Spies

by

Michael Frayn

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Privet / Liguster Symbol Analysis

Privet / Liguster Symbol Icon

Described as having a harsh, coarse, and vulgar scent, privet (“liguster” in German) is a type of shrub commonly found in Europe. It is also the source of the unsettling, “embarrassingly familiar breath of sweetness” that prompts Stephen, as an elderly man, to return to the Close (the cul-de-sac where he grew up). Stephen associates privet with his childhood because the privet hedges in front of Miss Durrant’s bombed house held the hiding spot where Keith and Stephen spied on Keith’s mother. Thus, privet symbolizes the tangible memories of that particular time in Stephen’s life. The plant’s smell elicits various emotions that are associated with Stephen’s memories: embarrassment, restlessness, homesickness, lust, and shame. Although, as Stephen says himself, “it seems such a ridiculously banal and inappropriate cue for such powerful feelings,” privet represents the material-ness of memories and the way they can latch onto specific objects that then convey those meanings to an individual and his/her unique experiences. Furthermore, “privet” is Keith’s misspelling of “private” (and a word the young Stephen doesn’t know, but assumes is something shameful to do with the bathroom), which hints at the complexities of language, the shakiness of memory, and Stephen’s constant struggle to deliver an accurate recollection of his ridiculously secretive past that he finds particularly troubling.

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Privet / Liguster Symbol Timeline in Spies

The timeline below shows where the symbol Privet / Liguster appears in Spies. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Memory and the Self Theme Icon
...time of the year again when he smells an “embarrassingly familiar” scent (later identified as privet) in the air, a scent that is both sweet and disturbing because it takes him... (full context)
Memory and the Self Theme Icon
War, Paranoia, and Belonging Theme Icon
...identify the smell’s source, she guesses that the “vulgar smell” must be “liguster” (German for privet), a dull-looking shrub found commonly in parks. At night, the narrator is pondering over the... (full context)
Memory and the Self Theme Icon
...to London for a few days, and hides the fact that he is following the privet hedges and their unsettling scent. (full context)
Chapter 2
Memory and the Self Theme Icon
...are more standardized now, with asphalt and cars, and their own individual uniqueness gone. The privet scent is also gone. (full context)
Memory and the Self Theme Icon
Imagination vs. Reality Theme Icon
War, Paranoia, and Belonging Theme Icon
Secrecy Theme Icon
...Garden of Eden.” Stephen then finally reveals the identity of the smell’s source: “plain ordinary privet.” (full context)
Chapter 3
Imagination vs. Reality Theme Icon
War, Paranoia, and Belonging Theme Icon
Stephen and Keith go to their secret hiding spot in the privet shrubs at Braemar (Miss Durrant’s house) while Stephen waits for Keith’s next instructions. Stephen notes... (full context)
Imagination vs. Reality Theme Icon
War, Paranoia, and Belonging Theme Icon
Secrecy Theme Icon
...further plans to spy on Keith’s mother as often as possible, and to use the privet lookout as their headquarters. When Stephen asks what they’re going to do on the night... (full context)
Chapter 5
Class Difference and Social Status Theme Icon
Memory and the Self Theme Icon
Imagination vs. Reality Theme Icon
Secrecy Theme Icon
...and instead Stephen is visited by Barbara, who makes fun of the mistake of the “privet” sign. She teases Stephen for not knowing the meaning of “privet”—though he tries to pretend... (full context)
Secrecy Theme Icon
...if she can join him the hideout. She has to crawl awkwardly to enter the privet, and Stephen is terrified to be so close to her. (full context)
Imagination vs. Reality Theme Icon
War, Paranoia, and Belonging Theme Icon
Secrecy Theme Icon
...Stephen two chocolate biscuits and apologizes that Keith cannot play today. She comments on the “privet” sign and looks through their “logbook—secrit”, laughing when she realizes that both are misspelled (and... (full context)
Chapter 7
Memory and the Self Theme Icon
...present, with Stephen staring at a tub of geraniums situated at what was once the privet lookout point. He notices a boy watching him from the window of the new house... (full context)
Chapter 10
War, Paranoia, and Belonging Theme Icon
Secrecy Theme Icon
...the lookout and finds that Barbara has made it tidy and changed the sign from "Privet" to "Private." At first he is worried that Keith will see this, but then he... (full context)
Chapter 11
Class Difference and Social Status Theme Icon
Memory and the Self Theme Icon
Imagination vs. Reality Theme Icon
War, Paranoia, and Belonging Theme Icon
Secrecy Theme Icon
...audience for listening and participating. The book ends with Stephen catching another whiff of the privet scent, “even here… even now.” (full context)