Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Jim Prideaux and Bill Roach are both new to the English preparatory school of Thursgood’s in Devon. Prideaux is a mysterious character with a crooked back who has taken a temporary appointment, while Roach is a lonely student who is gratified when Prideaux praises his powers of observation.

In London, George Smiley was until recently an officer in the British Secret Intelligence Service known to its members as the Circus. Smiley arrives home one evening to find an old associate, Peter Guillam, waiting for him. Guillam drives Smiley to the residence of Circus adviser and overseer Oliver Lacon in order to hear a story from field officer Ricki Tarr. It seems that Tarr has deserted his post in Hong Kong and secretly made his way back to England after becoming involved with the wife of a Soviet trade delegate. Hoping to defect, she had confided that there was a “mole,” or double agent, in the Circus and that another agent named Polyakov collected the mole’s intelligence for a Soviet spymaster known as Karla. Tarr cabled his superiors about the situation in guarded terms, but when the Circus did nothing and the woman disappeared, Tarr fled.

In talking over Tarr’s story, Smiley and Lacon discuss the disaster that led to the forced resignation of Smiley and his superior, the aging director of the Circus known only as Control. The disaster was the botched Operation Testify, in which Control sent Prideaux on a secret mission to Czechoslovakia to interview another potential defector about a spy in the Circus—apparently the very mole whom Tarr has just told them about. After being shot in the back, Prideaux was taken to the Soviet Union for interrogation. He was released only through the efforts of his old friend and colleague (and perhaps one-time lover) Bill Haydon. In the wake of the disaster, Percy Alleline became head of the Circus, his position bolstered by a new, steady flow of seemingly valuable intelligence (code-named Witchcraft) about the Soviet bloc from a mysterious source (code-named Merlin). Haydon emerged as Alleline’s deputy, and about the same time he began an affair with Smiley’s chronically unfaithful wife Ann.

Tarr’s story makes it clear that Control was right about the mole, and Lacon authorizes Smiley to identify him. Smiley secures a safe house where he can...

(The entire section is 950 words.)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the first novel in a trilogy that came to be called The Quest for Karla. The novels are set in different parts of the world but have in common the British protagonist George Smiley and the Soviet antagonist known only as Karla. Oddly enough, Karla actually appears only at the very end of the last novel; yet his powerful personality, his unbending will, and his fanatical disregard for human feelings are felt throughout the approximately one thousand pages that make up these three books. The novels were inspired by the most famous case of treason in British history. Kim Philby, an upper-class, Oxford-educated intellectual who rose to the top echelon in the British Secret Intelligence Service, defected to Russia and was discovered to have been a mole—a double agent who had been revealing ultrasensitive information to Moscow Centre for decades. What made Philby’s treachery even more devastating was that he had been in close contact with the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Washington, D.C., and was in a position to betray vital American secrets as well. This treachery poisoned relations between the secret services of the two allies. The British and Americans were unable to have confidence in their informants or operatives anywhere in the world.

In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley is brought back out of semiretirement on a mission of the utmost urgency and confidentiality. It has been learned...

(The entire section is 624 words.)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy The Novels (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Together with The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), these novels form the Quest for Karla trilogy, which pits the elderly British superspy George Smiley against the Russian master spy and head of the Thirteenth Directorate, Karla. Karla’s agent in place (“mole”) in the British Secret Service (called the Circus after its central offices at Cambridge Circus) is Bill Haydon, Smiley’s lifelong colleague and friend; Karla’s one humanizing flaw, his love for his daughter, is not safe from Smiley’s probes and eventuates in his downfall. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy chronicles the discovery that there is a mole in the Circus, Smiley’s intricately and stubbornly complete researches to find the mole, and the carefully planned capture of “Gerald,” the mole’s trade name. In this novel, Smiley embarks on his quest to rid the Circus of a traitor; in The Honourable Schoolboy, his task is to rebuild the Secret Service; and in Smiley’s People, he concludes the quest for his “Black Grail” by precipitating Karla’s downfall and defection to the West.

In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carré tells three principal stories, the tales of Jim Priddeaux, of George Smiley, and of the Circus’ decline. Priddeaux, the agent Haydon set up and betrayed in Czechoslovakia in Operation Testify to undermine the credibility of the service’s chief, Control, and send him into retirement, turns up repatriated as a language teacher at Thursgood’s, an undistinguished grammar school. There, he settles into a life of teaching and vigilance, nursing his wounded back and using the protocols of a field agent to monitor the security of his position. A loner, Jim nevertheless recruits the school’s wealthiest boy, Bill Roach, to become a watcher for him. Drawn into telling his tale to Smiley, Jim then stalks Smiley through the final stages of his search for the mole, and in the fullness of time, when Haydon has been interrogated and is about to be sent to Moscow, stealthily enters the secure training camp at Sarratt and executes Haydon by expertly breaking his neck. As the novel closes, Jim is back at Thursgood’s, still the subject of Roach’s watchfulness, carrying the burden of knowledge of his betrayer and of his own revenge.

The second narrative thread treats of George Smiley’s life, public and private, much of it presented retrospectively as Smiley shuttles between the present and the past, shoring up the fragments of his life. Having followed Control into retirement, Smiley finds his world deteriorating into a lethargic and irritable bachelorhood once his wife, Ann, departs with the latest in a string of lovers, mostly younger men, whose number also included Bill Haydon, with whom she spent the evening of the fated Operation Testify while Smiley was in Berlin. As le Carré unfolds the dismal world which Smiley inhabits, he establishes a prelude to the quest in the form of a summons delivered by Peter Guillam and the revelation by a field agent that events in Hong Kong lead to the inescapable conclusion that a senior member of Circus is, and has been for some time, a double agent in the ranks of Karla’s secret army. Responding to a request from the Ministry of Defense and reporting directly to Oliver Lacon, a Whitehall bureaucrat, Smiley retraces Control’s earlier investigations to find the mole. Smiley’s private world continues to surface in the remainder of the novel in his brief encounters with Ann, in others’ offhand...

(The entire section is 1425 words.)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Extended Summary

John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a spy novel set in England during the Cold War. Le Carré’s protagonist George Smiley has left England’s secret intelligence service, known to insiders as the “Circus,” when the novel opens. Although Smiley was a very talented spy, he left the Circus in disgrace. Sadly, Smiley’s personal life is also in shambles. His wife, Ann, has left him and Smiley knows that she is once again seeing another man. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a novel about betrayal, and it is the first entry in a trilogy of novels that pit Smiley against Karla, the head of Russia’s intelligence service, known to insiders as “Moscow Centre.”

Smiley neither enjoys his retirement nor the loneliness of his life without Ann. After spending decades as a spy, Smiley now finds himself wondering what to do with his life. He no longer wants to see his friends because they will invariably ask about Ann, and Smiley would rather not have to explain the circumstances of their estrangement to others. Returning home from a dull dinner party one evening, Smiley reflects that he will leave London and:

“set up as a mild eccentric, discursive, withdrawn, but possessing one or two lovable habits such as muttering to himself while he bumbled along pavements. Out of date, perhaps, but who wasn’t these days? Out of date, but loyal to his own time. At a certain moment, after all, every man chooses: will he go forward, will he go back? There was nothing dishonorable in not being blown about by every little modern wind. Better to have worth, to entrench, to be an oak of one’s own generation.”

However, when Smiley returns home, he notices that someone has entered his house before him. He quickly deduces that it is not Ann, and must instead be Peter Guillam, a spy from the Circus. Guillam advises Smiley to keep his coat on and drives him to see Oliver Lacon, who works at the Cabinet Office as a senior advisor. Smiley thinks of him as the government’s “watch-dog of intelligence affairs.”

Along the way to Lacon’s residence, Guillam explains to Smiley how the Circus has changed since the latter’s “retirement.” Circus’s longtime spymaster, “Control,” has not only been ousted from his position but has also died. Smiley had been one of Control’s top spies, and he still recalls the spymaster’s waning influence before he was ousted. In particular, people now remember Control for Operation Testify, a mission that led to Jim Prideaux’s being shot twice in the back. Even now, no one understands what the point of Operation Testify had been, but everyone agrees that it was a disaster. Now, Percy Alleline runs the Circus. Alleline has reorganized the Circus. Now, things are run according to the principle of “lateralism,” which Guillam complains leaves local spies in the field little authority. In fact, it has consequently limited the information flowing into Circus. Alleline’s intelligence now comes from “Source Merlin,” and the files that are passed on from Merlin are called “Witchcraft.” Everyone agrees that the information is very good.

Upon arrival at Lacon’s residence, Smiley is introduced to Ricki Tarr. Tarr is one of the Circus’ spies, recently returned from Hong Kong. Tarr’s story is suspicious, but Lacan and Guillam are convinced that they must act. Tarr explains that while on assignment to spy on Boris, a Russian spy, he met Boris’s common-law wife and they began an affair. Tarr calls her “Irina.” She informs Ricki that Moscow Centre has placed a mole—Gerald—that is feeding the Russian’s intelligence right at the top of Circus. Tarr tries to circumspectly call on Circus to arrange for Irina’s escape to the West, but she is instead taken back to Moscow, suggesting that there may indeed be a mole within Circus.

Lacon and Guillam ask Smiley to investigate Gerald’s identity. Lacon explains that “we can’t investigate because all the instruments of enquiry are in the Circus’s hands, perhaps in the mole Gerald’s.” Beneath Alleline are four top lieutenants, and all of them have access to Source Merlin. Toby Esterhase,...

(The entire section is 1708 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear