From John Le Carré's Smiley's People:

I need you, thought Smiley, watching him gyrate. I love you, I hate you, I need you. Such apocalyptic statements reminded him of Ann when she had run out of money or love. The heart of the sentence is the subject, he thought. It is not the verb, least of all the object. It is the ego, demanding its feed.

It seems to be related to philosophy, which I have very little knowledge of. Could someone kindly explain the meaning of the sentence in bold?

  • 1
    The ego is a Freudian concept. It's from psychology not philosophy.
    – mr.zog
    Commented Apr 16 at 22:34

2 Answers 2


There is an idiom in English: feed one's ego, defined as

To do something that encourages or affirms one's inflated sense of self-importance.

Le Carré has pulled this idiom apart (something which maybe nobody but Le Carré ever would do), to come up with

It is the ego, demanding its feed.

At this point in the story, George Smiley had retired. But his old agency is trying to get him to come out of retirement for one last mission by flattering him, saying that he is the only person who can do this job, i.e., by appealing to his sense of self-importance. Smiley is trying to tell his ego not to listen to them.

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    Thank you for pointing out that this originates from an idiom. But could the ego here refer to Ann, not Smiley himself? I love you, I hate you, I need you. That's what Ann said, right? Commented Apr 15 at 21:53
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    @Silent Sojourner: Looking at the context (from Google books), I would think it would refer to both of them, actually.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Apr 15 at 22:00

Essentially, Smiley is saying that it is a selfish statement, all about him. Ego is the self, and is often used as shorthand to describe thinking too highly of oneself. "Demanding its feed" is alluding to animals at the feeding trough, but is more generally saying that his ego wants to be fed by attention, but the object of his desire. Along with the prior sentence, he's indicating that a statement like "I need Ann" isn't about the need, or about Ann (the verb and object of the sentence) but about him, the subject.

  • 2
    Knowing that Ann is Smiley's unfaithful wife, I would understand it the other way round; he thinks of her saying "I love you, I need you" when it was all about her ego. Commented Apr 16 at 7:50
  • @KateBunting: I'll admit to not having read the book. :-D Commented Apr 16 at 11:53

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