Study Guide

The Honourable Schoolboy

by John le Carre

The Honourable Schoolboy Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

John le Carré’s novel The Honourable Schoolboy, the second in the Karla trilogy, centers on the attempts of George Smiley, chief of the British Secret Service (or the “Circus” as it is known to insiders), to restore confidence in the Service by tracking down and capturing Nelson Ko, a Chinese official long ago recruited by the Soviets. Within five years, the “Dolphin Case,” as it has come to be known, has become a legendary problem for new Circus recruits. The nostalgic and ironic tone of the novel is partially created by the narrator, who attempts to explain objectively the failure of this operation. As in a tragedy, the narrator indicates from the first that something crucial went badly awry, and le Carré’s use of foreshadowing grows as the novel moves to its climax. Even the narrator is at a loss to explain or blame anyone for the eventual tragic outcome. Although some historical facts may be ascertained, the key characters’ motives, and hence the final mystery, remain ultimately unfathomable.

The overarching plot line of le Carré’s complex novel traces the actions of George Smiley to rebuild and revitalize the British Secret Service after the defection of its chief, Bill Haydon, to Russia. Smiley must reestablish credibility both with the English Intelligence Committee (to regain funding) and with its American “Cousins,” the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Smiley and his researchers therefore backtrack through files in London to discover when, where, why, and about what Haydon had undertaken cover-up activities. In Circus lingo they are “taking a back-bearing,” determining Moscow’s priorities and knowledge gaps by discovering what information its agent Haydon most thoroughly destroyed.

When they first find and trace cover-ups of large Russian gold payments which are found in a Hong Kong trust account, Smiley sends one of his personally groomed agents, Jerry Westerby, undercover as a journalist to Hong Kong, to flush the trustee, Drake Ko, a Hong Kong millionaire. Thus, part of...

(The entire section is 835 words.)

The Honourable Schoolboy Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In The Honourable Schoolboy, le Carré moves to a different theater of the Cold War, the Far East. Smiley learns that Karla has a mole in Communist China supplying him with information. Capturing this mole would help revive morale within the Circus and also help repair its relationship with its counterparts in the United States. It would also damage relations between China and the Soviet Union and secure badly needed information about what is going on inside mainland China.

Smiley sends a young agent named Jerry Westerby to Hong Kong to obtain information about a secret bank account into which Karla has been funneling American dollars for years. Westerby, posing as a journalist, spends much of his time drinking and womanizing. His investigations take him to various theaters of one of the bloodiest wars in history. Guerrilla armies in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, aided and abetted by the Chinese communists, are trying to topple the established governments, which are being held together only by massive military and economic support from the United States. The descriptions of military action, streams of fleeing civilians, the total demoralization of the population, and the collapse of the Western presence on the Asian mainland represent some of the best writing le Carré has ever done.

In this novel, le Carré makes his anti-American sentiments more obvious than in any of his other works. He deplores the way in which the Americans...

(The entire section is 525 words.)

The Honourable Schoolboy Bibliography (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Ansen, David. Review in Newsweek. XC (September 26,1977), p. 84.

Binyon, T. J. Review in The Times Literary Supplement. September 9, 1977, p.1069.

Burgess, Anthony. Review in The New York Times Book Review. September 25, 1977,p. 9.

Finger, Louis. Review in New Statesman. XCIV (September 23, 1977), p.414.

James, Clive. Review in The New York Review of Books. XXIV (October 27, 1977), p.29.

Lewis, Peter. John le Carré, 1985.

Monaghan, David. The Novels of John le Carré, 1985.