In John Le Carre's novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, how might one interpret Smiley's musings in chapter 36 about loyalty and treason?

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In Chapter 36 of John Le Carre’s novel Tinker, Soldier, Tailor, Spy, Smiley, the novel’s protagonist (who is trying to flush out a Soviet mole in the highest levels of British intelligence), contemplates the nature of loyalty and treason and the proper reaction to the latter.

At one point, for instance, the narrator reports of Smiley,

He thought about treason and wondered whether there was mindless treason in the same way, supposedly, as there was mindless violence.

By presenting Smiley’s thoughts, Le Carre encourages the reader to think as well. Different readers might react in different ways to the sentence just quoted, but one reaction might be as follows:

  • Mindless violence is easily imaginable. Violence is often the result of sudden, seemingly uncontrollable emotional impulses. Many people who commit mindless violence soon regret such violence. They realize that if their emotions had been under better control, they would never have engaged in a violent act. Most forms of treason, on the other hand, require not only reason but also cool, calculated self-control. Treason often requires a conscious decision to deceive, manipulate, and even endanger others. Even if treason is coerced (as a result of blackmail, for instance), it is still not comparable to a sudden, uncontrollable, and “mindless” emotional impulse.  Treason, one might argue, is rarely “mindless” and is in fact usually just the opposite.

Later in the same chapter, Smiley pauses once more to think about the nature of treason: “it was the treason, not the man,” he reflects, “that belonged in the public domain.” Once again, different readers might react in different ways to this reflection. One possible reaction might be as follows:

  • Here Smiley makes a distinction comparable to the traditional Christian distinction between the sinner and the sin. In other words, a person who commits treason is still a person and may be sympathetic as such. However, a person who commits treason has committed a particular crime and has done so consciously and with deliberation, knowing very well that he was committing a crime. (It is possible to imagine crimes that are so unusual or obscure that one has no idea one is committing such a crime. However, treason is not such a crime.) One might feel compassion or even some kind of understanding toward a human being who committed treason; however, the crime of treason would still need to be punished.

These, at least, are two possible reactions to Smiley’s thoughts about treason in chapter 36.




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