In the novel Spies, the motifs of personal growth, growing up and childhood are all integral to the plotline. It could be said that besides the theme of memory, growing up is the most crucial theme of the novel. As a genre, Spies fits clearly into bildungsroman style, showing the importance of Stephen’s personal development with relation to the storyline. Throughout Spies, Stephen shows a great deal of personal growth as a character, from his outlook on life, to the ways he interacts with other characters. Frayn expresses this through a variety of literary techniques.
Spies’ narrative style is set from two perspectives. Firstly, a reflective third person narrative from Stefan’s perspective as an elderly man that is recalling childhood memories. Secondly, a more direct first person narrative which seems to be more the perspective of Stephen as a young child. The contrast in narrative allows for greater flexibility in showing the contrast between the more mature man, and his younger counterpart.
In chapter 9 when Mrs Hayward appeals to Stephen for his help, the perspective switches in the middle of the chapter, which is also indicative of the thought process of the character at that point. By the use of third person narrative to begin the chapter, Frayn gives Stephen’s mind a sense of distance and separation from the event, emphasising the surreal situation of an adult woman ‘driven to humble herself’ by asking a child for help, and Stephen’s inability to cope with the confusion that brings. It shows how at that point, despite his growing maturity, Stephen had not fully matured enough to fully comprehend what Mrs Hayward was asking of him. By dealing with this from a reflective aspect, allows for the elder Stefan to fill in some of the gaps in younger Stephen’s knowledge and understanding of the situation.
When the perspective switches to the first person, it gives a greater sense of involvement of Stephen in the scene, and thus adopts language that is more childlike, and a younger inner voice. This again emphasises the difference between the thoughts of younger, and elder Stephen, and provides contrast between child and adulthood. Whereas younger Stephen’s sentences are much shorter and abrupt such as ‘Silence again. I sneak another look’, older Stefan’s language is more complex and extensive, as in examples like ‘he’d begun as her antagonist, now he was to become her accomplice’, showing that Stefan’s ability to express himself has yet to fully develop.
These contrasting perspectives also allow to clearly show when the younger Stephen matures or achieves clarity on some thought, as in chapter eight. In this chapter, he claims ‘I see all kinds of things I never saw before’. Another example is when he begins to realise after Barbara’s interpretation that perhaps his and Keith’s ideas that Mrs Hayward is a German spy are perhaps false, or misunderstood.
They also create many of the humorous points of the novel, by identifying childish misconceptions of life, and expressing them in a frank manner, as they would have been thought by the children. Characters such as Barbara Berrill and the Hardiment children provide aspects of comedy as to how they perceive the world, and how they are perceived by Stephen and the other children of the close.
Barbara, being slightly older than Stephen, appears to have a more mature view on the world, yet it is shown how it is not necessarily correct, as when she claims ‘lots of ladies have boyfriends while everyone’s Daddies are away’. This shows a more romantic outlook on the world, biased by girls’ magazines and entertainment predominately focused more towards love, relationships, and families, rather than war and machismo. Other instances include credence being given to Elizabeth Hardiment due to the fact that she wears glasses; with no other basis for the claim that she is more knowledgeable or intelligent than any of the other children.
Frayn also makes frequent use of symbolism to imply aspects of personal growth or sexual awakening. On a large scale, the tunnel that both Mrs Hayward and Stephen pass through to get to the barns can be said to represent a grander theme of Stephen’s transition from safety of childhood, to the more troubling nature of adulthood that Mrs Hayward frequents often. The fact that in order to make that transition Stephen is forced to confront guilt and self doubt shows his maturity as an individual, despite his motives for visiting the barns. Originally, this investigation is done with Keith, in order to discover Mrs Hayward’s secrets, but later again on his own Stephen shows a greater level of development, braving to face the barns on his own for reasons less self-motivated than before.
Other smaller symbols used to represent growth include cigarettes and ‘x’ marks. Both of these symbols hold sexual connotations for Stephen, showing another aspect of how he matures throughout the novel. Cigarettes are a motif used throughout the novel to suggest intimacy and sexual relationships, as Deidre Berrill and Stephen’s brother Geoff are known to smoke together. This is explained to Stephen by Barbara in chapter 9 when she tells him ‘they smoke cigarettes and then they kiss each other’, thus implying there is a natural link and progression from one to the other.
Mrs Hayward is also discovered to be leaving cigarettes for Uncle Peter in the barns, with the implication that they also smoke them together – another sign of intimacy. Finally also, Stephen and Barbara share cigarettes, this being indicative of their blooming relationship and Stephen’s increasing feelings towards her. As at the beginning of the novel, Stephen would not lower himself enough socially to talk to Barbara, the fact that he shares cigarettes with her further on shows how he has matured sexually, but also socially enough that he no longer feels that all girls are not worth talking to.
The ‘x’ marks also represent sexual aspects of life to Stephen, being associated with kisses, femininity, equations, and things that he does not fully understand. As he begins to understand the meanings of the ‘x’ marks, he also begins to realise the childish nature of what he originally believed Mrs Hayward’s secrets were about. By maturing enough to grasp the more romantic nature of ‘x’ marks, rather than the sinister, allows him to accept more the idea that Mrs Hayward’s secret is of a more feminine and sexual nature than her being a German spy.
Therefore, the ideas Frayn presents on the concept of growing up in Spies are largely in the use of symbolism and perspective switch, creating the varying levels of understanding for younger Stephen, and allowing the reader to understand the contrast between the thoughts and perspective of the younger character, versus the more elderly character reflecting. This also reinforces the overall theme of memory in the novel, as to have only one perspective throughout Spies would deny the reader to a whole level of the character’s emotions, either the more analytical emotions expressed in reflective speech, or the more abrupt and immediate emotions of the character as he is dealing with the situations he is facing. It is the combination of the two that creates the level of effectiveness that Spies has as a novel.