The morality of George Smiley: Part 1

I am so tired. Oh, the hard life of a student. I am currently in the process of finishing off my dissertation, revising, and writing an essay on John le Carré, master of the dark spy novel, which has fuelled my inspiration for this post. I like John le Carré, and really like his work (even it is majorly depressing). Le Carré is, at least for me, a lot more entertaining than Ian Fleming, and I’ll take his George Smiley over James Bond any day (unless Bond really does look like Daniel Craig, or Idris Elba even). Fleming’s novels are so flashy, and Bond always triumphs against the multi-millionaire, evil genius who owns killer sharks, or whatever. Bond is smooth and the books detailing his escapades have a glossy appeal, but George Smiley and his adventures – if you can even call them that – will stay with me for far longer than Bond ever will.


SPOILERS ahead for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Looking Glass War.

George Smiley has a long-lasting  appeal because of the moral ambiguity in le Carré’s novels, and the strange, unknowable mind of his protagonist. Even when Smiley isn’t the main player he shines through, captivating the attention of the reader. This is because, throughout the moral murkiness surrounding him, George Smiley stands tall as perhaps the only half-moral character, and the moral compass for the books as a whole. In The Spy Who Came in, he stays out of the Leamas affair, with Control remarking he finds the operation “distasteful”. By the end of the book we know why. After all the nastiness (there is no other word for it) that happens in The Spy Who Came in, Smiley, who had in this book been only a supporting character, comes out of the mess, the only one on the British side who is vaguely clean.

However, there is a dark side to Smiley too. For however “distasteful” he finds the work surrounding the Leamas affair, he still participates in the process, and is there when Leamas throws himself onto the other side of the Berlin Wall. He allows his feelings about his wife’s affair with Bill Haydon to cloud his judgement in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He calls for, and achieves, the abandoning of Leiser in The Looking Glass War. He’s human and he is flawed, he is not morally pure. He does not always act impeccably. But in comparison to those around him, both in the opposition and on his side, he is as morally sound as is likely to be come by.


I like that in le Carré’s writing there is no absolute clarity of good and bad, but rather each side is as bad as the other, and no one comes out on top morally. Each side has their demons. Smiley is a constant anti-demon throughout(I won’t say angel): highly intelligent, seemingly gentle and trying to do the right thing, though sometimes circumstances conspire against him and he cannot. He is constantly underestimated, but there is a steeliness to him that is undeniable. Avery in The Looking Glass War remarks that a few hours after meeting Smiley, he begins to realises he fears him, and there is a dangerous quality to Smiley that lurks within his character, a ruthlessness that is occasionally revealed. There is also a bitterness in Smiley’s People (and, to a lesser extent The Honourable Schoolboy) that follows Smiley, but that is for a Part 2, a.k.a. when I have finished reading those books and not just skimming them for my course. 

Smiley is not perfect, but, he is appealing, and the strained situation with his wife always, if it does not make him relatable, then confirms that he is human. Smiley isn’t perfect, but  under the circumstances, and considering he is a le Carré character, he is as close as we’re going to see.

And, because I couldn’t resist, here is a picture of Daniel Craig:


Damn. Also, Oscar Issac in the new Star Wars film?! So excited.


Thoughts? Feelings? Let me know.

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