The world of The Children of Men is one obsessed with the past. Humans have been stricken by mass infertility, and no one has been born on Earth in twenty-five years. As the world faces the absence of a future and an inability to see beyond the present moment, the past has become either a place of refuge or a no-man’s-land, a place which people are reluctant to consider or return to. One of the members of the Council that governs Great Britain, Carl Inglebach, says that all of the ill and good of human history alike has been done “in the knowledge that [man] has been formed by history, that his life-span is brief [and] insubstantial, but [with the hope] that there will be a future.” In other words, humans need knowledge of their past, present, and future in order to thrive. But with mass fertility having eradicated any hope for the future, the present has been thrown into chaos and the past seems pointless and meaningless. Throughout the novel, P.D. James argues that harmony between the history of the past, the immediacy of the present, and the hope of the future is necessary to sustain not just human decency, but human life.
Theo Faron, the novel’s protagonist and the character whose psyche James most carefully explores, is an Oxford historian. His status as an arbiter, or judge, of the past and as a resource for concrete, factual information allows him to eventually assume the role of one of the few who can light the way forward. Though Theo has specialized in history and continues to teach it, at the start of the novel enrollment in his classes is “dwindling.” In the face of extinction, humanity has become almost completely disinterested in educating themselves about the past. The world has descended into violence, despair, and uncertainty, and Theo’s students doubt whether the past holds anything of value at all. Theo himself is frustrated with his increasingly less relevant role—he is taunted by a member of the Council which governs Great Britain, who tells him that “historians are happier in the past, so stay there.” Theo, however, is caught between the past and the present; he struggles deeply with feelings of shame, inadequacy, and failure that have grown out of his own dark past, and his revulsion with himself mirrors humanity’s overwhelming “humiliation” at being unable to secure a future for itself. In this way, P.D. James uses Theo as a synecdoche—or a part that represents a whole—for humanity more broadly. He functions similarly in the way he begins to focus on his personal memory as the thing he relies upon to understand both his own past, and how he and his fellow citizens have become trapped in their chaotic, desperate present moment. Theo keeps a diary in which he records his own personal history—the facts of his past and present, but also his feelings, his hopes, his secrets, and his great shame. The diary is a symbol of humanity’s collective desire to one day be able to see the present moment as history—a desire which betrays Theo and humanity’s desperate desire to have a future, because only by having a future can the present become history.
“We can experience nothing but the present moment, and to understand this is as close as we can get to eternal life,” Theo says in the novel’s opening pages, and in his diary’s first entry. Though at the start of the novel, humanity seems unable to find comfort or instruction in the past and can no longer muster any hope for a future, James’s insistence that faith in all three are necessary to ensure survival ultimately comes to bear upon the lives of her characters, as they cobble together their shared memories of the past, new mythologies and ideologies, and even begin to form collective hopes for the future.
History, Mythology, and Memory ThemeTracker
History, Mythology, and Memory 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.
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.
[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.
“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.
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.