—renewal can also come in the form of reaffirmation of dangerous power structures, the resurgence of an old grudge, or the perpetuation of the same outcome from a different angle. Indeed, Theo himself thinks: “[So] it begins again, with jealousy, with treachery, with violence, with [Xan’s] murder, with this ring on my finger.” Though there is now hope in the world for true redemption in the form of Julian’s child, it has been realized through blood and violence, and now the opportunity for Theo to seize power and continue the cycle of chaos and violence that worked to his cousin’s advantage is present, too. This is a dark kind of “renewal”—a renewal of the patterns and structures that have become so inescapable in the “post-apocalyptic” world of the novel. Though James doesn’t lean too hard on the implication that Theo will reject redemption in favor of the renewal of chaos and authoritarianism, she does explore the many-faceted meaning of the word renewal, and what finally achieving it will look like for these wearied characters who have known so much despair and grief.
Based on the emergence of ritual mass suicide, debilitating xenophobia, the reinstitution of legalized slavery, and the general despair, chaos, and cruelty that has characterized the world of the novel for the last twenty-five years, it’s difficult to say whether humanity will have learned its lesson, so to speak, and will be able to achieve true redemption, or whether the darkness that has emerged in the face of the apocalypse now runs too deep to eradicate. The outcome, though, hardly matters: James’s argument that apocalypse heralds renewal and redemption (and that true redemption necessitates apocalypse as its predecessor) is a radical one. In many apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic narratives, the “renewal” is never so literal, but in The Children of Men, humanity at last seems to get its second chance.
Apocalypse: Revelation, Renewal, and Redemption ThemeTracker
Apocalypse: Revelation, Renewal, and Redemption Quotes in The Children of Men
We are outraged and demoralized less by the impending end of our species, less even by our inability to prevent it, than by our failure to discover the cause.
Like a lecherous stud suddenly stricken with impotence, we are humiliated at the very heart of our faith in ourselves. For all our knowledge, our intelligence, our power, we can no longer do what the animals do without thought. No wonder we worship and resent them.
If from infancy you treat children as gods they are liable in adulthood to act as devils.
“You are a historian. You know what evils have been perpetrated through the ages to ensure the survival of nations, sects, religions, even individual families. Whatever man has done for good or ill has been done in the knowledge that he has been formed by history, that this life-span is brief, uncertain, insubstantial, but that there will be a future, for the nation, for the race, for the tribe. That hope has finally gone. Man is diminished if he lives without knowledge of his past; without hope of a future he becomes a beast.”
“Holding up the Cross of Christ before the savages, as the missionaries did in South America. Like them, get yourselves butchered on the beaches? Don’t you read any history? There are only two reasons for that kind of folly. One is that you have a yearning for martyrdom. What is new is that your martyrdom won’t even be commemorated, won’t be noticed. In seventy years it will have no value because there will be no one left on earth to give it value. The second reason is more ignoble and Xan would understand it very well. If you did succeed, what an intoxication of power! The Isle of Man pacified, the redeemed kissing the hands of the living saint who made it all possible. Then you’ll know what the Warden feels, what he enjoys, what he can’t do without. Absolute power in your little kingdom.”
Carl looked down at the child with his dying eyes. “So it begins again.”
Theo thought: It begins again, with jealousy, with treachery, with violence, with murder, with this ring on my finger. He looked down at the great sapphire in its glitter of diamonds, aware of its weight. Placing it on his hand had been a gesture to assert authority and ensure protection. For a time at least he must take Xan’s place. There were evils to be remedied; but they must take their turn. He couldn’t do everything at once, there had to be priorities. Was that what Xan had found? And was this sudden intoxication of power what Xan had known every day of his life?