“Human beings are free except when humanity needs them.” (4.81)
This is Graff’s take on the limits of human freedom: humans aren’t free, ever, because the species requires individuals to do something. This is pretty early in the book, and Ender pushes back against this idea a little, but how does it affect our reading if one of the book's authority figures declares so early that freedom isn’t totally real?
Bernard's attempt to be ruler of the room was broken – only a few stayed with him now. […] Still, the tampering with the system had done its work. Bernard was contained, and all the boys who had some quality were free of him. (5.164)
Ender gets a lot of attention in this book, so we can see pretty easily how he’s confined – there’s school, there’s the war, there are bullies, and family. All of those things limit Ender’s freedom. But what about the other characters? We have a good test case with Bernard: in order to preserve his freedom and happiness, Ender has to contain Bernard. It almost sounds as if there’s a limited quantity of freedom – the more Bernard has, the less Ender has; the less Bernard has, the more chance there is for other boys to be “free of him.”
Galling, and yet he had no choice. No choice about anything. Well it was Bonzo's own fault, for giving Ender an unreasonable order. (7.242)
This is a complex thought here, so let’s break down what’s going on: Bonzo gave Ender an order that he couldn’t give – he tried to tell Ender what to do during free play. But why is that order not allowed? Because the school administrators made it so. So, Bonzo tries to confine Ender, but Bonzo himself is confined by the school rules, which means Ender has to challenge Bonzo’s authority. Also notice how Ender thinks about his action: “he had no choice.” There’s some way in which Ender himself feels constrained here – he’s not free to challenge his commander, but he <em>has to</em> challenge his commander. It’s like no one is free here.
But orders were orders, and Ender had promised to obey. (7.262)
The major institutions that Ender has to deal with are school and the army, so we had to throw in at least one example of this. Ender is confined by his promise to obey orders. Of course, pretty soon Ender disobeys Bonzo’s stupid orders (7.279), so we might have to ask how confining these things really are.
Colonel Hyrum Graff
"Of course I mind, you meddlesome ass. This is something to be decided by people who know what they're doing, not these frightened politicians who got their office because they happen to be politically potent in the country they come from." (8.22)
We’re back to non-Ender confinement. Here, Graff is complaining that he doesn’t want people to mess up his finely-tuned system of making Ender unhappy. Graff is the principal of the school – can we even imagine anyone higher up than him? Well, as it so happens, we can: there’s a whole group of people (politicians) who could force Graff to take some actions, and he’s trying to avoid those folks.
"Listen, Ender, commanders have just as much authority as you let them have. The more you obey them, the more power they have over you." (8.60)
Here’s Dink’s best line, we think, and he gets a lot of good lines in this book. (We heart Dink.) But here’s Dink’s philosophy on freedom: there are a lot of people out there who will claim some power over you, and you can often retain some of your freedom if you’re willing to deal with the consequences too. (So, for instance, Ender refuses some order of Rose’s that Rose doesn’t have the authority to give; but then Rose gets his revenge by giving Ender an order that he <em>does</em> have the authority to give.)
Now he knew what he hated so much. He had no control over his own life. They ran everything. They made all the choices. Only the game was left to him, that was all, everything else was them and their rules and plans and lessons and programs, and all he could do was go this way or that way in battle. (9.326)
This is Ender’s predicament at school: although he’s the super-best, gold-star soldier, he’s still a soldier doing what someone else wants him to do. (He identifies the game as one area where he’s free, but that’s a little silly to us – a game, after all, has rules that confine the player.) Ender isn’t free and he’s pretty depressed. Luckily, though, now he knows why he’s depressed and he can go off and deal with his feelings (through the mind game).
Colonel Hyrum Graff
“Our genes won't let us decide any other way. Nature can't evolve a species that hasn't a will to survive.” (13.286)
Here’s Graff giving a slightly more clarified explanation of the first quote in this section. Or is it? In that other quote, Graff told Ender (and us) that individuals aren’t free because of pressure the species puts on us. Here, Graff locates that pressure in our genes. On one hand, there’s definitely some overlap there – genes do get passed down by the species, after all. On the other hand, aren’t genes (in some ways) what make us individuals? We could connect this with Graff’s later comment on about how his body deals with stress in different ways (over-eating, under-eating). Which brings us back to that issue: if we could get free of everything social that was confining us, might we still be confined by our selves?
Freedom. The trouble was, he didn't know what to do. (14.312)
This is Ender, on his last day in “school,” when, for the first time in a while, Mazer isn’t around to tell him where to go. So, Ender is free, but suddenly doesn’t know what to do. We’re not entirely sure what’s going on here. Could it be that Ender has just gotten so used to being shepherded that he’s lost without Mazer? As if Ender’s life were reduced just to fighting the buggers and didn’t have any other ideas? Or is something else going on? Did you feel like Ender’s reaction to freedom should make us reconsider whether “freedom” is all it’s cracked up to be?
Peter and Valentine Wiggin
"Welcome to the human race. Nobody controls his own life, Ender. The best you can do is choose to fill the roles given you by good people, by people who love you.” (15.104)
And we’ve come full circle (at least in the quotes we pulled for this theme). If being human means having no full freedom, then… Well, what does it mean? Even if humans are confined by lots of different things – school, army, society, family, genetics, feelings – that doesn't mean all of those things are equal. (As in, school can limit your options and your genetics can limit your options, but they don’t limit your options the same ways.) So, Ender can’t escape who he is and can’t escape his memories, but he can leave Earth and go somewhere where he might be free to do other things. According to Val, even if you’re not in total control of your own life, you have some freedom to choose among the options that are open to you. Maybe this is what goes wrong for Ender: he has total freedom and doesn’t know what to do with it. Whereas if he recognized that he had a few options to choose from, he would’ve been able to decide more easily.