Themes and Meanings
There are two major themes that are treated in this novel, and they are both questions of morality: Does the end justify the means? Should individuals be sacrificed for the good of the whole?
Leamas must deal with the first question in his search of self. Several times throughout the novel, agents of the East and West are described to be similar in their operating methods. Both kill; both condone killing. Because their society is more open and theoretically devoted to individual freedom and human dignity, however, Western agents are likely to encounter a real conflict between their lives as agents and their lives as members of society. The stigma that Western society attaches to killing means that agents of the free world must live their work lives “in the cold.”
The question of whether individuals ought to be sacrificed for the good of the whole is intertwined with the first. This is also the issue which causes the greatest dilemma for Liz and the tension between Liz and Leamas. As a member of the Communist Party, Liz has accepted the authority of the group. When it becomes clear, however, that Liz and Leamas are both pawns in this deadly war between East and West and are sacrifices to the conflict, Liz is the one who ultimately cannot accept the loss of her right to define her own fate. Ironically, in his death, Leamas is affirming life and love and the individual’s right of choice.