Michael Frayn

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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Spies, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Class Difference and Social Status

Throughout the story, it is fairly evident that Keith and the Haywards are better-off financially than Stephen and the Wheatleys. However, this class difference is not simply an arbitrary distinction; the gap in wealth between the two families defines all aspects of Stephen’s relationship to Keith. More significantly, Frayn allows the reader to see, through young Stephen’s eyes, how class permeated the social arrangement and attitudes in wartime London.

From the start, the wealth of…

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Memory and the Self

The narrative of Spies relies entirely on the memory of a 70+ year-old narrator, Stephen Wheatley, who returns to his childhood town and tries to recall the events that happened there almost six decades ago. His narration jumps between two distinct periods of time, the past and the present, which immediately considers the role of time as a force of change, resolution, and even unresolved problems. The narrative thus introduces two major “problems” that…

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Imagination vs. Reality

Stephen and Keith wholly make up the idea that Keith’s mother is a German spy, completely convincing themselves by misconstruing everything they observe about Keith’s mother as proof of her secret espionage. With comical absurdity, the boys see all of Keith’s mother’s behaviors as indications of her supposed secret, which suggests the vitality of imagination as the driving force for Frayn’s novel and reveals the tenuous line that separates imagination from reality. As Stephen aptly…

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War, Paranoia, and Belonging

Frayn specifically sets Spies in a London cul-de-sac during the second World War, what Stephen calls “the Duration,” to show how the war affects every aspect of life in the Close. Immediately evident in the novel is the war’s physical effect on the provincial landscape of the town. On his return to the Close, Stephen initially makes a note of how even the sky is different from when he was a child, when it was…

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The whole of Frayn’s novel, Spies, is built upon secrecy. Beginning with Keith’s mother’s secret affair with Uncle Peter, the story accumulates a myriad of secrets over time: Stephen and Keith’s secret game of spying on Mrs. Hayward, Stephen and Barbara’s secret kiss, Stephen and Keith’s mother’s secret collaborations, Geoff and Deirdre’s secret rendezvous, the Wheatleys’ secret German and Jewish origins, and even the Berrills’ mother’s secret “boyfriend.” Although…

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