Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

Hapgood explores duplicity, the impossibility of knowing anything for certain, and the role of women in a masculine world. With double agents, a triple agent, two sets of twins, and Hapgood pretending to be twins, Tom Stoppard emphasizes how difficult the question of identity can be. Kerner is supposed to...

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Hapgood explores duplicity, the impossibility of knowing anything for certain, and the role of women in a masculine world. With double agents, a triple agent, two sets of twins, and Hapgood pretending to be twins, Tom Stoppard emphasizes how difficult the question of identity can be. Kerner is supposed to be spying on the British for the Russians but has been “turned” so that he can provide false information to the Soviets; however, if he can be made to betray one side, he can betray both. As Ridley points out, “Every double is a possible triple.” According to Kerner, “A double agent is . . . like a trick of the light.”

Even people certain that they are on the same side fool themselves about one another. Hapgood trusts Blair, perhaps even loves him, but he uses her son without her knowledge. He tries to justify his actions: “there was an either-or and we can’t afford to lose. . . . It’s them or us, isn’t it?” After all the deception she has seen, Hapgood cannot easily distinguish between right and wrong in the game of espionage.

The difficulty of determining truth from lies is reiterated throughout Hapgood. Kerner’s statements about the Russians’ learning of the existence of his son and turning him into a triple agent are supposed to be the truth to Ridley and lies to Hapgood and Blair but turn out to be the real truth. The cynical Ridley expects everyone to be lying but admits, “you never know, now and again someone is telling the truth.” Kerner, the scientist, perceives truth as a matter of interpretation: “The act of observing determines the reality.” Kerner, who discusses physics, mathematics, and philosophy more than spying, is Stoppard’s spokesman on the nature of reality.

In choosing an epigraph from the writings of American physicist Richard P. Feynman dealing with the absolute impossibility of explaining certain phenomena, Stoppard draws a parallel between scientific knowledge and human understanding. Kerner is describing physics, espionage, and human behavior at the same time as he explains that the movements of an electron “cannot be anticipated because it has no reasons. It defeats surveillance because when you know what it’s doing you can’t be certain where it is, and when you know where it is you can’t be certain what it’s doing.” In discussing waves and particles, Kerner attempts to illuminate both the human capacity for rationalization and the unlikelihood of attaining absolute knowledge. According to Kerner, analysis of this world is only “your bet on reality.”

However, Kerner is perhaps too rational, too aloof from human endeavors. He attempts to shut out the possibility of love until he sees the son he has kept himself from knowing. Hapgood is Kerner’s intellectual equal but is willing to take chances on people, to have faith, even at the risk of being betrayed. Although the other characters always see her as a woman first, Hapgood shows that she is their equal if not their superior in all matters. Her powers of concentration are exceptional. As Wates confronts her over the bleeper, she deals simultaneously with this problem, her daily paperwork, a key Joe has lost, and a transatlantic chess game she plays without a board. There is at least a triple irony in the men working for her calling her “Mother.” It indicates that they see her primarily as a woman, but the name also shows their childishness. To them, espionage is only a game in which the rules can be changed to fit the current situation. The final irony is that Hapgood is maternal both in caring about her cohorts and in being in complete control of them. Appropriately, she can take care of herself as well, killing Ridley before the macho Wates can get off a shot.

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