Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Jim Prideaux and Bill Roach are both new to the English preparatory school of Thursgood’s in Devon. Prideaux is a mysterious character with a crooked back who has taken a temporary appointment, while Roach is a lonely student who is gratified when Prideaux praises his powers of observation.

In London, George Smiley was until recently an officer in the British Secret Intelligence Service known to its members as the Circus. Smiley arrives home one evening to find an old associate, Peter Guillam, waiting for him. Guillam drives Smiley to the residence of Circus adviser and overseer Oliver Lacon in order to hear a story from field officer Ricki Tarr. It seems that Tarr has deserted his post in Hong Kong and secretly made his way back to England after becoming involved with the wife of a Soviet trade delegate. Hoping to defect, she had confided that there was a “mole,” or double agent, in the Circus and that another agent named Polyakov collected the mole’s intelligence for a Soviet spymaster known as Karla. Tarr cabled his superiors about the situation in guarded terms, but when the Circus did nothing and the woman disappeared, Tarr fled.

In talking over Tarr’s story, Smiley and Lacon discuss the disaster that led to the forced resignation of Smiley and his superior, the aging director of the Circus known only as Control. The disaster was the botched Operation Testify, in which Control sent Prideaux on a secret mission to Czechoslovakia to interview another potential defector about a spy in the Circus—apparently the very mole whom Tarr has just told them about. After being shot in the back, Prideaux was taken to the Soviet Union for interrogation. He was released only through the efforts of his old friend and colleague (and perhaps one-time lover) Bill Haydon. In the wake of the disaster, Percy Alleline became head of the Circus, his position bolstered by a new, steady flow of seemingly valuable intelligence (code-named Witchcraft) about the Soviet bloc from a mysterious source (code-named Merlin). Haydon emerged as Alleline’s deputy, and about the same time he began an affair with Smiley’s chronically unfaithful wife Ann.

Tarr’s story makes it clear that Control was right about the mole, and Lacon authorizes Smiley to identify him. Smiley secures a safe house where he can...

(The entire section is 950 words.)

Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the first novel in a trilogy that came to be called The Quest for Karla. The novels are set in different parts of the world but have in common the British protagonist George Smiley and the Soviet antagonist known only as Karla. Oddly enough, Karla actually appears only at the very end of the last novel; yet his powerful personality, his unbending will, and his fanatical disregard for human feelings are felt throughout the approximately one thousand pages that make up these three books. The novels were inspired by the most famous case of treason in British history. Kim Philby, an upper-class, Oxford-educated intellectual who rose to the top echelon in the British Secret Intelligence Service, defected to Russia and was discovered to have been a mole—a double agent who had been revealing ultrasensitive information to Moscow Centre for decades. What made Philby’s treachery even more devastating was that he had been in close contact with the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Washington, D.C., and was in a position to betray vital American secrets as well. This treachery poisoned relations between the secret services of the two allies. The British and Americans were unable to have confidence in their informants or operatives anywhere in the world.

In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley is brought back out of semiretirement on a mission of the utmost urgency and confidentiality. It has been learned...

(The entire section is 624 words.)