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'I Spy' by Graham Green


We can say exactly that all the described events take place in England, particularly, they happen in the Eastern part of England. The father of the Charlie Stowe, of the main character, was supposed to be in Norwich that night we know about it directly from the text (“Tonight he said he would be in Norwich…”). Norwich is the regional administrative center and country town of Norfolk. Besides, one sentence tells us that place isn’t far from water (“the wind blew from the sea, and Charlie Stowe could hear…the beating of the waves”) and now we can say precisely that it is just by the North Sea that washes the shores of England.

The events happen at night in the house where the family of Charlie Stowe lives, particularly, at the tobacconist’s shop that was kept by his father. It is said in second paragraph of the text. It was time of the World War I.

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The following clues help us to understand it: “enemy airships”, “Zeppelin”, which was a type of airship pioneered in Germany in the beginning of XX century and used widely to bombard England during the period of the World War I, such features of fashion of that time as “bowler hats” and “belted mackintoshes”, brands of cigarettes that Charlie’s father was selling (Gold Flake, Players, Woodbines were wide-spread that time).

Moreover, in the text “Huns” were mentioned. It is an Offensive slang used as a disparaging term for a German, especially, a German soldier in World War I.


Charlie Stowe, the main character, gets mocked by his schoolmates at the County school, because he has never tried a cigarette at his 12 in his life. One night he decides to have a smoke and sneaks to the tobacconist’s shop run by his father whom he doesn’t love. His mother is sleeping and his father isn’t supposed to be at home. But when Charlie finds himself at the shop he hears footfalls in the street. It is his father and two strangers. They have a brief chat and then leave the shop. Charlie goes upstairs, he is very frightened but the attitude to his father changed. We can observe the structure of the text. The expositions of the story include the description of that night and Charlie’s family. The climax happens when his father and two strangers have a talk, particularly, on the phrase “Well…there’s nothing to be done about it, and I may as well have my smokes”.

It was said by Charlie’s father and it is the most important moment of the story, because here we see strong likeness between the father and the boy: during boy’s attempt to “commit” a crime (to smoke a cigarette) he tries to encourage himself with “grown-up” and childish exhortations and what is interesting Charlie uses the same words to encourage himself in the forth paragraph and his father saying the phrase above also tries to encourage himself. Maybe he committed a crime being a spy because two strangers seem to be policemen or secret-service agents and the father tells them that “The wife will sell out”, talking about his tobacco business.

Also unusual behavior says to us this fact: his voice has an unfamiliar to Charlie note and he holds his stiff collar. It indicates that he is very nervous and also his voice is “dry as a biscuit”. When Mr. Stowe wants to get his coat one of the strangers would like to go with him not letting him be alone. It seems that Charlie’s father is arrested. We can do this guess-work and find one more likeness between Charlie and his father: committing a crime. The resolution happens when the father and two strangers leave the shop, frightened Charlie goes upstairs and understands how much he loves his father.

Elements of plot

This short story abounds with conflicts. At the beginning we know that Charlie has never tried a cigarette in his life and gets mocked by boys at school. It is the first conflict: the boy versus schoolmates, his peers, and it can be considered as the conflict of a man and society. The second one happens between Charlie and his father which he doesn’t like at the beginning. That’s why we can call Charlie protagonist, and his father – antagonist. We see the third direct conflict between Charlie’s father and two men. The mystery is hidden in their talk. And finally there is the forth conflict – the inner conflict of the boy who at his 12 wants to be an adult trying to have a smoke against the fear and prohibition and maybe commit the hardest crime of his age.

The theme/message

The main idea of the story is a generation gap, the relations of Fathers and Sons. It is still relevant nowdays, parents should pay attention to the way of upbringing of their children. Lie, mistakes, carelessness and insufficiency of attention of parents would reflect on the behavior and personality of their children. The other idea is found in the conflict of Charlie and his peers. Sometimes to be respected in society we try to do what it dictates us. Children are exposed to the society influence easier, because they haven’t enough experience in life and their world outlook isn’t finally formed. The minor idea of this story is to show how our attitude can be wrong judging people around us, even our closest people, our relatives, and it may happen that it would be too late to say the warmest words to the dearest people and even living with our family we cannot notice the likeness or common things that connect us. We should be more attentive, more sensitive and sympathetic and keep in mind that our children would somehow look like us.


The type of narration is entrusted narrative. The story is told from the point of view of Charlie who uses the 3d person. It is an omniscient point of view.

Fiction elements/Structure

The author entrusts the main character telling us the story. That’s why we can consider this story as an interior monologue. In the text we also encounter with protagonist’s inner dialog and the dialog between the antagonist and two strangers. It is a kind of blend of dialogs and monologue speech. It makes us imagine more vivid the situation and keeps us in tension. On the whole the structure of the text is chronological. Only the second paragraph is a little bit detached telling about Charlie’s family and his conflicts with boys from County school and his father. The story starts at the beginning and moves through time.

Style: Level of Complexity

The structure of the text is very complex. There are a lot of commas, semi-colons and conjunctions. Also inclusion of the dialogs tells us about it. Equally with conjunctions such stylistic device as asyndeton is used many times in the text. Abrupt changes from long sentences to short ones and vice versa create a very strong effect of tension and suspense for they serve to arrange a nervous, ragged rhythm of the utterances. Also very short sentences produce a very strong emphatic impact. In the text we can notice loose, periodic and balanced sentences, it also says to us about very sophisticated structure of the text. We can encounter with apokoinu constructions “light burning”, “chin cupped in his hands”, “made him grab”, “sound of several men walking rapidly”, “…quick steps going away”, “…don’t’ let me be caught”. Apokoinu constructions are mostly used in the entrusted narrative. We can find also a lot of attachments, particularly, in dialogs (In speech of Charlie’s father), in the 5th paragraph (“…belted mackintoshes. They were strangers.”)

The story abounds with literary words as it should be with the fiction. The author chose very colored words such as “banks of cloud”, “thin haze”, “stale smoke”, “boisterous”, “spasmodically”, “wraith”, “despair”, “lurked”, “held his breath”, “dare not to move”, “cowered” and etc. Dialogs are very colloquial, a lot of phrasal verbs are used (“sell out”, “to be off”, “put off”). What is very interesting in the text you can find some proverbs. Firstly, in the inner dialog of the boy (“May as well be hung for a sheep”, but it isn’t full, we can consider it as ellipsis) and secondly in the speech of Charlie’s father, not finished as well (“while there’s life…”, the continuation is “…there is hope”) and “a stitch in time” (also isn’t finished (continuation: “…saves nine”)), and wrenched proverb “Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow”.

The latter is said with a touch of sarcasm. The usage of proverbs also is a common characteristic of the boy and his father. Elipsises reflect the natural omissions characterizing oral colloquial speech and the main function is to achieve the authenticity and plausibility of fictious dialog. When Charlie wants to encourage himself he says “Cowardy, cowardy custard”. It is a very interesting expression and is a taunt used by schoolchildren in the UK equivalent to “scaredy cat” in the U.S. By the way it is one more clue in support of the story happens in England. It means one who is excessively fearful. The word “Cowardy” is made with the help of diminutive suffix –y, it underlines additional emotional coloring. The descriptions in the story are very detailed, author uses a lot of epithets (“boisterous”, “wraith”, “stale”, “noisy” and etc.).

Figurative language is traced through the whole story. We can find metaphors such as “a searchlight…probing the dark deep spaces…” (we can also call it personification), “surprise and awe kept him…awake”, “the tobacconist’s shop…drew him on”, personification “…familiar photograph had stepped from the frame to reproach him with neglect”, similis such as “dry as biscuit”, “but his father’s affection and dislike were as indefinite as his movements”, disguised simili can be find in the mentioned phrase “Cowardy, cowardy custard”, periphrasis “the packets were piled twelve deep below” instead of “there were 12 packets of cigarettes” which conveys a purely individual perception of the described object, onomatopoeia “when they cracked” if we talk about stairs and emphasizes the reigning tension.

Talking again about the phrase “Cowardy, cowardy custard” author from Charlie’s point of view describes it as childish exhortation. We can notice one more morphological device, suffix –ish. It deepens the coloring of the utterance expressing some contempt. In the second and in the last paragraphs we can find antithesises: the first one in the description of Charlie’s father who is opposed to his mother and the second one “…while his mother was boisterous and kindly, his father was very like himself doing things in the dark which frightened him’. Through this device we can understand the real attitude of Charlie to his parents. In the last antithesis there is also a comparison of the boy and his father. In the text we can also find “don’t you” constructions, the first of which was used to emphasize sarcasm of one of the strangers (“Don’t you want to speak to your wife?” and another one is an inversion “Don’t you worry to much”. Mr. Stowe used it to produce sarcasm as well. Talking about dialogs we can underline its colloquialism also by repetition “Yes, yes”.


The tone of the story is very tense, serious, suspenseful and sometimes in characters’ words sarcasm slips. Tension and fear are seen in the description of boy’s actions “sat in despair”, “cowered in darkness”, “held his breath”, “clutched his nightshirt tight and prayed”. In some phrases of the one stranger we can find sympathy. Also we feel sympathy both to the boy who is mocked at school and his father who seems to be arrested. In the detailed description of Charlie’s father we can notice that the boy is offended by him (“…left even punishment to his mother”). The mood of the story is hopeless and tense. We feel it throughout the story, the setting “helps” us to feel it deeply as well. But in the end we feel a kind of relief for a moment when the boy understands he loves his father. We say “for a moment” because we will never know if the father and the boy ever meet again.

  1. Charlie
  2. 12 years old kid, brave enough to do what is prohibited (to have a smoke). But is under impact of his schoolmates who mock at him, it is a common phenomenon of children of his age. He is smart, we can say it reading how he encourages himself with the proverb. Maybe it tells us that he is well-read. The peculiarity of children of the World War I time was that they were elder mentally, more clever than the children of the peace time. The severe environment made them like that. Charlie tries to prove his maturity, to go against the fear. He is very cautious and skillful. But one thing he forgets is matches. He was so rash in his desire that make him forget a very important thing without what he can’t fulfill his wish.

    Though Charlie loves his mother very much, we can’t say he is mother’s darling. He wants to be with his father, share problems and feelings with him, but he sees that his father isn’t interested in him. That makes him frustrated. Charlie is a dynamic type of character, because he has a very strong position against his father and the attitude to him changes in the end. And he understands himself differently than at the beginning.

  3. Mr. Stowe
  4. From the very beginning we know that Charlie doesn’t love his father. He describes him as “unreal to him, a wraith, pale, thin and indefinite, who noticed him only spasmodically and left even punishment to his mother.” “Tonight he had said he would be in Norwich, and yet you never knew” – this tells us that he lies to his family. He is afraid of revealing his crime. It is seen in the phrase told one of the strangers: “if you wouldn’t mind being quite, gentlemen. I don’t want to wake up the family.”., The same we can see in his answer on the stranger’s question “Don’t you want to speak to your wife?” – “Not me…”. But at the same time Mr. Stowe is very polite with strangers (“if you wouldn’t mind…”, “Mind if…”).

    It also emphasizes his deceitfulness. Mr. Stowe is fond of what he is doing – running the tobacconist’s shop (“It’s a good little business…for those that like it”). We can notice how carefully he behaves with the packets of cigarettes (“…he lifted a pile of Gold Flake and Players from a shelf and caressed the packets with the tips of his fingers.”). He couldn’t be the closest person to his own kid, but he is good at business.

  5. Mr. Stowe
  6. Charlie opposes his father to his mother at the beginning of the story describing that her presence is “boisterous” and her charity is “noisy”. She filled the world for him, “…from her speech he judged her the friend of everyone, from the rector’s wife to the “Dear Queen”, except the “Huns”…”. “For his mother he felt a passionate demonstrative love…”. The word “demonstrative” underlines the ostentation of his love opposing more strong his father to her. It seems that Charlie is very angry with his father at the beginning. Her kindness and boisterous presence are mentioned in the end of the story again, but now the boy doesn’t feel her presence, it is evident in the last sentence “He was alone in the house with his mother…”. He wants to say the warmest words not to her, but to his father. At the end Mr. Stowe becomes the dearest person to the Charlie.

  7. Two strangers
  8. These two strangers seem to be secret-service agents as it was mentioned above. Their appearance (“bowler hats and mackintoshes”) and phrase “…we are on duty” hint at that. One of them is polite enough thanking for the offered cigarette “Thank you all the time”, “one of us’ll come with you, if you don’t mind, – said the stranger gently”. The other one is trying to be sarcastic.

Methods of characterization


We can compare growing of a child with the stairs. Every footstep is a phase or life period. We can observe the dynamics of Charlie’s life, his growing, throughout the story, though it is a very little period of time. But the changes are evident. And we can imagine the stairs as a symbolic element. Moreover, we can find symbolism in night characterizing Charlie’s fears and hesitation and uncertainty.

Stylistic devices

A lot of stylistic devices were mentioned above. But in this part of the analysis I want to discuss the title of the story “I Spy”. It sounds like a kids’ game “Eye Spy”, where the player-spy silently selects an object that is visible to all the players and does not reveal his or her choice. The same with Charlie: he wants to share his feelings, emotions and problems with the father, but doesn’t do it. His father isn’t interested in him, he is indefinite and the boy feels it. “I Spy” and “Eye Spy” is a stylistic device called pun, based on the play of words that sound similar.

Cite this page

'I Spy' by Graham Green. (2016, May 30). Retrieved from

'I Spy' by Graham Green
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