Alec Leamas, the middle-aged, world-weary spy who is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’s protagonist, is deeply alienated from other people and from society. During World War II and after, he has seen a great deal of violence that has made him suspicious of human nature and afraid to get close to anyone. He divorced his wife and has not had contact with his children in many years. But although he presents the figure of a broken man—traumatized, self-destructive, and anti-social—the novel suggests that these very qualities make him an ideal agent for the spying mission he is sent on.
The state of mental toughness required of spies while undercover is referred to as “being out in the cold.” Because spies must often pretend to be people they are not and must often betray those they’re close to in order to complete their missions, a kind of impersonal detachment is important to their work. This, paradoxically, can lead to the state of mind that Leamas finds himself in: sacrificing his entire life to protect a society from which he feels alienated.
To “come in from the cold” is given two different meanings in the novel, with each usage emphasizing the importance of alienation to spy work. First, “to come in from the cold” means to give up spy work, thereby ceasing to work in the inhospitable “cold” of enemy territory. While operating undercover, as Leamas does throughout his final mission, he cannot take anyone into his confidence or unburden himself of the anxieties that his work entails. There is no one who can sympathize with him, no source of human warmth for him to rely on. He hopes that after this mission, he will give up spy work and return to Liz Gold, with whom he felt a human connection for the first time in a long time.
The second meaning of “coming in from the cold” relates to this choice of human connection over alienation. Leamas disapproves of how his agent Riemeck has told his mistress Elvira about his intelligence work. He feels betrayed by Riemeck because he trusted Riemeck to trust no one and reveal no secrets, to “stay out in the cold” as a spy by staying detached from human connection. In the first chapter, when Leamas leaves the checkpoint to speak to Elvira about Riemeck, he steps out into an “icy October wind” and then returns to the checkpoint hut “in from the cold.” These repeated descriptions of the cold weather are no coincidence. Falling in love with someone and telling them everything, putting an intimate connection ahead of operational work, is the second sense in which a spy can “come in from the cold.”
Leamas himself “comes in from the cold” in this second sense, too. First, when he feels a human connection to Liz, he hopes that he will be able to return to her when he completes his mission and gives up spy work: when he “comes in from the cold” in the first sense. Although he never tells her the details of his operation, he hints that he will be going away to do a job. Telling Liz even this much represents a failure to place the mission above his personal life.
In the end, when Liz is killed, Leamas “comes in from the cold” by refusing to obey Smiley’s command to leave her behind and choosing to die with her. He climbs back down to her corpse, where he is shot, thereby “coming in from the cold” by prioritizing his connection to her over his mission and the alienation from other people that it demands of him. With Leamas’s decision to die with Liz, the novel shows that the world of espionage is so brutal and dangerous that the spy’s ultimate choice is not just between connection to other people and alienation from them for the sake of the mission, but also a choice between alienation from other people and death.
Alienation and Connection ThemeTracker
Alienation and Connection Quotes in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
That damned woman, thought Leamas, and that fool Karl who'd lied about her. Lied by omission, as they all do, agents the world over. You teach them to cheat, to cover their tracks, and they cheat you as well. He'd only produced her once, after that dinner in the Schürzstrasse last year. Karl had just had his big scoop and Control had wanted to meet him. Control always came in on success. They'd had dinner together—Leamas, Control, and Karl. Karl loved that kind of thing. He turned up looking like a Sunday School boy, scrubbed and shining, doffing his hat and all respectful. Control had shaken his hand for five minutes and said: "I want you to know how pleased we are, Karl, damn pleased." Leamas had watched and thought, "That'll cost us another couple of hundred a year." When they'd finished dinner Control pumped their hands again, nodded significantly and implying that he had to go off and risk his life somewhere else, got back into his chauffeur-driven car.
"I wondered whether you were tired. Burnt out." There was a long silence.
"That's up to you," Leamas said at last.
"We have to live without sympathy, don’t we? That's impossible of course. We act it to one another, all this hardness; but we aren't like that really, I mean. . . one can't be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold. . . d'you see what I mean?"
Leamas saw. He saw the long road outside Rotterdam, the long straight road beside the dunes, and the stream of refugees moving along it; saw the little aeroplane miles away, the procession stop and look towards it; and the plane coming in, nearly over the dunes; saw the chaos, the meaningless hell, as the bombs hit the road.
The process of going to seed is generally considered to be a protracted one, but in Leamas this was not the case. In the full view of his colleagues he was transformed from a man honourably put aside to a resentful, drunken wreck—and all within a few months. There is a kind of stupidity among drunks, particularly when they are sober, a kind of disconnection which the unobservant interpret as vagueness and which Leamas seemed to acquire with unnatural speed. He developed small dishonesties, borrowed insignificant sums from secretaries and neglected to return them, arrived late or left early under some mumbled pretext. At first his colleagues treated him with indulgence; perhaps his decline scared them in the same way as we are scared by cripples, beggars, and invalids because we fear we could ourselves become them; but in the end his neglect, his brutal, unreasoning malice isolated him.
He shook his head. "Sorry, Liz, you've got it wrong. I don't like Americans and public schools. I don't like military parades and people who play soldiers." Without smiling he added, “And I don't like conversations about Life.”
"But, Alec, you might as well say—"
"I should have added," Leamas interrupted, "that I don't like people who tell me what I ought to think."
She knew he was getting angry but she couldn't stop herself anymore. "That's because you don't want to think, you don't dare! There's some poison in your mind, some hate. You're a fanatic, Alec. I know you are, but I don't know what about. You're a fanatic who doesn’t want to convert people, and that's a dangerous thing. You're like a man who's . . . sworn vengeance or something." The brown eyes rested on her. When he spoke she was frightened by the menace in his voice.
"If I were you," he said roughly, "I'd mind my own business."
He hardly spoke at supper, and she watched him, her fear growing until she could bear it no more and she cried out suddenly:
“Alec . . . oh, Alec . . . what is it? Is it good-bye?”
He got up from the table, took her hands, and kissed her in a way he'd never done before and spoke to her softly for a long time, told her things she only dimly understood, only half heard because all the time she knew it was the end and nothing mattered any more.
"Comrade Mundt took one precaution while the British, with Fiedler’s aid, planned his murder.
"He caused scrupulous enquiries to be made in London. He examined every tiny detail of that double life which Leamas led in Bayswater. He was looking, you see, for some human error in a scheme of almost superhuman subtlety. Somewhere, he thought, in Leamas' long sojourn in the wilderness, he would have to break faith with his oath of poverty, drunkenness, degeneracy, above all of solitude. He would need a companion, a mistress perhaps; he would long for the warmth of human contact, long to reveal a part of the other soul within his breast. Comrade Mundt was right you see. Leamas, that skilled, experienced operator, made a mistake so elementary, so human that . . ."
Liz hated having her back to the court; she wished she could turn and see Leamas, see his face perhaps; read in it some guidance, some sign telling her how to answer. She was becoming frightened for herself; these questions which proceeded from charges and suspicions of which she knew nothing. They must know she wanted to help Alec, that she was afraid, but no one helped her—why would no one help her?
Fiedler, who had returned to his chair and was listening with rather studied detachment, looked at Leamas blandly for a moment:
“And you messed it all up, Leamas, is that it?” he asked. “An old dog like Leamas, engaged in the crowning operation of his career, falls for a . . . what did you call her? . . . a frustrated little girl in a crackpot library? London must have known; Smiley couldn't have done it alone.” Fiedler turned to Mundt: “Here's an odd thing, Mundt; they must have known you'd check up on every part of his story. That was why Leamas lived the life. Yet afterwards they sent money to the grocer, paid up the rent; and they bought the lease for the girl. Of all the extraordinary things for them to do . . . people of their experience . . . to pay a thousand pounds, to a girl—to a member of the Party—who was supposed to believe he was broke. Don't tell me Smiley's conscience goes that far. London must have done it. What a risk!”
"But what about Fiedler—don't you feel anything for him?"
"This is a war," Leamas replied. "It's graphic and unpleasant because it's fought on a tiny scale, at close range; fought with a wastage of innocent life sometimes, I admit. But it's nothing, nothing at all besides other wars—the last or the next."
"Oh God," said Liz softly. "You don't understand. You don’t want to. You're trying to persuade yourself. It's far more terrible, what they are doing; to find the humanity in people, in me and whoever else they use, to turn it like a weapon in their hands, and use it to hurt and kill . . ."
Shielding his eyes he looked down at the foot of the wall and at last he managed to see her, lying still. For a moment he hesitated, then quite slowly he climbed back down the same rungs, until he was standing beside her. She was dead; her face was turned away, her black hair drawn across her cheek as if to protect her from the rain.
They seemed to hesitate before firing again; someone shouted an order, and still no one fired. Finally they shot him, two or three shots. He stood glaring round him like a blinded bull in the arena. As he fell, Leamas saw a small car smashed between great lorries, and the children waving cheerfully through the window.