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 | Themes


Political Manipulation

In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, political manipulation is the main method used by intelligence agencies, including the Circus (British) and the Abteilung (East German), to gather information and defeat the enemy. These agencies manipulate their own agents, the enemy's agents, and innocent people for their own purposes. The Circus in England and the Abteilung in East Germany present two central rationales for this manipulation: the end justifies the means and individuals should be sacrificed for the good of the whole. For example, the Circus believes it needs to protect a valuable double agent named Mundt, who is the head of the Abteilung. Mundt provides classified information to the Circus, which helps the United Kingdom to protect its citizens from communist aggression. The Circus feels that the whole, namely protecting British citizens, is more important than saving any individual. Therefore, the Circus feels justified in manipulating a fellow agent, Alec Leamas, and an innocent citizen, Liz Gold, to prevent Mundt's defection from being discovered. From the Circus's perspective, the end (the good of the whole) justifies the means (manipulating Leamas and Liz Gold).

In addition, le Carré points out that by using such harsh political manipulation, the Circus commits atrocities that contradict its aim to protect the freedom and rights of British citizens. For example, the Circus makes Liz an unknowing accomplice in a plan she would definitely object to. Mundt is a sadistic former Nazi, a person who Liz, as a Jew, would vehemently oppose protecting. In addition, Liz is placed in a dangerous situation that she wants no part of and cannot control. The Circus, therefore, prevents Liz from having the freedom to make choices, denying her one of the very rights it exists to defend. At least the political manipulation committed by the Abteilung reflects its communist beliefs, namely the need to sacrifice individuals for the good of the masses. Fiedler realizes that the Circus, despite its defense of democracy, uses the same methods as the Abteilung. This leads him to tell Leamas, "We're all the same, you know, that's the joke."

Love versus Inhumanity

Le Carré presents the theme of love versus inhumanity mainly by contrasting Liz Gold with the methods used by the Circus and the Abteilung. The author depicts Liz as a loving person, who expresses kindness toward individuals. For example, Liz loves Leamas, even though he doesn't share her ideological beliefs. She is an idealistic communist, while Leamas is a disillusioned man, who really doesn't believe in much of anything anymore. However, Liz realizes that under his cynical façade lies a hurt but caring person. Liz is somewhat troubled by Leamas's lack of belief in anything, but this aspect of his personality does not dampen her love for him. In this way, Liz values the individual above ideology.

Liz's communist beliefs also provide her with a framework to express her love of individuals. She naively thinks that the Communist Party shares her view about caring for each person. Indeed, according to Liz, people harm themselves when they act against this humanitarian truth. When Liz realizes the Communist Party cares little for individuals except for how they can be sacrificed for the good of the masses, she immediately sees the cruelty of their attitude and rejects it. Liz tells Leamas, "You all [the Circus and the Abteilung] treated me as if I was ... nothing ... just currency to pay with." She realizes that she is merely a means to an end, a position she finds inhumane and intolerable.

Unlike Liz, the Circus and the Abteilung both view people as objects or statistics, not as individuals. If Leamas and Liz are sacrificed for the good of the whole, this means that two people may have been harmed in order to benefit millions. In a statistical way, this makes perfect sense and seems justifiable. However, le Carré emphasizes the cruel inhumanity of this reasoning by showing its terrible consequences: Leamas and Liz have been exploited, deceived, and in the end, killed. Fiedler, an honest, just man, will be executed, while Mundt, a sadistic former Nazi, is protected so he can continue his abusive methods. In fact, by protecting Mundt, the Circus enables him to kill Liz and Leamas. So, le Carré's novel asks whether any ideology, no matter how noble, can justify the abuse of individuals.


As a British spy, Leamas's life is filled with various forms of deception. In fact, this constant deception is probably one reason that Leamas has become cynical. He has difficulty trusting people and feels most are out to satisfy their own selfish needs. However, Leamas has become so immersed in deception that the line between reality and pretense begins to blur for him. For example, Leamas acts as if he's falling apart as part of the Circus's plan to convince the communists that he wants to defect. However, in the process, Leamas comes to resemble an alcoholic. As a spy, he feels he needs to keep up the pretense even when he is alone to avoid detection. Also, Leamas acts in a friendly way to Fiedler to gain his confidence. By doing this, though, Leamas actually forms a friendship with Fiedler.

Le Carré also emphasizes how the Circus creates levels of deception to manipulate various people. For instance, Leamas knows he is deceiving the communists by pretending to be a defector. However, what Leamas doesn't realize is that the Circus is deceiving him at the same time. The Circus wants Leamas's deception to be discovered to protect Mundt, the person Leamas wants to eliminate. In addition, the author makes a strong connection between secrecy and deception. Because the Circus has kept Mundt's defection a secret, the organization is able to carry out its deception of Leamas and the Abteilung. For its part, the Abteilung keeps Mundt's trial a secret, which makes the judges accountable only to the Praesidium and not to the public or the press. As a result, the judges allow slanderous accusations, which are used to deceive them.

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