The Freedom of Failure in Ender’s Shadow

Cover art from Ender's Shadow novel.
After reading the novel Ender’s Game, I discovered Ender’s Shadow, a parallel story about Bean’s journey through Battle School and the war against the Formix. There was a surprising lack of repetition for two novels that covered the same events; the protagonists had such different backgrounds, attitudes, and personality that each novel told a very different story. And I was surprised to realize that the story I preferred was Bean’s.

I think the main reason for my preference is that if I had to choose to be one of the two characters, I’d pick Bean. For one thing, Bean’s story has an upward arc that ends with him gaining a family, while Ender’s continually dips down in fits of despair, and he is finally banished from Earth and his family; for another, Bean shows mercy to his enemies whereas Ender destroys them; and though Bean struggles with acceptance, he eventually becomes part of a team, while Ender is continually isolated.

When there’s no way to win, Ender stops; only way not to lose is not to play.

But the biggest reason I’d rather be in Bean’s tiny shoes is because unlike Ender, who must never lose, he has the freedom to fail. This is drawn into sharpest relief when Ender confides to Bean his struggle to remain undefeated. Bean asks him why it matters if he loses one game, and Ender’s reply speaks of desperation:

“That’s the worst that could happen. I can’t lose any games. Because if I lose any—”

We, along with Bean, are left to speculate what the consequences could be. In Ender’s Shadow, we see Bean wonder if Ender fears the loss of his reputation as the perfect soldier, of the confidence his army has in him, or of the confidence of the teachers. But I think Ender’s fear runs deeper than just wanting to maintain his reputation. He is an extremely sensitive kid, and although he is never told outright how high the stakes are, he discerns on a subconscious level the anxiety that we, the readers, see in the teachers’ conversations. He’s picked up on their desperation, and it’s that desperation that drives him all through the book.

Bean, though equally determined to be successful, doesn’t seem to see individual losses as a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but rather as a chance to learn. In fact, Bean begins the operation to tear down the victory-based status that Battle School runs on, trading it for mutual risk and a focus on learning rather than competition. Whereas Ender’s Army has won every game, Bean’s loses all of theirs. When Bean graduates from Battle School, his army apologizes for not pulling off a single win. Bean responds with the confession that he wasn’t trying to win, but rather trying to help his soldiers learn the most they could, which would not have been possible if Bean had played it safe.

We see the dichotomy between Ender and Bean on a smaller scale as they both face a personal enemy—fellow students who seek revenge—during their time at Battle School. Ender completely defeats his adversary. He sees individual fights not as singular events, but as a piece in a war that could go on indefinitely, and chooses to end the war permanently. Though he never intended to kill anyone, Ender trades the possibility of future defeat for the guilt of destroying the boys who sought to hurt him. But when Bean faces his enemy, he tries only to win the battle—leaving the war for the future in the hope that his enemy would learn from his wrongdoing and the war wouldn’t have to be fought at all.

Unlike Ender, who must never lose, Bean has the freedom to fail.

Multiple times throughout the narrative, Ender comes to a dead end. He doesn’t see how he can continue on—everything is stacked against him, and there is no way he can win. So he stops. The only way not to lose is not to play. And he doesn’t keep going until he’s pushed, until someone reminds him that not to try is to concede loss. Sometimes that person is his sister, and sometimes it is Bean, who has always carried on, always tried even though he might fail, because to give up is permanent defeat.

Though I don’t have the survival of mankind of my shoulders, and therefore less at stake if I screw up, I’m glad there is freedom for failure in my life. I don’t have to worry that if I make a mistake I’ll get fired, if I offend my friend our relationship is over, or if I disappoint my parents they’ll disown me. If that was my life, I don’t think I’d ever leave my room for fear of messing up—especially as I stress enough about pleasing people as it is.

Grace and forgiveness are available to me, not only in my relationships with the people around me, but with God as well. One sin won’t get me chucked straight into hell—God forgives and redeems, giving me the freedom to try again. Though I fail, he doesn’t condemn me. He understands my tendency to make mistakes, and will always be there to pick me back up. I’m glad I can fail. Knowing that I can pick myself up after I do (or that I will be picked up by those who love me) gives me the freedom to try new things and live life the way I was meant to.

Julia Hamm

Julia Hamm

Guest Writer at Area of Effect
Julia Hamm has been exploring fantasy and sci-fi worlds since she could read, and has been making and building things for almost as long. She loves books that contain more ideas than plot, and has approximately six more hobbies than she has time for.
Julia Hamm