Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Around these characters, and innumerable others, is developed an elaborate fugue on the major themes of love and betrayal and their interrelationships, both with each other and with the question of personal identity, the nature of the artist, and the commonality of politicians, clergymen, artists, con men, and spies. Le Carré’s own comments on his writing are of particular interest in this respect. He warns one of the unreliability of the novelist as narrator. Speaking about the context of his novels, however, he observes that they all deal in one way or another with questioning the right of an individual to put aside questions of conscience for the achievement of a national or religious goal. Magnus’ dilemma and his downfall is his attempt to do both at once, without letting either side—or indeed, either side of himself—be aware of what the other side is doing. Le Carré also compares the novelist’s profession with that of the spy. The novelist is in a constant “state of watchfulness,” must “prey upon his neighbors,” is “dependent on those whom he deceives,” must “somehow contrive to keep a distance from his own feelings,” in order to “conjure up a package that will meet with the approval of his masters,” and always is “not merely an outsider, but implicitly a subversive.” By subversion, he refers to the novelist’s constant chipping away at humanity’s illusions and pretensions.