Empire of the Sun

by J. G. Ballard

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The Characters

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Jim is described by Ransome as a free spirit. He would be well suited as the hero of a boys’ adventure book. He makes the behavior of those who are much older than he appear immature and ill-advised. Yet the world of the book is far more dangerous than that which an adventure book could sustain: It is an adult world that is crazily and dangerously out of kilter.

Jim, however, has many of the characteristics of the best boys’ heroes. He is extraordinarily precocious; he is, for example, in the process of writing a guide to contract bridge in a school exercise book. He is tireless. In a typical day in captivity, he first smuggles extra rations from his room to eat them surreptitiously, then does Latin homework, runs errands for Basie and one of his Japanese captors, watches an air raid, and plays chess all evening with imprisoned American soldiers. He is also brave. In one incident, he and other prisoners are dying of thirst, but he alone dares to ask a group of Japanese soldiers for something to drink. Given a half-bottle of water, he drinks it all, rewarding himself for his bravery. The soldiers in turn reward his gumption with a full bottle for the others.

Jim is more complex, however, than the typical boy hero. Paradoxically, he is both selfish and selfless. He nurses Basie back to health after the seaman is beaten during capture. Yet he is as calculatedly self-interested as any of the prisoners: Every death translates, he notes, into extra food for the survivors. This self-interest is a response to the behavior of adults in the camp. Jim believes he deserves extra rations because he is one of only a few to fetch them in carts.

Jim is also confused. As a result of disorientation, hunger, and physical violence, he is unable to concentrate; yet he is remarkably resilient. Even in dire circumstances, he finds hope. (The situation does indeed become extremely dire-at one point, Jim imagines that an arm protruding from a grave is food.) In contrast to most of the prisoners, his spirit cannot be dimmed.

Jim’s chief protector is Dr. Ransome, a sandy-haired Briton with a self-confident air who ensures that Jim’s schooling continues throughout the war. Jim assumes at first that Ransome is “one of those tiresome Englishmen who refused to grasp that they had been defeated,” but he is much more. He is as brave and selfless as Jim, constantly fighting for better conditions. He is stoic in suffering and too generous for his own good: By giving Jim much of his food, he becomes progressively weaker and more ill.

Jim learns his survival tactics-such as the wisdom of drinking only the boiled water from the sweet-potato pot-from Basie. The motto of this born profiteer, a ship’s steward, is “ingratiate yourself a little.” Then, he believes, “you’ll live off the interest.” Self-interest motivates all of his actions. He takes great interest in Jim’s predilection for fancy words, saying he wishes to keep up Jim’s education, but actually seeking amusement and favor from Jim’s parents should they arrive. Before capture, he skulks about a burial ground, collecting gold teeth from corpses. While interned, he keeps his head low while accumulating enough goods to start a trading post. After escaping, Basie joins a bandit gang that shadows skirmishes, gathering spoils, and Jim notices that he resembles a rat.

Characters Discussed

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Jim, the protagonist, a British schoolboy entering adolescence. An intelligent, curious, self-reliant, and somewhat rebellious eleven-year-old from a privileged background, Jim is obsessed...

(This entire section contains 410 words.)

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with aviation, in particular, warplanes. When Japan enters the war against the Allies, he is separated from his parents. He wanders through the disorder of war-torn Shanghai, learning to survive by using his wits. After meeting Basie on the waterfront, he and the American sailor are taken to a prison camp, where he learns much more about survival in the “university of life.” He adapts to conditions in the camp with a readiness not found among the European adults. By the end of the war, he has witnessed many scenes of social upheaval and apocalypse, including the flash of the atom bomb exploding at Nagasaki.


Basie, an American merchant seaman and profiteer. A man in his thirties with an easy manner, a bland, unlined face, and soft hands that he keeps powdered, he is articulate, observant, opportunistic, manipulative, and devious. Basie needs to have people working for him at all times and tries to exploit every event for his own benefit. In the prison camp, he uses Jim as a coolie, but he does teach Jim the necessity of satisfying one’s own needs and provides the boy with information about the outside world.

Dr. Ransome

Dr. Ransome, a British doctor in the prison camp. A sandy-haired, long-legged, strong man in his late twenties, he is opinionated, self-confident, somewhat bossy, and interested in helping others. He intercedes on behalf of the other prisoners in disputes with the Japanese guards and encourages the inmates to improve their welfare by growing a garden and building a sewage system. Dr. Ransome also tries to preserve English values in the camp. After taking an interest in Jim, he attempts to educate the boy in such subjects as mathematics, Latin, and poetry.

Mr. Maxted

Mr. Maxted, an English architect and entrepreneur who represents for Jim a Shanghai that existed before the war. He is a dapper, middle-aged, slightly eccentric man who does not adapt well to life in the camp.

Mrs. Vincent

Mrs. Vincent, the wife of a former stockbroker, a pale, nervous, exhausted young woman with thinning blonde hair. She is indifferent or hostile to Jim, but he is attracted to her as he matures.

Private Kimura

Private Kimura, a Japanese soldier and camp guard who is not much older than Jim and who becomes the boy’s friend.


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Fox says "characters hardly matter in Ballard's decaying universe . . . [they] are no more than throbbing organic matter among futuristic objects, and the objects are slightly more interesting." Jim is the only character whose mind and thoughts are open. His ideas about the war and its consequences, whether it is actually beginning and then whether there can be an end, are generated by his imagination and colored by his childish understanding of events.

Jamie or Jim sees the war and its consequences through the eyes of a child aged eleven to fourteen. As Jamie, he is the pampered young son of a British couple, owners of a cotton factory in Shanghai, living with servants, chauffeur, a governess, private school, a swimming pool and attending a round of parries with other non-Asian families living in the area. Jamie is not prepared to live off the land, but he is prepared to protect himself enough to stay alive. When he is separated from his parents during the first wave of the Japanese attack on the city, he is able to get back to his home in the foreign section of the city—too late to be reunited with his parents. He manages to survive partly because of his experiences riding his bicycle around Shanghai before the war. He knows the city and which sections are dangerous. The danger is worse when war comes, but he manages to find food and a place to stay so long as he has his bicycle. When the bicycle is stolen threatening his physical survival, his imagination takes over, leading him to the river with its floating corpses and sunken boats. As he is subjected to the hardships of camp life, he sinks deeper into the world he has constructed for himself.

During the first several weeks after he is separated from his parents, he lives in a series of houses and apartments. The house in Amherst Avenue is the first. He is a little boy in this house, sleeping on his mother's bed, comforted by the smell of her clothes and cosmetics. He plays games in the garden, trying to identify the planes that fly over, eats food stored in the pantry, sitting in the dining room in his place at the table, and watches the water level in the swimming pool drop. The way of life he has known is slipping away as surely as the water in the pool. Even the house seems to change, "withdrawing from him in a series of small and unfriendly acts." Childlike, he uses the house as a racetrack on his bicycle, leaving chaos in his wake. At the end of his wild ride, he leaves the house in search of his parents.

At first Jim does not consider surrender. Surrender would not be honorable. He begins to realize surrender means survival, and honor becomes less important. The will to survive becomes the most important part of Jim's life. Physical survival is important, but for Jim, mental survival is more important. His fantasies help him with the mental survival, along with lessons in Latin and algebra and old Reader's Digest magazines.

As Jim travels around Shanghai looking for his parents, he has a series of encounters with people he has known or seen in the past. Their attitudes have changed toward him—the Chinese, abusive; the Germans, worried. After managing to repair the damage done by the soldier to his bicycle, Jim's next journey through Shanghai reveals more changes in the city. The Chinese now seem to fear the Japanese soldiers. There are bodies of dead Chinese citizens littering the streets. Jim returns to the European quarter looking for food and help, finds neither, and retreats into books and magazines. He is building his fantasy world and changing, moving toward the place where he can survive. A group of Japanese soldiers feed him for a while, only to be replaced by a group who chase him away. He is barred from the houses he knows, the sanctuaries of his childhood, and ready to accept his new name from Basie. He is no longer Jamie. He is Jim.

Basie and Frank are Americans who manage to elude capture for a while. Basie is the thinker; Frank, the doer. Frank tells Jim that Basie, a former cabin steward, has a collection of gold teeth he has removed from the Chinese corpses floating down the river. Basie uses the teeth as trade goods. Jim is afraid Frank will try to remove one of his molars. Unable to sell Jim to slavers, Frank and Basie return with him to the house in Amherst Avenue where they are captured by the Japanese soldiers who are living in Jim's house. Frank is beaten to death; Jim is taken to the open-air cinema; Basie survives to be incarcerated in the open-air cinema, where Jim takes care of him, keeping him alive to be transported to the camp at Lunghua.

The other characters from the camp move in the background, occasionally coming into the light enough to see their features. Dr. Ransome feeds and educates Jim, giving him part of his food and lessons and homework. The Vincent family, with whom Jim shares a room, is blocked out by the make- shift curtains hung to separate the room. Mrs. Vincent speaks to Jim occasionally. Various old women come and go. Jim helps Mr. Maxted collect the rations for their group each day. Many of these people care about Jim and are trying to help him. He closes them out of his imaginary world, turning them into non-people.