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 3 : Decline | Summary



The Circus moves Alec Leamas from operational work, or doing espionage in the field, to their banking section, where Leamas does a mundane desk job. He eventually goes to seed. He appears to his co-workers as if he has begun to drink heavily. He acts vague, borrows money without paying it back, and at times becomes hostile. His appearance becomes disheveled, and he keeps to himself. Rumors spread that he was transferred to banking because of mistakes he made in Berlin. One day he doesn't show up for work at all and never returns. Rumors spread that Leamas left because he embezzled money from the Circus.

Leamas rents a small, dingy apartment. He gets work as an assistant manager for a manufacturer, but soon leaves because of the smelly fumes. Then he tries his hand as an encyclopedia salesman, but fails to sell any and quits within a week. Leamas becomes even more downtrodden. He gets drunk at a tavern but can't pay for the drinks. His cleaning lady reports that Leamas receives no letters, owns only a few books, and consumes a lot of booze. He has no friends.


In Chapter 3, le Carré touches on the theme of love versus inhumanity by conveying Leamas's descent into alcoholism. The Circus bureaucracy appears to treat Leamas inhumanely by giving him meager compensation and pushing him into a job that is below his abilities. Soon Leamas isolates himself from others, often becomes hostile, and starts to drink heavily. His outward appearance reflects his inner decline. Others see him as a "grey, shambling figure.... They thought he was dirty, too, the way he didn't shave weekends, and his shirts were all grubby." So Leamas appears to go into decline as a human being.

Le Carré provides several hints that this decline might be an elaborate deception. First, it follows Control's request in Chapter 2 that Leamas deceive his colleagues by acting as if the Circus has mistreated him. Chapter 3 begins with the Circus transferring Leamas to a desk job in the banking section, creating the appearance that the Circus no longer wants him to work as a spy. However, in the previous chapter, Control indicated that he wanted Leamas to continue to work as a spy by taking an assignment to help get rid of Mundt. This contradiction alerts the reader to the possibility that Leamas's descent into alcoholism and poverty is not all it seems.

Also, Leamas's decline seems extremely public, as if it's a staged presentation. For example, a co-worker named Elsie announces in the Circus's canteen that the Circus has cut Leamas's pension unfairly, giving him only 400 pounds a year to live on. As a result, many of his colleagues will probably suspect that Leamas is resentful of his employer. Later, rumors spread left and right about Leamas's decline, which Leamas himself makes obvious with his belligerent behavior and his neglect of grooming. Also, due to a mysterious leak at the Circus, Leamas's embezzlement scandal becomes extremely public. In the private sector, he continues his unsocial behavior, picking fights in bars and antagonizing his employers. It's as if Leamas wants to make sure as many people as possible know he's dissatisfied with the Circus and the way he has been treated is causing his life to unravel. Also, through his decline, Leamas falls from the middle class to the lower class, which many people in British society find repellent. The United Kingdom has a strict class system, in which people in each class are treated and perceived in certain ways. In a way, therefore, Leamas becomes a victim of the class system that the communists criticize. Perhaps the Circus intended this to make Leamas more sympathetic to the communists.

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