Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Le Carré is concerned with at least two major themes in this novel. The first concerns the destruction of the British Empire and Western civilization. On one level, echoing Joseph Conrad, he shows entropy and decay in the colonial cities of Asia. The jungle, reclaimed by animals and animal-like men, reaches closer and closer, reinforcing the “heart of darkness” theme suggested by Westerby’s books: Man’s greed and lust for power have helped return the region to the chaos of wilderness it once was. In addition, le Carré alludes to and even quotes from Arthurian legends in which Arthur’s kingdom is destroyed from within, not without, by the Knights of the Round Table, who ignored their dreams and broke their vows of loyalty and obedience. Yet the Arthurian legends left hope that Arthur and Camelot would come again, that new order always replaces the old. Toward the end of the novel, echoes of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, abound: Smiley thinks of the Grail quest and Westerby even thinks of himself as Liz’s Galahad.

Cast into a modern, nonheroic mode, George Smiley is the Arthur figure, an idealistic intelligence loved and admired by all of his loyal knights and his unfaithful wife. He believes in serving his country and wishes to rebuild his Round Table to its former preeminence. His faithful and favorite knights—Jerry Westerby; Peter Guillam, his “tight-mouthed cupbearer”; and the corrupt Sam Collins, a field agent previously expelled from the...

(The entire section is 508 words.)