The English author P. D. James is likely best known for her murder mysteries, but especially worthy of discussion is her science fiction story The Children of Men. Set in the near future, there has not been a baby born for twenty-five years. In this story, partly told from the perspective of Theo Faron, a history professor whose cousin Xan is the dictatorial Warden of England, society has yielded to a mass ennui. Women put dolls in baby carriages, criminals are dumped on the Isle of Man, and old people take part in the ritual suicide called Quietus. Theo encounters a group, the Five Fishes, comprised of husband and wife Rolf and Julian, priest Luke, midwife Miriam, and lorry driver Gascoigne, who intend to fight the government. Julian eventually reveals that she is pregnant, and Theo goes on the run with the group.
James uses the premise to meditate on what happens to love in a world without children, a world of sexuality without procreation. In her world, the self-sacrifice necessary to healthy parenting and marriage disappears. Sexual activity becomes pointless at best, painful at worst. Moreover, the love the world needs most desperately, the love of God, seems to be completely absent. Ultimately, Jan Dalley says that “a sense of divine punishment for our sins hangs heavy over the book,” but really, this mass sterility is only the effect of our sins taken to its logical extremity, and not a punishment at all. The sin is its own punishment, and James shows us the world for which we ask when we so enthusiastically ignore the procreative dimension of sexuality.
Sexuality without Procreation
Some readers may have seen Alfonso Cuarón’s film adaptation of this novel, Children of Men. Its most egregious failing is that it has no interest in exploring what will happen to the understanding and practice of sexuality in a world where women cannot become pregnant, but James realises the urgency of this question. The government responds to the crisis by mandating semen testing and gynaecological examinations in the hope of finding people who are not infertile. It reduces intercourse to the means of procreation, and degrades people by treating them only as possible procreators.
Sexuality has the aims of both procreation and unity, but the government ignores the unitive aspect, and the procreative aspect has been lost entirely. When one is absent, the other is not enough to maintain interest in sexual activity; Theo says early on that “our interest in sex is waning.” Part of this is surely due to the natural advancement of age, but he speaks so broadly that his words must take on a more basic meaning: this barren culture simply does not see any longer a point in it, and so intercourse is now, shockingly, unimportant. Theo says that “sex totally divorced from procreation has become meaninglessly acrobatic. Women complain increasingly of what they describe as painful orgasms; the spasm achieved but not the pleasure.” This world without children leads to a world in which people do not even seek to be united to each other in this way.
To try to maintain interest in intercourse, the government sponsors pornography, promoting an image of sexuality that is merely meaningless acrobatics. Its image of sexuality is only that of a physical act. Of course, given what we know about the effects of ubiquitous internet pornography, such as people developing an interest in explicit images instead of real people, and even having difficulty in performing sexually, we can say that the government is compounding the problem by sponsoring pornography. It is training its citizens to associate sexuality not with real people, but with fakery and images. In a world of sexuality without procreation, sexuality itself fades into nothingness.
As Pope St. John Paul II said, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much, but too little. The official government image of sexuality involves no love, no unity, no care or concern for the other, and no commitment for better or for worse. This is what it teaches its citizens, and its citizens, though they are not actually interested in sex, assimilate part of this lesson. While pornography fails to inspire them to action, so to speak, they still seek idealized romantic love, thinking that they can find a person who will make them happy and attend to their needs.
Instead of seeking simply to attain “crude carnal satisfaction,” they hope to find a companion, no older than oneself, only in order to not be completely alone. Instead of understanding love, especially marital love, to involve self-gift and sacrifice, these people want to get something from their love. If they cannot get physical pleasure, they can still get a caregiver in their infirmity. Both the government and its citizens objectify other people: the government objectifies people as possible breeders, and the citizens, instead of seeking the unity of love, objectify people as potential caregivers. Both images dispense with the unitive nature of sexuality and the self-sacrifice and self-giving of love.
The novel does not speak of failed love only in generalities. James provides a specific example of a failed marriage in Theo. Theo confesses to having a “terror of taking responsibility for other people’s lives or happiness.” He does not want to take the risk of committing to another person and failing to fulfill that commitment. As a result, he did not love his wife Helena as a specific person. Referring to their love-making, she says that to him, she “could be any woman,” and Theo does not deny this accusation. He married her not because he actually loved her, but because he fulfilled a certain role in his life; by being the Master’s daughter, she confers prestige. He thought that they had common interests, but did not know her well enough to realize that in truth, they did not.
In retrospect, Theo knows that he would have loved Helena had he been concerned with her needs instead of his own. He mistook physical attraction mixed up with prestige for love, and even if he was not sure that it is true love, he believed it to be close enough when he married Helena. This turned out to be wrong. The marriage failed, and both lives were miserable. They could not even be each other’s companions facing their child’s death and the slow decline of the world.
Theo does, however, learn to love more authentically. As Julian is giving birth, he comes to wish “only her good. He would put her good before his own. He could no longer separate himself from her. He would die for her life.” He puts this feeling into action, asking Julian what she needs, what he can do for her, even if it is just staying with her. The concern is not for what Julian can do for him. For Theo, this emotion, which he realizes is love, is mysterious. Love is not something which he had ever truly experienced before this point, but he still recognizes it and embraces it, as best he can, when it comes to him.
The Love of God
The love that is most dearly missed from the world is God’s love, in that the great blessing of children has been lost. There are so many stories in the Bible about barren women to whom God’s blessing seems absent because He has not given them children. In this novel, the confusion and despair that the world’s infertility prompts does not simply result in a loss of belief in God’s existence, even if the world’s various religions do not seem to have an answer. While some of the characters are certainly atheists, other characters say that the catastrophe has led them to doubt God’s love, not His existence. A driver tells Theo that he does not know why God has not saved humanity, but that he hopes God “burns in His own Hell.” For the driver, God is only worthy of hate. More to the point, Miriam tells Theo that if God “wants belief He’d better provide some evidence”; however, she wants not evidence that He exists, but “that He cares.”
God’s love is not simply a concern for the good of humanity, expressed by His solving humanity’s problems, but also involves the self-giving and self-sacrifice that is absent from the world. Rosie McClure, a popular evangelist who has the Beatles song “All You Need is Love” played at her rallies, “has virtually abolished the Second Person of the Trinity together with His cross, substituting a golden orb of the sun in glory … The change was immediately popular.” McClure removes the sign of suffering self-sacrifice par excellence, an uncomfortable symbol, and a world that wants to profit from romance approves. The idealized romance the world seeks does not want the blood and pain of Christ’s love; it wants Barabbas, the Messiah who will fight the Romans and give freedom.
Therefore, it makes sense that God will seem absent when sexuality and marriage are so abased. The self-gift of sexuality is an image of the self-gift of the Trinity. The government, however, substitutes this image for its own image of sexuality as pornographic animalistic breeding, while the citizens have an image of love that includes charity, but only charity directed towards oneself. Neither image involves self-giving or self-sacrifice. They paper over the image of God and His sacrificial love with an image of their own making, and so God’s love is no longer visible.
Julian, however, wears a cross around her neck, and Luke, the father of her child, is a priest of the so-called “old style” who would never have a Beatles song played as part of his prayers. Love may be all the world needs, but the world does not want the right kind of love. Luke dies in order to protect Julian and his child, and Miriam, though an unbeliever, also dies while trying to get Julian water. They embrace the love that the cross represents. Similarly, Theo cares not for his own needs when the baby is being born. It is this love that brings a new baby into the world, and gives hope that extinction is not inevitable. Even though the government sees sexuality as only the means of procreation, Theo, Luke, and Miriam see in Julian a person for whom they should care. Their love does not arise only because of the fact that Julian is pregnant. They do not reduce her, as Xan and the government do, to a breeder. Julian’s freedom and dignity are always respected.
Before the birth, Theo sees God, if He exists, as “a God of the strong not of the weak.” God hold creation together “by pain,” and so only those strong enough to endure it can survive. Similarly, the government only tests the fertility of healthy men and women without criminal records. It sees the continuation of the human race as being a type of eugenics project; only the best may be allowed to breed. It also allows only immigrants in peak physical form to enter the country, and then throws these immigrants out when they are no longer able to contribute. The government provides an image of sexuality, and also an image of the perfect father and worker. This image is undermined, however, when Luke, who had epilepsy as a child, fathers the first child born in years. Luke is not the world’s image of a perfect father, or even his faith’s, as Julian is married to another man, but it is still this imperfect man who becomes a father. The Five Fishes, whom Theo criticizes as unorganized amateurs without a central vision, are the group who protect the new baby. Theo can now see that God is actually with the weak, and because the weak are not abandoned, love is not actually absent from the world.