Study Guide

A Perfect Spy

by John le Carre

A Perfect Spy Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, narrative technique, theme, and plot are inextricably related. At the novel’s beginning, Magnus Pym, under the name of Mr. Canterbury, has retreated to a rooming house on the English coast in order to write, though one does not know until the novel’s end how desperate a retreat this is. For years, Magnus has been wanting to retire from his work in British espionage and the diplomatic post that is his cover, and write a novel. His father’s death gives him an unexpected leave of absence and also the impetus to write not the novel but a memoir for his son, Tom, though he occasionally addresses his wife, Mary, and his controller, Jack Brotherhood, as well. In explaining his own life to Tom, Magnus hopes to free, if not himself, then at least Tom, from the haunting and dominating presence of Magnus’ own father, and presumably to free Tom from his, Magnus’, own shadow as well.

As the narrative constantly shifts in time and in point of view, from Magnus’ first-person account of his life to the third-person narration as the British and their American counterparts track Magnus to his hiding place, more and more facets of Magnus’ life and character are revealed. Magnus begins his narrative with an account of his upbringing, that of “a perfect spy.” His father, Richard Thomas Pym, known to all as Rick, is a charming con man who has married a woman who is above his station, Dorothy, sister of Sir Makepeace Watermaster. Pym grows up tossed back and forth between the luxurious, freewheeling, and mysterious life his father leads, with a series of “mothers,” and the austere home of Sir Makepeace Watermaster and the even more austere public school. Of the “mothers,” Annie Lippschitz, “Lippsie,” a German-Jewish refugee, is the person to whom he is most attached and who most influences him. Lippsie teaches him German, all he knows about art and culture as a boy, and even handwriting; all of his life, his handwriting retains traces of German script. Magnus has, he speculates, a German soul, the “German need to feel incomplete.” Survival in Rick’s household, and in those of his mother’s relatives, depends on his learning all sorts of deceptions and subterfuges and inventing all sorts of different backgrounds for himself, explanations of what his father does for a living. People and situations are often not what they seem to be, and Magnus learns suspicion and reticence the hard way.

Stranded in Switzerland, “the spiritual home of natural spies,” where he has gone on his first “clandestine assignment” as the front man for a confidence game of his father which fails, Magnus manages to survive, thanks to his far-from-perfect...

(The entire section is 1109 words.)

A Perfect Spy Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

A Perfect Spy is the most autobiographical of all le Carré’s novels. Since many of the facts about his life are obscure, it is difficult to determine exactly how much of the novel is factual and how much has been fabricated for dramatic effect. The central theme probably comes close to the truth about the author: His father was the most important influence in his life. Rick Pym, the father of the hero Magnus Pym, closely corresponds to what is known about le Carré’s own father. It was through Rick that Magnus learned how easy it is to deceive people if it is done with charm and on a lavish scale. Both the fictional and the real father expected the most of their sons but set for them bad moral examples.

In the novel Magnus Pym is a high-ranking diplomat who secretly manages espionage operations in foreign countries. He creates great alarm in government circles by disappearing without informing his wife about where he is going. The suspicion is that he has defected to the Soviet Union, in which case all the undercover agents behind the Iron Curtain who were known to him would be in immediate danger.

Pym is actually living in a private home on the Devon coast with an old woman who has no knowledge of his true identity. Miss Dubbers mothers him, and he treats her with kindness and generosity, revealing that he is a good man who had been led astray by circumstances beyond his control. His relationship with his landlady is central to...

(The entire section is 581 words.)