Michael Frayn

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Spies can help.
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.
Imagination vs. Reality Theme Icon

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 states about Keith’s initiation of a project: “He told the story, and the story came to life. Never before, though, has it become real, really real, in the way that it has this time.”

To sort out what is real and what is made up is difficult in Spies. Because the story is told through the eyes of young Stephen, who is faithfully convinced of Keith’s mother’s secret spy operations, the reader is easily sucked into seeing the events pan out in the way the boys believe is happening. Frayn juggles with the concepts of imagination and reality, and invites the reader to contemplate the fictionality of reality and the realistic-ness of fiction. Although the boys’ spy missions are ridiculous, their wild imaginations are not completely uncalled for, because through their persistent spying, Stephen discovers that Keith’s mother is actually hiding something—she is secretly hiding and taking care of Uncle Peter—which explains her suspicious behavior that the boys had originally believed to betray her German spy work. In fact, the plot detail of Keith’s mother’s actual affair with Uncle Peter just plays into Frayn’s invitation to consider the difference between reality and imagination and further blurs that line between the two, as the novel establishes that something very real about Keith’s mother inspired the boys’ imaginative intuitions.

In addition to Frayn playfully depicting the innocent creativity of Stephen and Keith’s imaginations, he also illustrates how dangerous imagination can be if it is taken too seriously—since it ultimately ends with the death of Uncle Peter. From the moment Stephen accepts Keith’s claim that his mother is a German spy, everything that he observes must explain that proposition. He states: “In fact, as I get used to the idea in the days that follow, it begins to make sense of a lot of things.” Stephen believes that Keith’s mother’s secret occupation explains why she sends so many letters in the post, why Miss Durrant’s house happened to be bombed by the Germans, and even why Keith’s mother was so nice to him in the first place. All the while, Stephen never gives a thought to any other possible explanations that may explain the previous observations. The “x” marks that Stephen and Keith find in Keith’s mother’s diary serve as a perfect example of the stubborn breadth of imagination. Although the tiny “x’s” most likely represent Keith’s mother’s menstrual cycles, the boys assume that they stand for her secret meetings that meaningfully coincide with the new moon, and, as the story progresses, “x” accumulates additional meanings—as a kiss, a mathematical variable, and the name of the German that Keith’s mother is hiding. Therefore, Frayn argues that imagination is a generative force of meaning that can spiral out of control.

Although the story depends on the two boys’ wild imaginations, Spies is constructed, as Michael Frayn himself said, like an autobiography. In fact, many of the story’s details about the war were inspired by Frayn’s own memories during his childhood. Thus, the novel is constructed upon the basis of reality but brought to life by the inventive creativity of the author. The story follows the narration of the older Stephen, recalling the memories of his childhood, yet it is still striking how real the memories of a fictional character seem, despite being the product of Frayn’s own imagination (which itself brings to life the imaginations of Stephen and Keith). In fact, many readers of Frayn’s novel have commented on how Stephen’s memories, especially his description of the Close, resemble their own experiences in London during the Second World War. Therefore the way in which Frayn brings to life his own literary creation, Stephen, speaks to the power of literature and its ability to represent the real world. It just takes a bit of imagination—in much the same way that Stephen and Keith imagine Keith’s mother as a German spy—to create a realistic story.

Tellingly, Frayn’s Spies is classified as realist fiction. Realism represents a literary movement that began in the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, during which authors artistically attempted to represent reality. This realist novel about imagination thus demonstrates its potency since it has seduced so many of its readers into suspending disbelief that these are real war memories. The book’s very existence essentially grapples with the plausibility of Stephen and Keith inventing the story of Keith’s mother being a spy.

Finally, Stephen is also self-reflective about the literary nature of his own narration and of his past itself. He is grateful to be involved with the Haywards’ family, who “have taken on the heroic proportions of characters in a legend,” and he thanks the people around him who “wrote or performed the drama of life in which I had a small, often frightening, but always absorbing part.” In effect, Frayn illustrates the literariness of life itself, which is “written” by the people who are part of it, and explores the vast potential of imagination not only as the creative source for literature, but also the drive for life itself.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

Imagination vs. Reality ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Imagination vs. Reality appears in each chapter of Spies. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
chapter length:
Get the entire Spies LitChart as a printable PDF.
Spies PDF

Imagination vs. Reality Quotes in Spies

Below you will find the important quotes in Spies related to the theme of Imagination vs. Reality.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Gratitude not only to Keith's mother but to Keith himself, to all the others after him whose adjutant and audience I was, and to everyone else who wrote and performed the drama of life in which I had a small, often frightening, but always absorbing part: Thank you for having me. Thank you, thank you.

Page Number: 31-32
Explanation and Analysis:

I think now that most probably Keith’s words came out of nowhere, that they were spontaneously created in the moment they were uttered. That they were a blind leap of pure fantasy. Or of pure intuition. Or, like so many things, of both.

Related Characters: Stephen Wheatley (speaker), Keith Hayward
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 40-41
Explanation and Analysis:

Yes, there’s a sinister unnoticeability about the whole performance, now that we know the truth behind it. There’s something clearly wrong about her, if you really look at her and listen to her as we now do.

Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

I feel more strongly than ever the honor of my association with Keith. His family have taken on the heroic proportions of characters in a legend—noble father and traitorous mother playing out the never-ending conflict between good and evil, between light and dark.

Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

There’s always been something sinister about Mr. Gort’s house and Trewinnick, of course. But there’s something sinister about all these silent houses when you look at them like this. The less you see happening on the outside, the more certain you are that strange things are going on inside…

Related Characters: Stephen Wheatley (speaker), Mr. Gort
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

“Anyway,” I say, “my father’s a German spy, too.”…
“Well, he is," I say. “He has secret meetings with people who come to the house. They talk in a foreign language together. It's German. I've heard them.”

Related Characters: Stephen Wheatley (speaker), Stephen’s Father / Mr. Wheatley (speaker), Keith Hayward
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis: