Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 950 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised 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 entire section is 624 words.)
The Novels (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
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...
(The entire section is 1425 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 1708 words.)