In the John Le Carre novel Smiley's People, does "people" mean Smiley's friends, colleagues, or subordinates? Or does it also include people Smiley dealt with in espionage?

  • 1
    The story features Smiley's 'old nemesis' Karla and other characters from earlier books, so presumably it's the second of your two options. Mar 6 at 17:26
  • It refers to everyone in his entourage, friends and foes and even his wife.
    – Lambie
    2 days ago

1 Answer 1


The title goes right to the heart of the novel's message. Smiley's greatest quality is his sense of loyalty, a quality tested during Control's falls from grace (Tinker, Tailor...), when Smiley went down with the sinking ship.

Externally, Smiley seems to be a Prufrock-like character, inadequate as a man and 'excluded from Life's feast'. He is not physically demonstrative. However, Smiley is capable of profound love and he shows it in his loyalty to people and country as opposed to ideas and 'isms'. Smiley's People explores this idea more fully than in any other of the Smiley novels. Connie Sachs, Peter Guillam and the General are all 'ghosts' to whom Smiley remains loyal and this capacity to feel a deep connection is extended to include the wonderful Maria Ostrakova, as well as Karla himself and his daughter, Tatiana. (We have two damsels in distress in this novel and they serve to emphasise Smiley's old-fashioned chivalrous nature, the quality that Ann Smiley admires in him.)

'Smiley's People' as a title contains the possessive apostrophe and emphasises Smiley's sense of responsibility to those with whom he has worked previously, a quality not shared by the Service, where employees are disposable commodities. This lamentable defect is shown in the Service's lack of loyalty/commitment to The General because he is of no use any more, their lack of care leading to the General's death. Smiley is appalled, of course, at their desultory handling of this old warrior. Ultimately, Smiley's ability to love and show commitment, along with imagining the feelings of others, will lead to his greatest triumph, the downfall of Karla.

The title also refers to Smiley's 'generation'. the current head of the Service bidding George Smiley to return and clear up an old mess involving Smiley's generation of spies. Le Carre, like Smiley, is a sentimentalist, and he similarly hides his feelings. The two of them believe the individual is more important than the country/organisation to which they belong, and the coldness/impersonality of the Russian system is the mirror opposite - as is any organisation/business in the West, to almost the same extent. This is the foremost theme in all of Le Carre's novels. So no wonder 'People' is in the title.

  • "Smiley's 'generation'". That's a very good point. Also it really helps to provide a lot of in-depth analysis of the novel, although I suppose the plain title "Smiley's People" might not be able to convey so much information such as Smiley's feelings towards others. Mar 8 at 12:55
  • You might want to use some paragraphs. It's hard to read as is.
    – Lambie
    Mar 8 at 18:13

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