Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

(Great Characters in Literature)

Characters Discussed

George Smiley

George Smiley, who is released from his work as a spy for British intelligence because he is suspected of compromising secrets, if not actually working for the Russians. Smiley is pressed back into service by his old colleagues, who realize not only that is he not implicated in spying for the other side but also that he is the one man capable of exposing the “mole,” the double agent who has infiltrated “the Circus,” as British intelligence calls itself. Smiley is well into middle age and weary of Cold War spy games. He is also skeptical of his side’s morality, but he has a residual loyalty to his country and to his colleagues as well as a dogged desire to know the truth. His unassuming demeanor often leads people to underestimate him. He is married to a beautiful woman, Ann, who has had several affairs and has left him. To some of his colleagues, Smiley may seem a pathetic character, yet it eventually becomes clear that he has the best mind in the intelligence services.


Karla, the nemesis of British intelligence. He runs the Soviet spy network and is responsible for recruiting and running the mole who has ruined the British spy network in Eastern Europe. Smiley met Karla once and interrogated him, trying unsuccessfully to get his arch adversary to defect. Smiley realizes that Karla cannot be tempted or duped and that he can be defeated only if the...

(The entire section is 584 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a very complex novel, with numerous characters, some of whom are not developed; others emerge with...

(The entire section is 306 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an exceptionally complex work, rich in themes that invite discussion. A good beginning for a...

(The entire section is 814 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Honorable Schoolboy (1977) is really a sequel to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. After the discovery of a double agent among...

(The entire section is 469 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Smiley trilogy became more famous through the television presentations in 1982 starring Alec Guinness, where it was seen by more than...

(The entire section is 144 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Aronoff, Myron Joel. The Spy Novels of John le Carré: Balancing Ethics and Politics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Addresses such subjects as bureaucratic politics, ethics in espionage, and the similarities between real-life and fictional spies. Includes a dramatis personae, comprehensive notes, and primary and secondary bibliographies.

Beene, LynnDianne. John le Carré. New York: Twayne, 1992. A thorough examination of le Carré’s career, placing his work within the tradition of espionage fiction. Chronology, substantial bibliography.

Cobbs, John L. Understanding John le Carré. Columbia: University of Carolina Press, 1998. Considers le Carré’s espionage works, his 1971 mainstream novel The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, and his post-Smiley thrillers through The Tailor of Panama (1996). Good bibliography.

Le Carré, John. Conversations with John le Carré. Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith Baughman. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2004. Collection of major interviews in which le Carré comments upon his own work.

Monaghan, David. Smiley’s Circus: A Guide to the Secret World of John le Carré. New York: Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Invaluable handbook to the Circus. Includes chronologies of major operations, an extensive and detailed who’s who, short plot summaries, maps, and illustrations.

O’Neill, Philip. “Le Carré: Faith and Dreams.” In The Quest for le Carré, edited by Alan Bold. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Analysis of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in terms of its appeal to English readers after the collapse of the British Empire.