John le Carré Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

John le Carré began writing espionage novels in the early 1960’s, when the major figure in the field was Ian Fleming, creator of the cartoonishly superhuman James Bond. Le Carré’s fiction stands in sharp contrast, emphasizing the drudgery, boredom, and moral ambiguity in the decidedly unglamorous world of the real-life agent, who is more often a bureaucrat than an adventurer. Although many credit him with inventing the realistic espionage tale, le Carré denies such an achievement, acknowledging such predecessors as W. Somerset Maugham with his Ashenden stories. By creating some of the most believable characters and plausible situations in the genre, le Carré has perhaps had the most influence on the development of espionage fiction. In addition to being the best-selling espionage novelist, he has been acclaimed for turning a form of entertainment into an art form, for finding the poetry in the labyrinthine machinations of his plots. He has been judged more than a genre writer by many critics, deserving of inclusion in such serious company as Iris Murdoch and John Fowles. According to Andrew Rutherford, le Carré offers “exciting, disturbing, therapeutic fantasies of action and intrigue; but in his best work he also engages with political, moral and psychological complexities, demonstrating the capacity of entertainment art to transcend its own self-imposed limitations.”

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The literary reputation of John le Carré (leh kuh-RAY) rests exclusively on his novels. He has published a handful of articles, reviews, and short stories, but no book-length works in other forms. In addition, he has written a few screenplays and teleplays, for the most part adaptations of his own novels.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Espionage fiction, the spy thriller, has a large, worldwide audience; at the end of the twentieth century one out of every four contemporary works of fiction published in the United States belonged to this genre. John le Carré is preeminent among writers of espionage fiction. John Gardner, himself an espionage novelist and author of volumes in the James Bond saga, called le Carré “the British guru of literary espionage fiction.”

Le Carré not only constructs the intricate plots that have made his works international best sellers but also raises complex and fundamental questions about human nature. Most espionage fiction has a rather simplistic frame of reference: right and wrong, good and evil, us and them. The hero battles it out, his victory assured as he prepares to take on another assignment to save the free world from total collapse. He is a superman, and his adventures are narrated with all the razzle-dazzle and pyrotechnics of escapist fiction. Le Carré’s novels, in contrast, undermine all the stereotypes of spy fiction. Instead of clear-cut conflict between right and wrong, le Carré offers subtle shades of gray. Instead of a dashing James Bond figure, le Carré’s most representative hero is George Smiley, fat, short, and balding, who “entered middle age without ever being young.”

In novel after novel, le Carré is concerned with ends and means, with love and betrayal. He is concerned with character and motive, probing the agony and tragedy of the person who betrays his or her country not for personal profit but for a cause in which he or she believes. He dramatizes the dilemma faced by men and women involved in the monotonous and often inhuman work of espionage, which leads him to raise the uncomfortable yet fundamental question: How is it possible to defend humanity in inhuman ways? Like Graham Greene, le Carré compels one to go on a journey of self-exploration, to come to grips with one’s own self-delusions, fears, and anxieties. As George Grella has observed, the novels of le Carré “are not so much spy thrillers as thoughtful, compassionate meditations on deception, illusion and defeat.” Le Carré’s major achievement is his...

(The entire section is 898 words.)

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Can George Smiley be considered an English patriot? Why or why not?

What is John le Carré’s attitude toward government bureaucracies in his Cold War novels? In his post-Cold War novels? Are there any differences, or does it remain consistent?

What makes The Spy Who Came in from the Cold one of the iconic novels of the Cold War?

What are the character differences between Smiley and Karla?

In le Carré’s novels, are his American characters as realistic and as fully developed as his British and even his Russian characters?

Compare and contrast le Carré’s George Smiley and Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Which better reflects the reality of the Cold War, and why?

Discuss the theme of betrayal in le Carré’s novels.

What are the possible explanations why le Carré’s post-Cold War novels have been less popular than his earlier novels?


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Aronoff, Myron J. John le Carré’s Novels: Balancing Ethics and Politics. New York: Palgrave, 2001. A careful study of le Carré’s novels, explicating the author’s moral universe.

Beene, Lynn Diane. John le Carré. New York: Twayne, 1992. This is a very useful biography of David Cornwell’s life before he adopted the pseudonym John le Carré and his career since becoming a writer. Following the biography, the author provides a detailed and well-referenced analysis of le Carré’s novels through Smiley’s People.

Cobbs, John L. Understanding John le Carré. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998. This is a thorough and comprehensive critical work about John le Carré’s novels, all of which through The Tailor of Panama are analyzed.

Hitz, Frederick P. The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Hitz, the former inspector general of the Central Intelligence Agency, compares fictional spies in the work of le Carré and others to actual intelligence agents to demonstrate that truth is stranger than fiction. Pays special attention to le Carré’s characters and the psychological realism of their portrayal.

Hoffman, Tod. Le Carré’s Landscape. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001....

(The entire section is 441 words.)