In the dystopic world of The Children of Men, hope—for a future, for contentment, for survival—seems impossible. The “humiliation” of the “ultimate failure” of mass infertility has driven human society to the brink, and new kinds of ennui, cruelty, and cultural malaise have seeped into all aspects of daily life. The journey of the novel is the journey from fatalism and despair toward action spurred by hope. As the text unfolds, even the skeptical, past-obsessed Theo Faron becomes convinced of the possibility of humanity’s future on Earth. Through this journey, P.D. James demonstrates the ways in which individuals must allow themselves and their actions to be radicalized by their despair rather than succumb to it.
An atmosphere of fatalism and despair permeates the novel from its very first page, when the death of Joseph Ricardo, the last human being to be born on Earth, is announced on the state radio. Theo, writing in his diary, goes on to describe the “untended” and “crumbling” buildings, the “darken[ing]” libraries and museums, and the “demoraliz[ing]” inability of humanity to figure out the root cause of mass infertility. The “humiliating” and “insistent” needs of society, even in the face of total extinction, have led a large percentage of the population to suicide; the Quietus, a mass ritual suicide reserved for elderly members of society, represents fatalism and despair at its most desperate. Theo goes on to describe the “transitoriness” of joy and pleasure in this new world, coupled with the disorienting and further demoralizing knowledge that beauty will continue to exist long after humanity has gone extinct. Pleasure is rare now, and constant “bereavement” is universal. The bitterness humanity feels at being unable to connect with beauty, joy, and pleasure—only able to witness cruelty and despair—feeds into the cycle of fatalism, and seems to cement humanity’s general inability to even consider taking action toward preserving beauty, pursuing pleasure, or holding out any kind of hope for the future.
Though Theo and many of those around him have succumbed to this despair and fatalism, the introduction of the anarchist group The Five Fishes slowly reignites the possibility of both action and hope. The Five Fishes are a group of five individuals who know that there are things that are “wrong” happening in Britain, and want to “try to stop them.” The group is composed of five members who never reveal their last names—Julian, Rolf Luke, Miriam, and Gascoigne. They attempt to recruit Theo to approach the Council with a list of their concerns, aware of his once-close connection to Xan Lyppiatt, the Warden of England, as well as Theo’s former role as the Warden’s Adviser. The Five Fishes have a list of grievances and want to make several demands, which include the calling of a general election, full civil rights for indentured Sojourners, the abolition of the Quietus, the end of deportations to the dangerous Isle of Man Penal Colony, and a stop to the “compulsory testing of semen and the examination of young women.” The Five Fishes want the human race to die “as free men and women, as human beings, not as devils.” In other words, though they do not necessarily have hope for a future, they want to take action to make the present as humane and bearable as possible. Theo agrees to help the group, but is unable to convince Xan, in their meeting, of taking any action toward change. In fact, even as he helps The Five Fishes, Theo initially believes that their desire for a just world is misplaced in a world that has no future and thus no reason to strive for justice. Theo, however, longs to “share the passion” that holds their group together and emboldens it to take action in the face of despair. When he does at last join the group—at the request of Julian, who is revealed to be pregnant—he is indeed swept up in the “passion” The Five Fishes share, and finds himself for the first time in over twenty years feeling “at peace” and “grateful.” He is finally able to escape his despair, filled with hope for a future spurred by action-taking, the news of Julian’s pregnancy, and the realization that change and renewal might actually be possible.
Despite an overwhelmingly fatalistic beginning, the novel eventually turns toward the hope that is contained within action—Theo’s journey toward hope is the journey of the novel, and action in the face of despair is, James argues, the only saving grace to be found in a world mired in discouragement.
Fatalism and Despair vs. Action and Hope ThemeTracker
Fatalism and Despair vs. Action and Hope 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.
[Helena] thought I cared less, and she was right. She thought I cared less because I loved less, and she was right about that too. I was glad to be a father. When Helena told me she was pregnant I felt what I presume are the usual emotions of pride, tenderness, and amazement. I did feel affection for my child, although I would have felt more had she been prettier, more affectionate, more responsive, less inclined to whine. I’m glad that no other eyes will read these words. She has been dead for almost twenty-seven years and I still think of her with complaint.
The task of writing his journal—and Theo thought of it as a task, not a pleasure—had become part of his over-organized life, a nightly addiction to a weekly routine half imposed by circumstance, half deliberately devised in an attempt to impose order and purpose on the shapelessness of existence.
“Perhaps His experiment went spectacularly wrong, sir. Perhaps He’s just bagged. Seeing the mess, not knowing how to put it right. Perhaps not wanting to put it right. Perhaps He only had enough power left for one final intervention. So He made it. Whoever He is, whatever He is, I hope He burns in His own hell.”
“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.”
He went upstairs to fetch his coat, and, mounting one more staircase to the small back room, slipped his diary into the large inner pocket. The action was instinctive; if asked, he would have had difficulty in explaining it even to himself. The diary wasn’t particularly incriminating; he had taken care over that. He had no premonition that he was leaving for more than a few hours the life which the diary chronicled and this echoing house enclosed. And even if the journey were the beginning of an odyssey, there were more useful, more valued, more relevant talismans which he could have slipped into his pocket.
“I killed her.”
Miriam’s voice was firm, loud, almost shouting in [Theo’s] ear. “You didn’t kill her! If she was going to die of shock it would have happened when you first showed her the gun. You don’t know why she died. It was natural causes, it must have been. She was old and she had a weak heart. You told us. It wasn’t your fault, Theo, you didn’t mean it.”
No, he almost groaned, no, I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean to be a selfish son, an unloving father, a bad husband. When have I ever meant anything? Christ, what harm couldn’t I do if I actually started to mean it!
He said: “The worst is that I enjoyed it. I actually enjoyed it! I enjoyed the excitement, the power, the knowledge that I could do it.”
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?
Julian looked up at him. For the first time she noticed the ring. She said: “That wasn’t made for your finger.”
For a second, no more, he felt something close to irritation. It must be for him to decide when he would take it off. He said: “It’s useful for the present. I shall take it off in time.”
She seemed for the moment content, and it might have been his imagination that there was a shadow in her eyes.