The Spy Who Came in From the Cold | Study Guide

John le Carré

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The Spy Who Came in From the Cold | Chapter 2 : The Circus | Summary



As Alec Leamas arrives by plane in London, he thinks about how the British Secret Service, called the Circus, will probably discard him because of his failures in Berlin. Leamas had many early successes with his work in West Berlin until Mundt took control of the East German secret service department, called the Abteilung. A former Nazi, Mundt is a brutal man who is feared even by his fellow agents. He uncovered several agents in Berlin working for the Circus and ordered them killed.

A man named Fawley drives Leamas from the airport to the Circus's office in London. There Leamas meets with Control. Control wonders how Leamas felt seeing Karl being shot. Leamas says he was annoyed. Control asks if Leamas feels burnt out from his work in West Berlin. Leamas is irritated because he doesn't like Control's prying questions. Control wants Leamas to stay "in the cold," which means continuing to be an active agent in the Berlin area. Leamas is perplexed. He thought the British didn't have any more informants in Berlin because they have all been killed by Mundt. Control on the other hand wants to get rid of Mundt and asks Leamas if he's up to helping make this happen. Leamas despises Mundt and agrees to help. Control approves and tells him as a part of the plan to let his colleagues think that the Circus has treated him badly.


Chapter 2 presents the Circus's two main rationales for political manipulation. The first is that the ends justify the means. Leamas knows that all the Circus really cares about is getting results: "Intelligence work has one moral code—it is justified by results." How these results are achieved doesn't seem to matter much. Leamas accepts this code. As a result, he expects to be cast aside himself by the Circus because of the number of British agents who were killed in Berlin on his watch.

The Circus's second rationale is that the good of the whole is of primary importance. Control alludes to this when he says, "We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people ... can sleep safely in their beds at night." The fact that individuals, such as Karl, are sacrificed or killed doesn't matter as long as the majority of people benefit. In addition, Control addresses a contradiction in the Circus's methods of manipulation. The United Kingdom and the United States represent free societies, while the Soviet Union and East Germany represent repressive, harsh ones. However, for the Circus to do its job successfully, it has to use tactics just as ruthless as the ones used by its enemy, the communists. So the Circus's approach to its ideology, or system of ideas, is by need more contradictory than the Abteilung's.

Control and Leamas's conversation is riddled with references to deception. Leamas constantly wonders what Control is getting at, as if Control has some hidden agenda behind his many questions that he's not disclosing. In fact, Control does have a plan in mind, and it, too, involves deceit. To kick-start the plot against Mundt, he directs Leamas to mislead his other colleagues in the secret service by making them believe the Circus is mistreating him.

In Chapter 1, le Carré introduces the symbol of cold, which has a complex meaning. The cold is a reminder of the Cold War, the conflict underlying the acts of espionage in the novel. The cold also represents the deceptive and dangerous atmosphere in which British agents and communist agents conduct their subterfuges against each other. The cold also represents the inhumane rationales Control introduces to excuse its ruthless tactics, which sacrifice people for the sake of ideology.

Finally, le Carré uses Control to foreshadow the theme of love versus inhumanity. Control mentions that spies often stop either loving or hating and instead move into a "kind of nausea." Even though they are immersed into a supposedly passionate battle between good and evil, they can become emotionally numb or dead, exhausted by witnessing—and possibly causing—suffering. Later, the novel delves more into this process of losing one's humanity when involved in human relations which can interfere with what must be done.

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