Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Smiley's People questions.

George Smiley and James Bond

Whereas Ian Fleming's dapper James Bond is a latter-day symbol of the stereotypical British hero of the glory days of empire, George Smiley might be said to symbolize the British Empire in a state of appallingly precipitous decline. Bond is handsome, athletic, socially versatile, extroverted, and irresistible to gorgeous, sexy, exotic women all around the world. Smiley, on the other hand, is short and pudgy. He buys good clothes but always looks wrong in them. His wife Anne once told him he looked like a big tea cosy. He is shy, awkward, introspective, bookish, cautious, nothing at all like a dashing secret agent. He hardly knows how to handle a gun, and he ruins the excellent silk lining of his jacket when he keeps an oily automatic in his pocket. Far from being irresistible to the ladies, he has a wife who is so profoundly unfaithful to him that her promiscuity is notorious.

James Bond and George Smiley have virtually nothing in common except their devotion to duty. Smiley is never in danger, although he lived in constant danger as an undercover agent in Germany during World War II. Bond is always in danger and thrives on it. It seems unlikely that many people would enjoy reading about both James Bond and George Smiley. Bond is a man of action. George is cerebral. Bond drives the fastest cars and handles the latest spyware with confidence and dexterity. Smiley is totally inept with any kind of machinery or gadgetry. He has a terrible time wrapping a package with Scotch tape. He spends hours trying to make a print from a negative. He hates driving a car and takes taxis whenever he can; but when he has to rent an Opel in Germany to visit Otto Leipzig, the car gets so badly damaged that he is afraid to return it to the agency and leaves it in a public garage. James Bond is the last vestige of the derring-do that built the British Empire on which the sun never set. George Smiley is the hapless hero trying to cope with the two new superpowers on the world stage, the Soviet Union and the United States of America.

When Smiley goes to Saul Enderby for authorization and financing to set a trap for Karla, Enderby says:

"And it's not all a wicked Bolshie plot, George, to lure us to our ultimate destruction--you're sure of that?"

"I'm afraid we're no longer worth the candle, Saul," Smiley said, with an apologetic smile.

Enderby did not care to be reminded of the limitations of British grandeur, and for a moment his mouth set into a sour grimace.

Connie Sachs sees the big picture too. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, she tells Smiley:

"Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away. Bye-bye world. You're the last, George, you and Bill."

And Bill Haydon turns out to be the mole Smiley has been asked to unearth, making George Smiley the last man standing.

Peter Guillam's function

Peter Guillam is important to Smiley in both Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People. Peter is young, athletic, and courageous. He is devoted to the sedentary George Smiley and assists him whenever action is required. Peter has a more important role in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy than in Smiley's People. As a man who is still employed by the Circus, he is able to steal files for Smiley to study as he tries to unearth the mole by reading about the past in his lonely hotel room. Peter has a touch of the James Bond in his character. He loves fast cars. He takes serious risks. He serves Smiley as driver, companion, gofer, confidant, bodyguard, and an insider who can spy upon the spies. He has a smaller role in Smiley's People because John Le Carre evidently decided that his readers enjoyed Smiley for himself and didn't really want the kind of action and excitement that characterized spies like James Bond.

Peter Guillam also serves as an interlocutor with Smiley. Some of the important exposition in both novels is conveyed through the dialogue exchanged between these friends, just as is the case with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Peter and Smiley stop off at a second-rate roadside Italian restaurant, where Smiley tells his young disciple about the one time he met Karla in person long ago. Karla was in a prison in India waiting to be sent back to Moscow. Smiley had tried to persuade him to defect to the West. Peter listens and learns. This is one of his more important functions in both novels. He is someone for Smiley to talk to in confidence. He is just about the only person in the Circus or in the entire government whom Smiley can trust as long as the mole remains unidentified. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Peter is head of the Scalp Hunters. Those are the boys who do the dirty work. They are sent all over the world on dangerous missions, and no doubt they commit murders on occasion. In Smiley's People, Peter is attached to the British Embassy in Paris but still working as a secret agent, what Connie Sachs would call a "hood." Peter is married. He is slowing down a little with advancing age, but he can still be useful to Smiley because of his connections with the Circus, his audacious insubordination, and his loyalty to his old friend. He is with Smiley when the mole is unmasked in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Peter is with him years later in Smiley's People on the night that Karla defects to the West.

George Smiley's Tradecraft

George Smiley is asked to follow up on the murder of General Vladimir--not to investigate it but to "sweep up the bits," as he later tells Toby Esterhase, who is currently posing as an art dealer named Signor Benati. Smiley goes to Vladimir's flat first and finds a few clues, including a telephone bill with charges for some calls to Germany. On his way out he meets a "temporary postman" on the bottom floor. Smiley touches the man's elbow and says:

"If you've anything at all for flat 6B, I can save you the climb."

The postman rummaged and produced a brown envelope. Postmark Paris, dated five days ago, the 15th district. Smiley slipped it into his pocket.

George Smiley is always represented, in both Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People, as mild-mannered, soft-spoken, nondescript, and maladroit. One might wonder how such a man, who can't even handle Scotch tape, could have become a master spy. But this little incident with the temporary postman illustrates how Smiley's apparent deficiencies are his strongest assets. The postman thinks nothing of handing a letter over to a complete stranger--so long as the stranger is someone who looks and talks like George Smiley. Who could ever suspect such a man of being an imposter, much less a secret agent? Smiley was able to spend the years of World War II in Nazi Germany without being exposed as a British spy just because of his humble manner and totally unmemorable appearance. Smiley knows the postman will be glad to be spared the climb to 6B, which must be on the sixth floor of this walk-up building. The letter he obtains is of great importance because it comes from Maria Ostrakova in Paris.

Throughout Smiley's People, George Smiley behaves in the same modest, ingenuous, low-key fashion. But his "tradecraft" is extremely effective. Behind his humble persona, Smiley conceals his intelligence, intuition, experience, and remarkable courage. He sees everything, although he seems to notice nothing. He interrogates a number of people (these are "Smiley's people") and always succeeds in getting the information he wants. He goes far beyond the limits of his assignment "to sweep up the bits." Rather than taking care of such routine matters as paying Vladimir's bills, vacating his little flat, and erasing him from public memory, Smiley finds himself, at this late stage in life, in a duel of wits with his long-time enemy Karla, the Soviet spymaster.