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 | Symbols



Le Carré uses the cold as a symbol in three ways. First, the cold represents the Cold War and Leamas's involvement in it. For instance, Control tells Leamas, "one can't be out in the cold all the time." By this, Control means that Leamas and other agents can't be involved in Cold War espionage all the time because it will exhaust them. Second, the author uses cold temperatures to signify the harshness of working for the Circus. For example, while working for the Circus in London, the harshness of Leamas's work is often reflected by the cold temperatures he experiences, such as when he leaves the library with Liz: "it was bitterly cold outside." Later, when Liz finds Leamas sick in bed, "it was bitterly cold in the room."

Finally, le Carré uses the cold to represent the inhumanity of a person's personality or actions. The narrator describes Mundt as follows: "There was a coldness about him ... which perfectly equipped him for the business of murder." When Leamas is tied up in a torturous position, the narrator says, "The blood had left [his feet], that was why they were cold." Le Carré's symbolic use of the cold always ties back to the Cold War. After all, the harshness of Leamas's work for the Circus and the coldness of Mundt are the result of this war.

Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall represents how two opposing ideologies can create harsh, inhumane situations for people. On one side of this wall are the democratic capitalists and on the other side are the communists. By creating such a firm distinction, the wall increases the possibilities for conflict and destruction. In a way, the wall acts as a form of segregation, by keeping groups of people rigidly apart. Such segregation causes each group to see the other as the enemy, thereby creating an us-versus-them mentality. The repercussions of such a conflict are devastating. The city of Berlin has been split in two, which does not benefit either side. Descriptions of the Berlin Wall in the novel are appropriately grim. It takes the life out of everything around it: "East and west of the Wall lay ... a half-world of ruin, drawn in two-dimensions."

Such a division also causes havoc in the personal lives of individuals. For example, Leamas and Liz love each other even though he is a capitalist and she is a communist. They may be on different sides politically, but they just want to enjoy a normal life together. However, when confronted by the Berlin Wall, their relationship is destroyed. As they attempt to cross over this wall, Leamas and Liz are no longer seen as individuals who love each other but either as enemies by the Abteilung or as supporters of democratic capitalism by the Circus. In addition, Mundt sees Liz as an enemy because she is a Jew. So when the searchlights spot Leamas and Liz as they climb the wall, they are not two unique human beings, but two adversaries who must be destroyed. Caught in this conflict, they are both killed.

Traffic Accident

Le Carré uses Leamas's near traffic accident with a car containing a father and his four children as a symbol to represent the consequences of living life based on the Cold War rationales of the Circus. According to these rationales, the end justifies the means, and individuals should be sacrificed for the good of the whole. Leamas's absorption of this rationale nearly causes the accident: he is so focused on meeting an important agent that he doesn't care how he gets there. As a result, he drives recklessly and nearly kills the family in the car. The Circus would find such an accident regrettable, but the end result is all that matters, namely in this case contacting the agent. Also, the Circus would see the death of this family as a sacrifice for the good of the whole. By contacting the agent, Leamas is helping to keep British citizens safe from communist aggression. However, Leamas is a human being with feelings and so is terribly upset by the near accident.

At the end of the novel, Leamas and Liz resemble the family in the car, with the important difference that while the family escapes death, Leamas and Liz do not. Their deaths have not been planned by the Circus. Even so, the killing of Leamas and Liz can be seen as a sacrifice to protect the whole because they have enabled Mundt to keep providing valuable information that will protect British citizens. The fact that Leamas and Liz are killed in the process is regrettable but really doesn't matter: the end justifies the means. So just before Leamas dies he revisits the car accident he almost caused earlier in the novel, flashing back to "a small car smashed between great lorries, and the children waving cheerfully through the window."

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