Though the action of the novel is set in Great Britain, P.D. James imbues the text with hints of the effect of mass infertility on the world as a whole, and mass infertility’s status as a global issue. Despite the fact that the entire planet suffers from infertility, there is a palpable lack of globally united thinking or action. The British government has become, essentially, a dictatorship operating under the guise of democracy, and is poised on the brink of an even further, sharper descent into total authoritarian rule. The novel is P.D. James’s criticism of a future which has slipped seemingly irreversibly into selfish, nationalistic thinking, the abuse of immigrants, and the inability to cooperate. The novel’s very title, with its implication that all people are children of men, contains James’s argument: humanity must not forget the importance of equality and solidarity, even in the most desperate and frightening of times.
Herself a Briton, James’s decision to set The Children of Men in Britain allows her to reckon with several of the unique hallmarks of British—specifically English—culture and customs. The deeply stratified class system which has been a part of Britain’s history for so many centuries still plagues the world of the novel. Xan Lyppiatt—Theo’s cousin, the self-appointed Warden of England, and a landed aristocrat whose childhood home and grand family estate, Woolcombe, now serves as a hospice for dying Council members—has benefited since childhood from the luck of his birth into a landed and titled family. He has then continued to grasp for power into his adulthood, going so far as to appoint himself dictator of Great Britain. Moreover, glimpses of Britain’s hallowed, almost sanctified academic world—specifically the world of Oxford—provide a contrast to the chaos of the novel’s society. Theo continues in his post as a professor of history, even as the buildings on the campus around him “crumble” and the attendance in each of his lectures steadily “dwind[es].” The structure and order of academia is a kind of refuge, but also an emblem of how disconnected these institutions have always been from the larger society of England. Even at a high point of disparity between the world of the university and the world of the people outside it, Oxford continues to operate as a kind of isolated entity, without much change.
Though James only offers small glimpses of what is going on in the rest of the world, it’s plain to see that things are even bleaker elsewhere than they are in Britain. Large-scale human sacrifice is rumored to now be commonplace, and the world has been struck by “ennui universel”—a debilitating global depression which has affected a stunning number of the world’s population. Foreign countries with “religion[s] based on ancestor worship [and] the continuance of a family” have experienced a decline as suicides have become rampant.
While global society crumbles, Britain clings to isolationist, xenophobic thought and policy. “Generosity is a virtue for individuals, not governments,” Xan tells Theo when Theo confronts him about the unfair treatment of the indentured immigrants to England, called Sojourners. Even in a world thrown into chaos and despair, “generosity” is still something that even wealthier, more prepared governments are incapable of. Xan’s fellow councilmember Martin Woolvington cites the “invading hordes” who came to Britain in the 1990s to “take over and exploit the benefits which had been won over centuries by intelligence, industry, and courage, while perverting and destroying the civilization of which they were so anxious to become a part.” Martin’s xenophobic view of the world and the people in it echoes many of Great Britain’s real-life political struggles, and James’s commentary on politicians who think this way is not at all forgiving.
Rather than come together in search of answers, comfort, or support, the world James has created—perhaps as a cautionary tale—has grown even more disconnected, and the poisonous views that support isolationism and empire are stronger than ever. In the face of a massive crisis which demands the cooperation of the nations of the world, the Britain of James’s imagination succumbs to xenophobia and isolationism. Partly a critique of the culture she was raised in and partly an exploration of what humanity might do to the world it inhabits when pushed to the brink, The Children of Men paints a picture of a world too mired in despair, self-interest, and tradition to see beyond the borders drawn up by the leaders of the past.
Globalism vs. Isolationism ThemeTracker
Globalism vs. Isolationism Quotes in The Children of Men
I know now, of course, why [Xan] liked having me at Woolcombe. I think I guessed almost from the beginning. He had absolutely no commitment to me, no responsibility for me, not even the commitment of friendship or the responsibility of personal choice. He hadn’t chosen me. I was his cousin, I was wished on him, I was there. I lifted from him, an only child, the burden of parental concern. From his boyhood he couldn’t tolerate questions, curiosity, interference in his life. I sympathized with that; I was very much the same.
“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.”
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.