Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

by John le Carre

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Critical Evaluation

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was inspired by real events involving Harold “Kim” Philby, a talented and charming intelligence officer who had risen to the highest echelons of the British espionage establishment by the middle of the twentieth century. In 1951, however, two of Philby’s colleagues were revealed to be Soviet agents of long standing, and in 1963 Philby himself was unmasked as the “Third Man” who had helped the other two escape. Like them, he defected to the Soviet Union, dealing a severe blow to the prestige of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). John le Carré wrote the introduction to a book about the affair, The Philby Conspiracy (1969), by Bruce Page, David Leitch, and Phillip Knightley, and he went on to publish his own novelistic treatment in 1974. The same dilemma is posed by both factual and fictional events: As Lacon remarks to Smiley, “’It’s the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies?’”

Readers of the novel might be forgiven for thinking that they have been presented with the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle—a puzzle made doubly difficult by the fact that they cannot guess what the final picture is supposed to look like. A master solver of puzzles himself, George Smiley acts as a surrogate for readers, who watch him carefully assemble the pieces one by one. When the revelation finally comes, Smiley realizes that, like everyone else, he had known all along that the traitor was Haydon. They had “tacitly shared that unexpressed half-knowledge which like an illness they hoped would go away if it was never . . . diagnosed.”

The handsome, sexually magnetic, multitalented Bill Haydon is regarded with awe by those who know him. His colleagues think of him as another Lawrence of Arabia (T. E. Lawrence), the English soldier whose exploits in the Near East during World War I captured the British imagination. Guillam imagines him as the “torch-bearer of a certain kind of antiquated romanticism.” Thus, it seems that Haydon betrays not only his country and his friends but also his friends’ vision of him—a vision in which they had found inspiration and purpose. Smiley sees him somewhat more clearly as an “ambitious man born to the big canvas . . . for whom the reality was a poor island.”

The novel balances the duplicitous character of Haydon with that of Smiley himself, who is his opposite in almost every regard. Described as being the kind of adult Bill Roach is likely to become, Smiley is short, plump, and ungainly. He wears expensive clothes poorly. His saving graces are his cool intellect and his humanity. He loves his beautiful wife Ann unreservedly, but by novel’s end he has come to see her as she really is, “essentially another man’s woman.” One of modern fiction’s most appealing characters, Smiley had been introduced by le Carré in Call for the Dead (1960) and made what would presumably be his last appearance in The Secret Pilgrim (1991). His epic struggle with the Soviet spymaster Karla, begun in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, continues in The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and concludes—with victory of a sort—in Smiley’s People (1980). The three books have been published together as The Quest for Karla (1982).

Fellow writer Graham Greene called le Carré’s third book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), the best spy novel he had ever read. For many readers and critics, however, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy surpasses it. It is in this novel and its two successors that le Carré makes greatest use of the Circus, its personnel, its shadowy...

(This entire section contains 703 words.)

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procedures, and its arcane vocabulary. The work is dauntingly complex but rewards careful reading and rereading.

A distinguished tradition of British spy fiction lies behind John le Carré’s works. One of its earliest practitioners was John Buchan, whose novel Greenmantle (1916) features a character inspired by Lawrence of Arabia—the sort of dashing character Haydon’s friends and colleagues imagine him to be. Prideaux is reading Buchan to one of the dormitories when Smiley comes to talk to him, but he must leave the boys and the boys’ book behind in order to reenter the morally ambiguous world of real espionage, a world in which betrayal is the norm.

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Critical Context