The Children of Men

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Children of Men is P. D. James’s twelfth novel since the 1962 Cover Her Face, a book that critics and readers compared to works by Marjory Allingham, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and other writers of classic detective fiction. Since this auspicious debut, James has ignored the familiar constraints of the mystery genre to produce denser, more complex narratives in which the puzzle to be solved is only one of many narrative and thematic elements. Further, in character development she always moves beyond the stereotypical whodunit probing of motive to psychological analysis, and her settings are not only suitable venues for crimes but also breeding places for social and moral conflicts that disturb people’s psyches, such as guilt and remorse, the inability to relate to others, and the unexpected emergence of love.

After seven such full-length fictions that added luster both to the genre and to her reputation, James in 1980 produced Innocent Blood, an atypical novel in which neither of her detectives, Adam Dalgliesh and Cordelia Gray, is present. Not a whodunit but a search for identity by an eighteen-year-old girl who was adopted at birth and wants to learn the identity of her biological parents, it received mixed reviews. Importantly, though, reviewers treated it as a mainstream novel rather than merely as a genre work, thereby according James a degree of attention she long deserved. Two years later, in The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982), James reverted, as she put it, “to the traditional detective story with a closed circle of suspects,” but at the same time “bringing these well-worn conventions up to date . confronting them with the courage, the dispassionate intelligence, and the cool common sense of my young contemporary, female detective.” Not as prolific as most detective-fiction writers, she produced only two more novels in the 1980’s, mysteries featuring Scotland Yard’s Dalgliesh, an introspective and detached man, a sometimes poet whose life has been permanently scarred by a central tragedy, the death of his wife and only child (a son) in childbirth.

In 1992, James embarked on her fourth decade in the craft with The Children of Men, a totally different mainstream novel with no detective-fiction conventions but with themes and characters that recall her previous books. A futuristic work set in England during 2021, it portrays a world in which women no longer can conceive. Babies have not been born since 1995, called Year Omega. For some time after the apparent onset of this universal infertility, hope persisted, but when the Omegas (children of 1995) reached sexual maturity, they proved to be infertile. Nevertheless, they are the elite of this dying society, fawned over and studied to the point that many have become arrogant and cruel, even joining marauding gangs (called Painted Faces) that waylay travelers and engage in banal rituals as preludes to murder and destruction. There is a pervasive negativism and malaise among their elders, with the most desperate of them committing suicide and others finding solace in the continuing reproductive abilities of cats, treating kittens like their own newborn and having them—and even dolls—baptized. The established churches moved in the mid- 1990’s “from the theology of sin and redemption to a less uncompromising doctrine: corporate social responsibility coupled with a sentimental humanism.” By 2021, all but the largest have been abandoned, and only a few evangelists prosper, one of whom has the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” as her theme song.

Middle-aged Oxford historian Theodore (Theo) Faron, whose diary entries make up much of the book, is the story’s protagonist and moral center, observing with despair the social and economic decay that pervades Britain’s infertile, increasingly phlegmatic population. He recalls how the sciences and particularly medicine, which were the people’s gods, promised relief but failed to determine why the deadly phenomenon occurred and come up with a cure. “For all our knowledge, our intelligence, our power, we can no longer do what the animals do without thought,” Theo notes in his diary, and then suggests that the decadence of the early 1990’s may be the cause. For fifteen years, his cousin and childhood companion, the oddly named Xan Lyppiatt, has been Warden of England, originally elected but now a despotic ruler supported by a massive security network and private army. Having served briefly as an observer- adviser at the Warden’s council meetings, Theo has become an apolitical loner, turning to his Victorian studies as a retreat from personal sorrows (remorse over accidentally killing his baby daughter and the subsequent breakup of his marriage). His passive stability comes to an end, however, when an erstwhile student asks him to intercede with Xan on behalf of a small resistance group, the Five Fishes.

Julian is one of them. The other renegades are Rolf, her husband; Miriam, a former...

(The entire section is 2048 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. March 16, 1993, p.14.

Commonweal. CXX, April 23, 1993, p.26.

Locus. XXX, April, 1993, p.17.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 4, 1993, p.12.

New Scientist. CXXXVII, March 20, 1993, p 41.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, March 28, 1993, p.23.

The New Yorker. LXIX, March 22, 1993, p.111.

Time. CXLI, March 1, 1993, p.69.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 25, 1992, p.26.

The Wall Street Journal. February 19, 1993, p. A12.