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 the story seems to be mainly concerned about discovering the nature of Keith’s mother’s suspicious behavior, it also plays with the many possible reactions to secrets: revealing secrets, burying secrets, seeking out secrets, and leaving secrets unresolved.
When Stephen and Keith begin their spy operation on Keith’s mother, Stephen is ecstatic about having secret knowledge about a German spy, which no one else knows, and is itching to tell his classmates and the other clueless kids in the Close. In fact, it even helps him endure the bullying from those same kids: “I feel sustained against them by the sheer importance of the secret knowledge lodged between those two abused ears of mine.”
Despite gaining a sense of importance, Stephen struggles with a frequent internal conflict throughout the novel: deciding whether to reveal a secret or to risk “telling tales.” At one point in the story, Stephen considers reporting Keith’s mother to Mr. Gort, but he stops himself because he imagines what his confessing words would be and of “the horrible sneaking tone they’d have. It would be telling tales.” And in many other instances, Stephen keeps secrets from his parents and Keith in order to not tell any tales. What is enlightening is the particular phrase “telling tales.” Widely used in Britain, “telling tales” refers either to saying something untrue about someone else or revealing another’s person’s secret. In the context of Spies, the latter definition is a bit nonsensical, so it seems that the uneasiness arises more from the potential falsity of what might be said about someone else. Although Stephen never explicitly states his doubt in Keith’s claim about his mother, there are several instances in the novel when Stephen unconsciously lets his own doubts about Keith’s mother slip. For example, when Barbara speculates that Keith’s mother may be buying items from the black market or sending a message for Auntie Dee to Auntie Dee’s boyfriend, Stephen briefly considers these possibilities and is even disappointed by how plausible they sound. Yet at the same time, Stephen also displays a kind of wholehearted trust in the validity of Keith’s initial proclamation. Thus, Frayn portrays the essential nature of secrecy itself: the validity of a secret can never be confirmed because it is, in fact, kept secret. As such, secrecy also ties into the earlier theme of Imagination vs. Reality, because its position outside of validation always pushes the question of its reality to the forefront.
By characterizing the unstable nature of secrecy and overwhelming Stephen with various secrets, Frayn illustrates the burden of carrying secrets and the immense responsibility that is inherent to protecting another’s secrets. But, more importantly, Frayn uses Spies to champion the value of secrecy itself. It is obvious from the unfortunate ending with Uncle Peter’s death, the falling out between Keith’s mother and Auntie Dee, Stephen’s eventual return to Germany, and his lingering sense of unsettled matters that maintaining the particular secrets of the novel was preferable to their disclosure and the consequences that follow. And from a meta-narrative standpoint, it is a multiplicity of secrets that make up the bulk of the story in order to create meaning thematically for the reader. Furthermore, secrecy offers fertile ground for the exploration of multiple meanings simultaneously. The “x” marks, which served as an example for imagination, are also relevant here because they become the symbolic representation of Keith’s mother’s secret, “Mr. X.” As such, Frayn pays respect to the unknown and its invitation for generating hypotheses and encouraging conjecture. It may be worth noting that in his play Copenhagen (1998) Frayn produces his own artistic exploration of the secret meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen, and offers his own hypothesis on what happened between the two.
Spies is all about secrecy and the multiple ways in which secrets are dealt with. The secret affair between Keith’s mother and Uncle Peter is eventually exposed, while the fate of secret silk scarf that Uncle Peter gave to Stephen to give to Keith’s mother remains forever unresolved, as are the many “secret boyfriends” of many mothers whose husbands are off at war. Ultimately, Frayn paints a colorful picture with a mosaic of different secrets that add complexity and ambiguity to his work.
Secrecy Quotes in Spies
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…
It's like the War Effort and the perpetual sense of strain it induces, of guilt for not doing enough toward it. The War Effort hangs over us for the Duration, and both the Duration and the long examination board of childhood will last forever.
Even before this there were a lot of things piling up that I couldn’t tell Keith about. Barbara Berrill’s visit. Her stupid stories about his mother and his aunt. Now I’ve been burdened with another secret that I have to keep from him. But how can we possibly proceed if I don't tell him this one?
Not that I ever believed those stories for a moment. Or could have said anything about them to Keith even if I had. It would be telling tales. You can't tell tales.
What exactly was this unthinkable something? Nothing exactly. What's unthinkable can’t in its nature be exactly anything. Its inexactitude is what makes it so overpowering.
Once again I feel the locked box beginning to open and reveal its mysteries. I'm leaving behind the old tunnels and terrors of childhood—and stepping into a new world of even darker tunnels and more elusive terrors.