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 | Quotes


Intelligence work has one moral law—it is justified by results.

Narrator, Chapter 2

Although Leamas can be willful and contemptuous, the Circus values him because he has gotten results. In the end, this is all that matters to the Circus. By the same measure, Leamas's recent failures cause him to believe that the Circus will deactivate him as an agent. The Circus's emphasis on getting results reflects its adherence to the principle that the end justifies the means. This principle is one of the main rationales the Circus uses to justify its political manipulation of individuals.


One can't be out in the cold all the time.

Control, Chapter 2

Control points out how the life of a spy in the Cold War runs contrary to human nature. People need warmth in the form of sympathy, affection, and love. However, because of the deception and manipulation involved in spy work, agents stay "out in the cold" by denying this side of themselves. Control knows that no individual can stand this kind of life for too long. An agent can't be in the cold in this way all the time, so his life may be limited.


He ... laughed. 'Oh, Liz ... oh, no. You're not a bloody Communist?'

Alec Leamas, Chapter 4

When Leamas realizes that Liz is a Communist, he is surprised and amused by its irony because his expectations about the situation contrast with its reality. He spends his life working in the Cold War against communists. So the fact that he is falling in love with a Communist is totally unexpected. However, by showing this, le Carré emphasizes that in a personal relationship, ideologies don't matter much. Liz may be a Communist, but she is also a loving, caring woman. Liz's and Leamas's love for each other is what matters, not their political beliefs.


She talked to him as if he were a child.

Narrator, Chapter 5

Liz shows her love for Leamas by nurturing him back to health and treating him with affection. She sees Leamas as an individual, not as part of an ideology or class of people. Even though he disagrees with communism, she sees this difference as unimportant. For his part, Leamas responds to her love, knowing he has found someone of value. As Control says, a spy can live without sympathy for only so long.


I just want her left alone. ... I just don't want her to be messed about.

Alec Leamas, Chapter 6

Leamas tries to protect the person he values most in life, namely Liz, from the deception and manipulation of the Circus. However, Leamas knows he works with a limited knowledge of his operations. He is like a cog in a machine. Because of this, he realizes that operations can take unexpected turns and get people involved who don't want to be. Leamas wants to make sure nothing like this happens to Liz.


He saw ... four children in the back ... and the frightened face of their father.

Narrator, Chapter 12

Leamas remembers a near accident, in which he almost killed a father and his four children on a highway. Le Carré uses this incident as a symbol to signify the harm that can be done by living a life based on the rationale of the Circus: the end justifies the means, and the individual should be sacrificed for the good of the whole. Leamas almost had the accident because he was driving recklessly to make an important appointment with a fellow agent. The agent was going to provide Leamas with valuable information that could protect British citizens, so all that mattered to Leamas was making the meeting. As a result, he almost killed the four children and their father. If the accident had occurred, the Circus would probably have justified it by saying that individuals should to be sacrificed for the good of the whole.


Half a million liquidated is a statistic ... a traffic accident is a national tragedy.

Fiedler, Chapter 13

Fiedler states a quote of Stalin's. Stalin was the dictator of the Soviet Union from the 1920s to the early 1950s. Here, he mocks democratic capitalists by saying they find a single traffic accident tragic, but do not see the exploitation of the masses as equally tragic. For Stalin, the individual may mean nothing; the good of the masses means everything. In other words, individuals should be sacrificed for the good of the whole. Being a communist organization, the Abteilung of course follows this principle. However, even though the Circus defends democracy, and thus stands in opposition to communism, it also adheres to this same principle.


That friend will be me. I give you my word as a German.

Fiedler, Chapter 13

Fiedler promises to be a friend to Leamas, who is stunned by this. Leamas views Fiedler as an enemy and so does not expect him to be honorable. Although Fiedler is fully aware of the deception that happens in spy work, he believes in being true to his word. Leamas respects Fiedler's honesty. He realizes Fiedler actually means what he says.

The same cannot be said of Control or Mundt, the man the Circus is protecting. Control promises to keep Liz out of Leamas's operation, while all the time planning to use her for its own ends. Mundt is under the protection of the Circus, although he is a deceptive, sadistic former Nazi. Even though Fiedler belongs to the "evil" Communist Party, he is basically an honest, decent person. This demonstrates that individuals do not always fit neatly into the Cold War categories of good or evil.


Even when alone, he compelled himself to live with the personality he had assumed.

Narrator, Chapter 13

As a spy, Leamas lives a life of constant deception. Unlike an actor who plays an imaginary role for a short period of time and then resumes his normal life, a spy must always keep up his deception, even when alone, for fear of letting something slip. However, because of this ever-present deception, the line between the truth and falsehood becomes blurred for Leamas. For instance, when Leamas pretends to become a down-and-out alcoholic as part of the Circus's plan, he really does drink excessive amounts of liquor until he may border on being an alcoholic himself.


We're all the same, you know, that's the joke.

Fiedler, Chapter 18

Fiedler points out that the methods used by the Circus and the Abteilung are really the same, despite the differences in their ideologies that define the Cold War. Communism believes in sacrificing individuals for the good of the whole and so does the Abteilung. Democracy favors freedom and individual rights, but the Circus contradicts this by using the same approach as the Abteilung: both organizations believe that killing innocent people is justifiable if the need is great enough.


A dog scratches where it itches. Different dogs itch in different places.

Alec Leamas, Chapter 19

Leamas implies that people believe in ideologies like communism or democracy because they have a need to believe in something, not because of any intrinsic worth in the ideology itself. For Leamas, there are no absolute truths that an ideology can encompass. Instead, he seems to value individual relationships, such as the love between a man and a woman. He does not see such a relationship as part of an ideology, but rather as two people just living life. Although Liz also values individual relationships, she deludes herself by believing the Communist Party supports her view.


Like a blind child among the seeing she was cut off from ... those around her.

Narrator, Chapter 22

Liz's experience at the Tribunal shows how an individual can be manipulated to do or say things against their will. Liz has no idea who is on trial or how Leamas is involved in the whole situation. As a result, she doesn't know what to say to protect Leamas, which is all she cares about. In fact, she is not even allowed to look at Leamas in order to read his expression. So the Tribunal has isolated Liz to manipulate her. Liz only knows that what she says is being "measure[d] ... against some secret standard" of the Tribunal. For all she knows, her statements could condemn Leamas to death. Limiting a person's knowledge is a common ploy used by the Abteilung and the Circus to control them. For example, by limiting Leamas's knowledge of the operation, the Circus manipulates him in order to protect Mundt.


Leamas understood the whole ghastly trick.

Narrator, Chapter 23

Leamas realizes he has been deceived by the Circus. What he thought was true is false and vice versa. Leamas thought the Circus wanted to use Fiedler to frame Mundt. But in reality, the Circus wants to protect Mundt and kill Fiedler because Mundt is a double agent working for the Circus, and Fiedler has become suspicious of him. Leamas, therefore, has been manipulated into protecting a man he hates and will be responsible for the death of a man he respects.


They need him for the safety of ordinary crummy people like you and me.

Alec Leamas, Chapter 25

Leamas tries to justify the Circus's protection of Mundt by saying this organization needs Mundt to keep ordinary people safe. The fact that Mundt murders people doesn't matter. He provides valuable information that helps the United Kingdom protect its citizens by stemming the tide of communist aggression. Leamas, though, hates this approach and wants out of the Circus.


He stood glaring round him like a blinded bull in the arena.

Narrator, Chapter 26

Leamas is blinded by the searchlights at the Berlin Wall before he is shot to death. This image represents how Leamas is enmeshed in the harsh glare of Cold War espionage, which sacrifices individuals for the good of the whole. Also, the quote suggests that this espionage is a type of brutal, deadly game or contest, with Leamas as its victim. The phrase "bull in the arena" refers to bullfighting, a sport in which a bull is often killed for the pleasure of spectators.

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