Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
The principal theme of the novel can be summed up in a few sentences: Life is durable; life is cheap; if men act too much in accordance with the latter, the former will become less true.
The British of Jim’s Shanghai display typical colonialist arrogance. The warring factions of Chinese soldiers kill peasants and themselves with apparent indifference. The Japanese count the individual as negligible in comparison with an outlandish notion of honor in victory and in defeat.
Ballard conveys the inhumanity of these practices with quiet understatement. The public execution of a Communist sympathizer is “this small death.” The understatement strips events to their essence. Beneath war’s clamor are simple truths, simple follies. Jim sees things simplistically, because they are simple.
The controlled use of narrative voice conveys the perceptive mind of the young hero and Ballard’s more considered estimation of events. Increasing in wisdom, Jim remains ingenuous yet perceives the significance of the events that he witnesses.
The book can, for most of its length, be read as a vivid recollection of childhood, but it makes telling points about the conduct of war. Allegiances are, Ballard suggests, formed arbitrarily, and it takes childlike innocence to avoid the prejudice and hate that give rise to war. Many on the “right side” are no more honorable than their aggressors. Jim, his mind muddled by delusion, dreams,...
(The entire section is 380 words.)
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Coming of Age
The main focus of Empire of the Sun is Jim's maturation from child to man during World War II. After the war begins and he is separated from his parents, he spends the remainder of the book trying to reunite with them. He learns to survive the brutal conditions he faces in detention and prison camps. As a result of these experiences, he learns important lessons about himself and human nature.
Change and Transformation
As Ballard traces Jim's maturation, he explores the transformations he experiences. The biggest change occurs when Jim is wrenched from his comfortable, privileged life in Shanghai and forced to live, as do the Chinese, with deprivation and the constant threat of death. This experience brings Jim to new levels of self-discovery as he realizes his ingenuity, courage, and resilience in the face of tragedy.
Alienation and Loneliness
Jim must learn to cope with the alienation and loneliness that result when he is separated from his parents. As an only child, Jim had used his imagination to fill lonely days, envisioning himself as a Japanese fighter pilot. His imagination also helped Jim combat the loneliness he suffered after losing his parents.
While in camp, Jim tries to erase his sense of alienation through his interaction with the other prisoners. He considers the prisoners to be almost an extended family, and thus comes to feel...
(The entire section is 527 words.)
War and the consequences of war, death, reverence for life, the relationships between people who will make sacrifices to keep others alive are themes woven into the structure of the main theme—the psychological war waged by Jim. The internees of the prison camp have various agendas, shown in relation to a world Jim creates, the one in which he can survive. The people in Ballard's story move in landscapes that "are symbolic of his characters' psychological state" says DISCovering Authors.
For the foreigners who remain in Shanghai, life becomes a matter of survival rather than a good time. Those who flee the country before the invasion are better off only if they go far enough away with those in the Orient caught up in the struggle. The Japanese are not concerned with the survival of people they put into the camps. They are concerned only that they appear to be concerned. If an internee can survive on the small amount of food available, manage to fight off disease, and live through any attacks on the camp, he or she may survive the war. The death march from the camp to the edge of Shanghai is more than many of the prisoners can survive.
Another consequence of the war is the attitude of the Chinese toward the foreign community. This is illustrated by the amahs at the home of Jim's friends Clifford and Derek. The traditional Chinese amah is a combination housekeeper-child caregiver, often employed by the European families to care for...
(The entire section is 734 words.)