Ender's Game Themes
by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game book cover
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Ender's Game Themes

The main themes in Ender's Game include the abilities of children, empathy and alienation, the qualities of leadership, and technology and virtual reality.

  • The abilities of children: The children in Ender's Game are intelligent, creative, and ruthless, which is precisely what makes them such valuable soldiers. 
  • Empathy and alienation: Despite his alienation from others, Ender has a strong sense of empathy, which is what makes him a skilled strategist.
  • The qualities of leadership: Through careful observation, Ender learns what traits make an effective leader.
  • Technology and virtual reality: The advanced technology in Ender's world distances the children from the reality and destruction of war.

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Themes

The Abilities of Children

Orson Scott Card has been highly critical of the way in which children are usually portrayed in fiction (whether the works in question are written for children or not). At no time in his life, he says, has he ever felt like a child. The children Card writes, therefore, are no less nuanced than his adult characters. From the moment Ender is introduced at the age of six, his thought processes are shown to be sophisticated and complex. Understanding this, Colonel Graff treats him in exactly the same way as he would an adult and even speaks to him privately to give him information that he does not share with his parents. Indeed, the three brilliant Wiggin children seem to grow up with minimal involvement from their parents, whose intellect and personality appear lackluster in comparison.

When Peter suggests to Valentine that they should write articles to influence their country’s political direction, he accepts that they will have to adopt false identities and pretend to be adults if their plan is to succeed. However, they are both confident that they have the abilities necessary to convince adults in high positions that their views are the correct ones, and this confidence proves to be well-founded. This lack of inhibition and uncertainty is repeatedly shown to be an area in which children outperform adults, and it is the primary reason that children—particularly Ender—are used to end the war. The children at Battle School have never been exposed to the horrors of a real war and are thus able to see battle strategy as a game. In this way, their innocence is precisely what makes the children ideal soldiers and commanders: they are creative, ruthless, and courageous, unafraid to take risks that would make adults hesitate.

Empathy and Alienation

Of the three gifted Wiggin children, only Ender is selected for Battle School. Instructors felt that Peter lacked the empathy necessary for leadership, while Valentine lacked the aggression and ruthlessness necessary for military command. The Wiggin family is allowed a third child precisely because the government hoped a “third” might possess the perfect balance of empathy and ruthlessness, a wish that is fulfilled in Ender. As Ender tells his sister, Valentine:

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.

This statement not only identifies the reason for Ender’s success but also demonstrates the challenge confronting Colonel Graff: empathy is necessary for victory, so he must find a way to turn recruits into killers without destroying their empathy. This turns out to be an almost impossible task, even in such a paradoxical case as Ender’s, where a strong sense of empathy coexists with a powerful sense of alienation and anger. Graff and Rackham’s need to deceive Ender might itself be taken as an admission of defeat in their attempt to cultivate a balance of empathy and aggression in their star pupil. Although Ender’s aggressive actions allowed the human fleet to destroy the Buggers and emerge victorious, it is clear to the reader that his empathy would not have allowed him to make this call had he known what he was really doing. 

Despite his ruthlessness, Ender is never...

(The entire section is 1,156 words.)