“Two Sides of the Same Coin”

First Hack at Analysis of Ender’s Game

Mary Ann Nguyen

March 27, 2004


Initially, when I finished reading Ender’s Game, I was bothered by it.  While I had devoured the book in the matter of two days, engaged and captivated, I concluded in the end that I was not satisfied with the story because Orson Scott Card did not do what I wanted him to do with the story.  Not everything fit together neatly like the way I thought it should.  There were thoughts and ideas that he had thrown out in the middle of the book that didn’t seem to be finished.  Did the kind of symbolism that I thought exist mean anything at all?  A book that I had surmised to be more than about war turned out to be simply that, a book about war. 


The plotline was simple. There was no surprise.  Ender was born to be “the one” to save the world.  He was brought to Battle School.  He was pushed over the edge by the adults.  They did everything they could to isolate him and give him the sort of training, environment and upbringing that would make him into a hard, cold, brilliant Commander.  He becomes one and he decimates the alien enemy “buggers” and saves the world – just as planned.  There was no twist – except that Ender did not know he was fighting against real buggers while he was doing it.  And it was in that sly trick that the adults were able to get Ender to do exactly what they wanted.  Ender did not want the adults to be able to control him, but in the end they did. 


And now we have found the real story.  This is not a book only about war; it is a story about the coming of age.  Ender represents a prototype of each one of us weaving through the world, trying to make sense of it, defining who we are.  We do so by asking ourselves if we are good or if we are bad.  In this novel, Orson Scott Card contends that man has the propensity for evil yet the possibility for good.  We often choose evil, though we do not want to. 


But if man has a natural propensity for evil, then why did Colonel Graff, the adult in charge at the Battle School, feel it was necessary to isolate Ender and make allowances for cruelty in order to shape him into a good military man?  Perhaps it is that military men must put their kindness, empathy and compassion aside in order to take the kinds of risks and maneuvers that would win battles.  This is what makes the story complex.  Ender is constantly battling with himself.  He never wants to become the cold and unfeeling soldier that they were training him up to be. 


He also doesn’t want to play their games or be manipulated by them.  As long as he felt like he was more clever than them and was beating them at their own game, he was willing to play along.   It’s a story of children versus adults.  Adults are always in control and yet children are being allowed to make adult decisions.  The irony of the story is that it’s ultimately children who end up saving the world. 


But, at the same time, it’s the adults who keep the upperhand in this story.  If Ender had known that he was really fighting the buggers, he would not have been able to do it so well.  As long as he thought he was only playing a game, there was no conscience involved.  In this way, they were able to save Ender from having to really deal with the guilt of his actions – though inevitably, he still laid it upon himself.  They understood that Ender was still a child.  Ender was not truly cold and compassionless.  He was still just a kid after all…


It seems that Card would have us believe that it is easier for adults to be cold and compassionless than it is for children.  Throughout the entire book, Ender’s struggle was with the question of whether he was good or bad.  Above all else, he feared being the same as his brother Peter, whom we are initially led to believe is the embodiment of evil. 


It is at the beginning of the book that we find Peter declaring to their sister Valentine, “But there’ll come a day when you aren’t there with him, when you forget…Even though you’ll remember that I said this, you’ll think that I forgot.  And years will pass.  And then there’ll be a terrible accident, and I’ll find his body, and I’ll cry and cry over him, and you’ll remember this conversation, Vally, but you’ll be ashamed of yourself for remembering, because you’ll know that I changed, that it really was an accident, that it’s cruel of you even to remember what I said in a childhood quarrel.  Except that it’ll be true.  I’m gonna save this up, and he’s gonna die, and you won’t do a thing, not a thing…” (13-14).


Perhaps it would’ve been too “predictable” and obvious if Card had made the end turn out like Peter described.  Truly Card “deliberately avoided all the literary games and gimmicks.”[1]  This was the point to which I was most bothered.  It seems that Card had roundly abused the literary concept of foreshadowing.  But – on second thought, did he really?


Perhaps Peter’s ultimate purpose was not to become the antihero or the archenemy of Ender, but merely stand as a shadow, to hover as his antithesis.  Peter represented bad to Ender and all that he did not want to be.  Valentine represented good and all that Ender wanted to live up to be.  It helped him deal with the world to have such black and white contrast in his mind.  However, Valentine comments later that Peter and Ender are the same.  They are just different faces of the same coin (236).  Perhaps this is true.


At the beginning of the book after Ender is seemingly rejected for Battle School, Peter pummels Ender with violent menace.  And yet at the end of the day when Peter thinks his brother is sleeping, he whispers, “Ender, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know how it feels, I’m sorry, I’m your brother, I love you” (15).  Compassion rises out of Peter in the midst of hate, when no one was looking.  It could not have been manipulation because there could not be any reward for such a clandestine whisper of love.


In the same way, when Ender and Valentine are conversing years later, Valentine says, “Beat the buggers.  Then come home and see who notices Peter Wiggin anymore…That’s how you win.”

            “You don’t understand,” he said.

            “Yes I do.”

            “No you don’t.  I don’t want to beat Peter.”

            “Then what do you want?”

            “I want him to love me.”  (242)


Probably one of the most intriguing scenes to me in the book.  But it is a commentary that Card weaves subtlely throughout:  love and hate go hand in hand, but ultimately, there is a longing for love.  And love, always, always tops every human heart desire.  Ender is tormented by the image of his brother, but the torment is not what we think it is.  It’s not that Ender hates his brother for all the cruelty and threats.  No, it is that he has a deep longing for his brother to love him.  No one wants to hate.  We hate because we have to, but deep down, we want to love and be loved.


Card wants to say one thing:  that though Peter was supposed to be the bad one, Valentine the good one and Ender somewhere in between; each of them has the propensity for evil and the possibility for good.  Just like each of us.  Card does not want to make Peter be an arch nemesis in this story, because he wants to write this reality into his story.  No bad person is all bad, purely bad or started out wanting to be bad.  We all started out as children who just long to be loved and long to do the right thing.  We all have the potentiality to be good and do good.


And yet Ender ends up repeatedly choosing what he inherently knows to be bad.  He not only defends himself, but the brutality with which he makes his attacks is calculated to ensure that his enemy would never threaten or retaliate again.  A commentary on humanity:  when we are pushed to the limit, we will always choose to preserve our lives; we will do anything to survive, even if it means killing another person, even if we don’t want to kill them.  Ender says at one point that it is at the point that he is hating his bully most that he also loves him most.  It’s true.  He never wants to kill anybody.  But he is pushed over the edge every time.


In the end after Ender kills the buggers, he feels so guilty and devastated by his murderous acts that he sleeps like a zombie for days.  He has a deep sense of anguish.  He is therefore later very relieved when he finds that the buggers have forgiven him for killing them, and he is glad that he has a chance to redeem his actions.  That was the purpose of “Speaker for the Dead” and for the opportunity he has of bringing the buggers back to life.  Here is Redemption and second chance.


Man is inherently evil, and yet man inherently desires to be good.  It’s the story behind every story.  The battle between good and evil.  This has been going on since the world began.  We want to do good, but we often choose evil, and we are thankful when we realize that there is a chance for redemption, that we’ve been given a second chance.  Card speaks of the real need we have to solve our problem of evil.  He writes about a character that was born to save the world.  His character though often perfect was yet still flawed, of course.  But the one he alludes to is not.  Jesus came to save us.  He did so without a hitch.  But it is ultimately our choice whether we will take ahold of the redemption or leave it for “the end of the world.”  Ender had that choice, and he took it because he recognized his need.  The question is, will we?  Will I?  Will you? 


My conclusion?  I am satisfactorily satisfied.  There really aren’t any loose ends, and this really isn’t simply a story about war.  It is a commentary about the human condition:  the longing for good, the ease of evil and the need for redemption.  Therefore, with so much relevance, I can’t deny that this really is a good story, after all.


© Mary Ann Nguyen 2004


[1] Introduction of 1991 Edition (page xviii)