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 the Haywards is evident from Stephen’s description of their house and the different knick-knacks that adorn its interior. Keith’s separate playroom, his array of toys and gadgets, and his personal belongings all speak to the Haywards’ affluence. Furthermore, the kinds of delicacies that they enjoy, such as “lemon barley” and “chocolate spread,” not only intimate their material wealth, but hint at the high social standing they occupy. Although other fathers in the Close support their families by working at an office or participating in the War Effort in some way, Mr. Hayward is instead said to be working all day around the house. In fact, the Close itself is spatially arranged by social status, with the Haywards’ house occupying the most central and inner lot in the cul-de-sac (House No. 9) and the Wheatleys’ (House No. 2) fringing the end of the Close with the other lowly-regarded family, the Pinchers in No. 3. However, despite occupying the most accessible position in the neighborhood, the Haywards do not interact with any other families, except Auntie Dee and Stephen.
Due to the stark contrast between the Haywards and other families, socioeconomic difference provides the only way that Stephen can compare his family to Keith’s. As such, Stephen regards everything that is associated with himself and his family as “wrong,” while everything that the Haywards possess and do is “right.” For example, Keith appropriately cycles to his “right local preparatory school” every day, while Stephen and his brother Geoff take the bus and attend the “wrong school.” Thus, the way Stephen uses economic status to create moral nuances in his descriptions of his family and Keith’s suggests that class was the main deciding factor in not only organizing English society but also determining how one introspectively situated oneself in the world at the time.
The Haywards’ elevated social status wholly dictates the power dynamics of Keith and Stephen’s “friendship.” Stephen explains that he and Keith “had a great many enterprises and projects in hand, and in all of them he was the leader and I was the led.” In times when Stephen takes the lead inadvertently, his actions are considered less legitimate, since they do not originate from Keith first. For example, Stephen states that Keith seemed unpleased or unimpressed by the sock and heel that Stephen had found alone in the tin croquet box at night. Furthermore, Stephen admits that Keith’s authority apparently “was entirely warranted by his intellectual and imaginative superiority.” However, the reader will soon realize that Keith isn’t everything he is made out to be. Throughout the story, Keith frequently misspells words, such as “private” and “secret,” of which Stephen makes no mention since he is more concerned about Keith’s feelings than correcting his mistakes. But, more importantly, Keith displays more immaturity, naiveté, and cruelty in comparison to Stephen, who actually demonstrates frequent instances of responsibility and selflessness that he does not notice in himself because he is always obediently following the orders of his “more superior” friend. Furthermore, whenever the reader is given the perspective of characters other than Stephen and Keith (such as Stephen’s mother or Barbara Berrill) it’s suggested that Keith doesn’t have any friends other than Stephen, and no one else in the neighborhood “can stand him.”
Stephen’s relationships with Keith’s parents also speak to his social “lowliness.” Early in the story, Stephen states that he is surprised that the Haywards even allow him play with their son, and he is unable to imagine any of the other kids from the neighborhood coming over to play with Keith. In turn, he expresses gratitude for being allowed to associate with Keith, highlighting that social status is a criterion in wartime London society for establishing friendships. Keith’s father’s indifferent attitude toward Stephen seems to stem from that fact. “Stephen he never addressed at all—never so much as looked at. Even if it was Stephen who was threatening the damage to the greenhouse it was Keith who was ‘old bean’ and Keith who'd get caned, because Stephen didn't exist.” And Stephen’s relationship to Keith’s mother is much in the same vein: Keith’s mother only indirectly addresses Stephen by grouping him with her son, as “you two” or “chaps.” However, that soon changes when Stephen becomes entangled within Keith’s mother’s secret dealings with Uncle Peter.
Unfortunately, even after sixty years, class difference and social status still influences how Stephen understands himself. As he is narrating his own childhood, he fails to concentrate the story around himself in the first place and instead focuses it around Keith’s perspective, through both his narrative declarations and by calling the characters names that would be appropriate for Keith rather than himself. Auntie Dee and Uncle Peter, for example, are not his own relatives, yet Stephen names them in the way that Keith would. And even speaking as an old man Stephen is still apologetic to his readers, and grateful for their attention. Finally, at the end of the book Stephen reveals his family as Jewish. Though he wasn’t aware of his Jewishness as a child, this could have contributed to his family’s “lowly” status and his own sense of not belonging, since anti-Semitism was prevalent throughout Europe at the time (even among the Allies) and it’s implied that the kids at school bully Stephen with anti-Semitic slurs.
Ultimately, through the unique and deeply intimate perspective of Stephen—both young and old—Frayn illustrates the force of hierarchical social organization in all aspects of life, including its influence on one’s own self-identification and self-positioning in society.
Class Difference and Social Status ThemeTracker
Class Difference and Social Status Quotes in Spies
Does he know, even at that age, what his standing is in the street? He knows precisely, even if he doesn’t know that he knows it. In the very marrow of his bones he understands that there’s something not quite right about him and his family, something that doesn’t quite fit with the pigtailed Geest girls and the oil-stained Avery boys, and never will.
Cycling's plainly the right way to go to school; the bus that Stephen catches each day at the cracked concrete bus stop on the main road is plainly the wrong way. Green's the right color for a bicycle, just as it’s the wrong one for a belt or a bus.
She just is his mother, in the same way that Mrs. Sheldon's Mrs. Sheldon, and Barbara Berrill's beneath our notice, and my family’s slightly disgraceful. Everyone knows that these things are so. They don't have to be
explained or justified.
We’ve come on a journey from the highest to the lowest—from the silver-framed heroes on the altars in the Haywards' house through the descending social gradations of the Close, from the Berrills and Geests to us, from us to the Pinchers, on down through the squalor of the Cottages and their wretched occupants, and then, reached even lower, to an old derelict taking refuge under a sheet of corrugated iron.
So far as I can piece it together, as the heir to Stephen’s thoughts, he neither thought she was nor didn’t think she was. Without Keith there to tell him what to think he’d stopped thinking about it all. Most of the time you don't go around thinking that things are so or not so, any more than you go around understanding or not understanding them. You take them for granted.