Explore the way Frayn Presents the Children(TM)s world in Spies

Throughout the novel Frayn presents many aspects of the children’s world. Techniques such as imagery, structure and language portray to the reader a tactile, emotional and natural view of childhood and it’s many negatives. This theme is major in the book and the reader is first introduced to it with the quote “for a moment I am a child again and everything’s before me- all the frightening, half understood promise of life.” This sets the scene for Stephen’s transition in the novel and also shows the reader that much of the book is split into two colliding worlds- the adult’s and the children’s.

One of the biggest aspects of “spies” as a novel is the relationship between Stephen and Keith. The unusual pairing highlights the major theme of social division through the eyes of children. Stephen clearly recognises that social hierarchy is equally as important to children as it is to adults as Frayn writes “we are socially colour coded for ease of reference”. He also places himself below Keith when Frayn uses the stark right/wrong contrast for example Keith attend the “right local preparatory school” and the colour green (Stephen’s uniform) is “the wrong one for a belt or a bus”. Frayn also uses their’ relationship to present the immense awe we feel as a child when we see someone who seems to have everything we want. To emphasise this Frayn uses repetition of the word “special” as he describes Keith’s toys: “he has a special sports model” and “oiled with special oil, and cleaned with special cleaners”. The lack of other adjectives in the paragraph is childlike in the way that it uses simple language; the repetition instils the increase feeling of awe. The boys’ social differences translate even into their games where Frayn uses an extended metaphor of military ranking for example “he was the officer corps in our two man army. I was the other ranks”. This metaphor also relates to Keith’s regimented control over Stephen. The social gap between the two of them makes their relationship one of “incomprehensible good luck” in Stephen’s eyes, after all why would a boy like Keith want to befriend someone who can offer him nothing? Of course this is dealt with through the portrayal of bullying in the book.

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A massive part of the lives of children in this book is control and the aspect of bullying and the abuse of power. This is seen through the bullying of Stephen by Keith and the boys at school and we are also shown the Keith is bullied by his Father.

Firstly Stephen seems to be the most bullied character in the novel, in the early stages the reader is shown a boy who is merely ordered about for example “I humbly wait for Keith to announce what we’re to think and what we’re to do.” which shows how Stephen is intimidated so much by his “friend” that he dares not think anything against him. Part way through the novel Frayn also shows how Stephen is treated in school where two boys “perform their lunchtime routine of seizing my ears and rocking my head back and forth as they chant “Weeny weedy Wheatly””. Of course the effect of this is that the reader builds up a huge empathy for Stephen. The culmination of Stephen’s bullying in the novel is clearly when Keith cuts him with the bayonet; “I can’t take my eyes away from that smile six inches in front of my face” shows the horrifying image of Keith coming towards Stephen, enjoying the fact that he is about to hurt him. The reader may be inclined to hate Keith, however it is clearly shown that he is hurting as much as Stephen.

Stephen’s reaction to bullying is to break down, “but no words come out, only howling as infantile as Milly’s” which shows how bullying makes him feel small. Another reaction to the bullying is identified at the beginning of the novel where Frayn writes, “tell him to wake up and stop being so… so unsatisfactory”. The emphasis on the last word along with the ellipsis disconnecting the end of the sentence from the rest heightens Stephen’s loss of self-belief and confidence. Keith, who is bullied by a very controlling Father reacts differently, he bullies Stephen. Through this mask of power there are small glimpses of Keith hurting such as after he cuts Stephen Frayn writes “”What are you blubbing about?” he says. “That didn’t hurt. If you think that hurt, you don’t know what hurting is.” This stops the reader feeling contempt for this child, instead we feel sorry for him, as he clearly cannot escape his home life.

“Spies” deals with many of the more tender aspects of childhood to such as a child’s innocent view on sex. This is primarily shown through Stephen’s sexual awakening. Towards the beginning of the novel Stephen knows little about the adult word, Frayn shows this when he writes “”You know Auntie Dee’s baby? Said Keith. “She was grown from a seed”” and also the later references to the “x” in Mrs Hayward’s diary about which Stephen says “The x, whatever it is, happens once a month.” The concept of sex is introduced later in the novel when Stephen develops what seem like two crushes. Firstly Stephen seems to develop one on Mrs Hayward, this is primarily shown through the use of imagery to show the reader Stephen’s boyish embarrassment as times when he is close to Mrs Hayward for example his constant reference to her bosom: “that part of a lady as I known for at least a year now, is her bosom, and un-thinkable enough as a privet” and again “my face is buried in the soft confusion of bosoms” later in the novel. Both of these reinforce the fact that Stephen is trying to avoid looking at Keith’s mother.

The second crush is Barbara Berrill and to show this Frayn uses extremely tactile imagery for example “I can feel the bobbliness of the leather and the shininess of the popper against my skin, and the wetness on the edge of the flap where she was catching it against her lip.” this shows how alert Stephen becomes around her and emphasises the nervous way in which children act around the opposite sex.

Another aspect of Frayn’s portrayal of the child’s world is how he ties it in with adult in the book, especially with the vulnerable women characters of Auntie Dee and Mrs Hayward. There are frequent references throughout the book of them being seen as children for example at the start of the book there is a photograph of the two playing at being adults and Frayn writes “She has a protective arm around another little girl, several years younger, who’s holding a doll and looking up at her, trusting but very apprehensive” This image works as a clue towards what is really happening and shows how innocent and fragile the two women once were as children. This acts as a contrast to the end of the book where the reader finds out what is truly happening. This photo is referred to later in the novel as Mrs Hayward sobs in Stephen’s hideout; “it’s the face of a young girl wearing long gloves and a broad-brimmed hat who’s playing at being a grown up” This image works to help the reader see that although Mrs Hayward is an adult, she in vulnerable like a child, and in the child’s secret hideout she reverts back to this.


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