The Children of Men

by

P. D. James

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Themes and Colors
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
Power and Ambition Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Children of Men, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Power and Ambition Theme Icon

In the bleak, futureless world of The Children of Men, the desire to use power in order to create form, order, and structure is one that rules, or at the very least tempts, several of James’s characters. The sly, “self-obsessed” Xan Lyppiatt has appointed himself the dictator and Warden of England. His cousin Theo Faron struggles to assert authority over his history students at Oxford. Rolf, the leader of the anarchist group The Five Fishes, believes himself to be the “father of a new race” and thus the rightful leader of all of England. As news of Julian’s pregnancy comes to light and the balance of the world seems poised on the edge of a great shift, James’s characters wrestle each other’s convictions, ambitions, and desires for the “intoxication” power provides as they struggle to make sense of the chaos that surrounds them at all turns.

Xan Lyppiatt came to power in the vacuum of both chaos and chronic apathy that followed Year Omega—the last year any human being was born anywhere on earth. Theo describes Xan’s grab at power, after a successful stint in the army, as Xan having plucked an “overripe, rotten plum”—the plum being the tired, frightened England mired in “ennui universel,” a malaise which, Theo notes, did not and does not affect Xan at all. Not wanting to call himself the Prime Minister and subject himself to the “weight of tradition and obligation” that title carried—nor, for that matter, to the free and fair elections every five years required of the position—Xan chose to dub himself the Warden of England and assume a dictatorial role over the façade of an otherwise “egalitarian” Great Britain. Xan surrounds himself with male guards, aides, and assistants—he demands an “essentially masculine” loyalty which is “hierarchical, unquestioning, [and] unemotional” in nature. He rejects the old hallmarks of British culture and power structures—he has not had the new King of England crowned, noting the common people’s disinterest in and possible “resent[ment” for “a ceremony which has become meaningless.” Xan does not occupy or work in 10 Downing Street, the traditional home and office of the Prime Minister—he instead chooses to work in the Foreign and Commonwealth building. He wears the Coronation Ring, one of the hallowed crown jewels of England, as a symbol of his almost divine right to rule. By rendering himself an iconoclast in the eyes of the people over whom he has assumed total power and control, Xan creates a new paradigm, or model of what a leader of the new world looks and acts like. When Theo asks Xan, during their walk through St. James’ Park after Theo’s meeting with the council, “why on earth [he would] want the job,” Xan tells Theo that “at first, [he] thought [he’d] enjoy the power, [and] could never bear to watch someone do badly what [he] knew [he] could do well.” Even as his reign has gone on and his enjoyment of the “job” has lessened considerably, Xan feels it’s “too late” to change anything, and that no one else around him can do his job the way he can—plus, he confides in Theo, if nothing else, he’s “never bored.” Through Xan, James argues that the desire for power—and the abuse of it—can be hopelessly banal. Though Theo considers for a time that Xan might be “evil,” Xan’s actions are not the actions of someone who desires to watch his world, or his people, suffer or burn. He appears to be simply following the path of least resistance, and is so set in his ways that it would be completely counter to his apathetic self-absorption to do anything of consequence or value. However, when he learns of Julian’s pregnancy, his desire for even more power is renewed—he tells Theo that he plans to make Julian his wife, and use his connection to her and the child as justification for his continued authority.

Theo Faron seems, at first, to desire order rather than power. As a historian, his way of viewing the world is rooted in his relationship to the past. He knows that Xan’s rule over England is wrong, and runs counter to history’s struggles toward free and fair democracy and equality. Theo, however, is too stuck in the depression and ennui that has followed him since the death of his daughter Natalie to take any real action other than leaving the Council. As his journey with The Five Fishes begins, though, Theo is shaken from his inaction and reminded of the strong allure of power. As he observes Rolf’s impatience, ambition, and, ultimately, his transparent desire to ascend to power even if it means shirking the values he and the Fishes claim to hold so dearly, Theo seems to consider the ways in which power seduces and corrupts lamentable but laughable. When Theo kills Xan, however, he gets a taste of power for himself. Though he committed murder in defense of himself and of Julian, the fact of the matter is that Theo has dispatched the single most powerful man in England. Theo, seizing the opportunity to “assert authority and ensure protection,” takes the Coronation Ring from Xan’s finger and places it on his own. He tells himself that he must take power “for a time,” while there are still rights to be wronged and “evils” to be exorcised from the government and from society. He wonders, though, if the “sudden intoxication of power” he feels is “what Xan had [felt] and known every day of his life.” Theo’s childhood as the “poor cousin” to the rich and pampered Xan is possibly a motivator here, but so too is “the sense that everything [is] possible”—Theo has been mired in a dead-end job and an avalanche of personal grief for so long that the unchecked ability to seize power over his circumstances awakens something hungry within him. Theo’s possible surrender to the allure of power might simply represent his relief to find himself living in a world that has a future, and an ambitious desire to make of that future a home in which he, Julian, and her child can live in peace and comfort.

Rolf is the most transparently ambitious character within the novel. Unlike Xan or Theo, who seem to be in touch with their thoughts and feelings about power, Rolf is a torpedo of impatience, desire, and fury. As the leader of The Five Fishes, he already has a small modicum of power, although he recognizes that it is his pregnant wife, Julian, who has all the power despite her pious, demure nature. This feeling no doubt emasculates him, and drives him even more steadily forward on his quest for power. He reveals to Theo that it’s his goal to present himself to the people of England as “the father of a new race” and watch as they willingly “give” him the faith and power that has been Xan’s for so many years. When Rolf realizes that he is not, in fact, the father of Julian’s child—Luke is—he flies into a rage, and, after some consideration, leaves the group in the dead of night in order to travel to London and use the last remaining thing he has of value to attempt to gain even a sliver of power—information as to Julian, Theo, and Miriam’s whereabouts. Rolf’s blind ambition, Theo posits, comes in part from his youth. Theo accuses Rolf of being “offend[ed]” by the mere fact that Xan “enjoys power, not the way he exercises it”—Theo can tell that Rolf is young enough to have missed out on being an Omega by just a year or two, and the resentment he feels, as well as his lack of regard for the lessons of history, a common problem in the younger generations, cause Rolf to launch into an unchecked grab for whatever power he can manage to acquire, unaware of the folly inherent in such a thoughtless pursuit.

Through the trio of Xan, Theo, and Rolf, James seems to be making a statement about power and its ability to subsume, or overpower, even the most noble of intentions. At various points in the narrative, the “intoxicat[ing]” allure of power clouds the ability of all three men to act with empathy, with good judgement, and with the drive toward a greater good that their society so desperately needs. The corruption that the three men face—and that all three, possibly even Theo, succumb to—represents human society’s larger need for order, and the value order and structure take on in a world with no future to speak of.

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Power and Ambition Quotes in The Children of Men

Below you will find the important quotes in The Children of Men related to the theme of Power and Ambition.
Chapter 1  Quotes

If from infancy you treat children as gods they are liable in adulthood to act as devils.

Related Characters: Theodore “Theo” Faron (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Theodore “Theo” Faron (speaker), Xan Lyppiatt
Related Symbols: Woolcombe
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Theodore “Theo” Faron (speaker)
Related Symbols: Theo’s Diary
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 14 Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Theodore “Theo” Faron (speaker), Julian
Page Number: 108-109
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 31 Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Theodore “Theo” Faron (speaker), Miriam (speaker), Helena Faron
Related Symbols: Natalie
Page Number: 218
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 33 Quotes

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?

Related Characters: Theodore “Theo” Faron (speaker), Carl Inglebach (speaker), Xan Lyppiatt
Related Symbols: The Coronation Ring
Page Number: 240
Explanation and Analysis: