by Orson Scott Card
Ender (a.k.a. Andrew Wiggin, or maybe we should say Admiral Andrew Wiggin) is either Jesus Christ or Hitler. Or maybe he’s just a little kid in a situation where there are no good options. We can argue for a long time about this, but let’s start with what we can agree on: Ender has a rough time as a kid.
Ender's Always Had It Rough
Ender is the third child in a future Earth where most people (and most governments) think that two kids are enough. In this future, having three kids is a little embarrassing – and expensive. But the government thought Ender’s brother and sister were so promising that they gave his parents permission to have another kid. Which is all well and good, but it doesn’t stop the other kids in school from calling Ender “Third” and picking on him. Ender starts out with a problem right from the very beginning.
Add to that the fact that Ender is very smart and very small, so no one likes him and he’s an easy target for the bullies at school.
Let’s add on one more thing: while Ender’s sister Valentine loves him and tries to protect him, Ender’s brother Peter seems like a psychopathic monster. Which is a problem for Ender for two reasons: a) Peter’s dangerous; and b) maybe Ender is like Peter. So, not only does Ender get picked on and bullied at school, but he’s a little afraid of retaliating because he really doesn’t want to turn out to be as bat-guano crazy as his older brother.
Once Ender leaves home, though, things don't get any easier. Now Graff and the Battle School staff are purposely isolating him from the other students and forcing him to fight against unfair odds. (Check out "Themes: Isolation" for all the dirt.)
Oh, and did we mention that Ender is only six when the story starts? And that aliens are coming to kill us all? Frankly, we wouldn’t blame Ender if he were still wetting his bed. But he’s not. Why not? Because he’s a Hero. (Although wouldn’t a bed-wetting hero be a fun twist? You can run with that idea.) By the time he's eleven, Ender has the weight of destroying an intelligent alien species on his conscience.
Underdog, but Always the Best
You know, when Superman was first invented, readers had fun seeing how he could do amazing things, but then they got bored when they saw that nothing could hurt him. Which goes to show that, for a story to be interesting, there has to be the possibility of failure. So, let’s look at Ender.
Ever notice how Ender is always faced with people who are bigger and stronger than he is, and how he's usually outnumbered? First Stilson, then Bonzo, then the buggers – Ender always looks like the underdog. And yet, in every situation, we’re reminded that Ender is smarter than his opponents and even a better fighter. To us, it sometimes seems like Card is playing with two opposing dreams here: the dream of being an underdog and the dream of being invulnerable. (We mean, come on, Ender is hurt exactly zero times in all of the fights that he’s in.) These two dreams don’t exactly fit together very well.
You probably noticed that in all his fights, Ender totally wins in the end by completely destroying his enemy. But why is that the best solution? Ender’s clearly a good fighter and a smart kid – why not calibrate the force a little more accurately? Or even – heck, why not (gasp) just turn the other cheek?
Ender's Big Fear: "I am just like Peter."
Ender's biggest fear is that he's just like Peter – a vicious killer. But is he? That's a good question. Let's try arguing for each side.
Ender is bad news. He's a killer.
Evidence #1: Ender kills Stilson and Bonzo.
Ender knew the unspoken rules of manly warfare, even though he was only six. It was forbidden to strike the opponent who lay helpless on the ground; only an animal would do that. (1.79)
But Ender repeatedly kicks Stilson when he's down – in the groin, in the face, everywhere. When Stilson is down, Ender isn't in immediate danger anymore. Instead, he decides to make an example of Stilson, and finishes him off by saying, "remember what I do to people who try to hurt me" (1.80). The situation with Bonzo isn't much different.
Evidence #2: Ender completely annihilates his opponents, instead of just beating them.
In all his fights, Ender decides to end things (which fits with his nickname) by using overpowering force. He describes the situation to Val: "I destroy them. I make it impossible for them to ever hurt me again. I grind them and grind them until they don't exist" (13.127-129). This is true of the way Ender deals with Stilson, Bonzo, and the buggers, so it's clearly a pattern. Anderson sees this in Ender too – "Ender Wiggin isn't a killer. He just wins – thoroughly” (12.264) – but refuses to condemn Ender for it. But is destroying one's opponents – being that thorough – really necessary?
Orson Scott Card might say no. Check out this comment from the author: "I wonder if there has ever been a time in human history when utter destruction of an enemy was required" (source). Granted, Card is talking about warring countries here, not individuals, but we still find it interesting. At any rate, you have to wonder about Ender's decision to destroy the bugger planet, even he really thought he was just playing a game.
Evidence #3: Ender knowingly kills the things he loves.
Graff says that Ender is too compassionate to consciously have destroyed the Buggers. Check it out:
"It had to be a trick or you couldn't have done it. It's the bind we're in. We had to have a commander with so much empathy that he would think like the buggers, understand them and anticipate them. So much compassion that he could win the love of his underlings and work with them like a perfect machine, as perfect as the buggers. But somebody with that much compassion could never be the killer we needed.” (14.392)
But is that true? In the previous chapter, Ender said something that makes us question Graff's opinion:
“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. I think it's impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them […] I destroy them. (13.127-129)
Wow, now that's intense. Sounds like Ender can both love something and kill it. Was Graff wrong about Ender? Would Ender's compassion truly have kept him from killing the buggers if he knew the battle was real?
Ender may be a survivor, but he isn't a killer.
Evidence #1: Ender fights only in self-defense.
After Bonzo's death, Anderson tells Imbu that Ender isn't really a scary killer: "It wasn't murder, Colonel. We have it from two angles. No one can blame Ender" (12.59). No one can deny that with both Stilson and Bonzo, Ender didn't pick the fight. And at least with Bonzo, the guy wanted Ender dead. During the trial at the end of the book, you'll also notice that when the jury sees the full videos of these fights, they don't blame Ender.
Evidence #2: Ender was tricked into killing the buggers. He wouldn't have done it otherwise.
When Ender realizes what he has done – that he has destroyed not only the bugger army, but also their children – he's horrified:
"I didn't want to kill them all. I didn't want to kill anybody! I'm not a killer! You didn't want me, you bastards, you wanted Peter, but you made me do it, you tricked me into it!” (14.391)
How can we blame Ender for that? Card doesn't. Check out what he says on the matter:
So in Ender's Game, though I assign responsibility for the near-destruction of the Hive Queen (and Ender takes it upon himself), I do not assign blame, because I don't consider there to be any blame. You can't be held responsible for not knowing what you could not know at the time of a crucial decision. (source)
Evidence #3: Lot's of characters think Ender is pure and good.
You probably noticed that Graff loves to gush about Ender. Don't believe us? Check out 4.9 (Ender is a sweet kid), 4.100 (“He’s clean. Right to his heart, he’s good”), 9.295 (where he agrees with Val that Ender is good), and 14.399 (when Graff and Mazer tell Ender that he’s totally innocent).
Anderson and Mazer also think he's a nice and compassionate kid. These are the men who have spent the most time with him, right?
The person who seems to be hardest on Ender is Ender himself. Should we trust Ender the most or the least? He may just be so terrified of being like Peter that he blows many of his more aggressive feelings out of proportion.
In the end, though, your opinion is what matters most. What do you think of Ender?