Hemingway Code Heroes, the real and the fictional: John McCain and Jim Prideaux

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are stronger at the broken places-Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms.

A man can be destroyed but not defeated.-Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea.

The only good thing that has come out of Donald Trump’s scurrilous attack on Senator John McCain’s Vietnam War experience was to bring that experience back into the public eye.

And that is a very good thing.

The badly injured John McCain as a POW in a Hanoi hospital

The badly injured John McCain as a POW in a Hanoi hospital

For anyone not familiar with McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton, here is a quick recap: A US Navy fighter pilot, McCain was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and suffered a broken leg and two broken arms while ejecting from his fighter jet. He was taken prisoner and received little medical treatment for his wounds, instead enduring almost daily beatings and interrogations by his guards.  The beatings were often concentrated on his injured limbs.  He was offered his freedom but refused it until all of his fellow American POWs were first released.  During his five and a half-years of captivity, he was kept for months at a time in solitary confinement.   His injuries are still visible today.  He walks with a slight limp and still cannot raise his arms above his shoulders.

McCain’s experience was a stark real-life example of the Hemingway “code”—‘grace under pressure’, as Hemingway once told Dorothy Parker.

As Philip Young explained it, “It is made of the controls of honor and courage which in a life of tension and pain make a man a man and distinguish him from the people who follow random impulses.”[i] Young went to distinguish the characters who followed the Hemingway code from those who had been popularly described at the time as Hemingway “heroes.” According to Young, the code heroes were more teachers than heroes, showing their fellow characters and the readers the way to conduct themselves when faced with adversity, most particularly, with death.

Whether it is Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Santiago, the old Cuban fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea, Manuel, the bullfighter in The Undefeated, Jack, the professional fighter in Fifty Grand, or Francis Macomber in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, or John McCain, prostrate on a filthy pallet in the Hanoi Hilton, the code hero follows through on his mission and refuses to dishonor himself, showing us how we should conduct ourselves while overcoming our own fears and doubts and facing pain or death.  To have cojones like the bullfighters Hemingway so admired and not be a cobarde like Jordan’s (and Hemingway’s) father who shot himself.

As EE Cumming’s poetic figure, the pacifist Olaf “bad and good”, put it while being tortured, “there is some shit I will not eat.” As his North Vietnamese interrogators punch him and rip at his broken limbs, one can easily hear the signature McCain giggle that sends the goons into spasms of further fury.

McCain welcomed home by then President Richard M. Nixon. Photo is courtesy of Getty Images.

McCain welcomed home by then President Richard M. Nixon. Photo is courtesy of Getty Images.

The only disloyalty I’m concerned about is disloyalty to myself…By romanticism I understand that one identifies one’s private standards and adheres to them. -John Le Carré.[ii]

McCain’s experience, so denigrated by Trump, reminded me of Jim Prideaux, the fictional code hero of John Le Carré’s whose experience was quite akin in substance and time to that of McCain’s.  Jim is introduced to the world on the very first page of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the best known of Le Carré’s espionage novels.

While George Smiley has been popularly considered the hero of Tinker, Tailor, the true hero, the code hero is Jim. For the novel is his story, not Smiley’s. George is just there to discover for the reader the true, heroic story of Jim and to have Jim show what the code required of him and by extension, the reader, if he cares to learn the lesson.

From the beginning, the reader learns things about Jim: A substitute teacher at a third-rate boarding school, Jim is self-reliant, lives off the land; is fluent in French; likes spicy food of the Subcontinental cuisine; suffers from a convulsive jerk of the right hand; possesses an “aura of gentleness” and “passionate Englishness.”  He is ever ready to lecture and has a sound understanding of the criminal mind; reads the Daily Telegraph and knows how to snap an owl’s neck like a gamekeeper. The pupils call him “Rhino” and as an outsider, a substitute teacher who arrived mid-term, he befriends another outsider, a pupil named “Jumbo” Roach.

Yet these facts are merely “things.”  They tell the reader about Jim while not telling us who he is.   Who is Jim Prideaux?  What is he about?  “A very patriotic bloke,” as he is described to his employer.  These are not the attributes of a minor character, a Jerry Westerby or Oliver Lacon.  The reader knows that LeCarré didn’t spend the first fifteen pages of the novel discussing Jim unless he was a pivotal character.  And when Jim disappears for the next 200 pages, the reader is constantly waiting for him to reappear and to learn the true story of Jim.

When he does reappear, it is first through Jumbo Roach who see Jim digging up something in a vegetable garden and peering through the window of Jim’s caravan sees that the something is a pistol.

Now the reader truly knows something about Jim, something that was suspected from the start.  He is a dangerous man…and not just to owls.

Jim Prideaux played by Mark Strong

Jim Prideaux played by Mark Strong

Next, the reader sees Jim through Smiley reading his service file, including a letter from Bill Haydon, a fellow spy, to an Oxford don who was also a “talent-spotter” for the intelligence service. Through the letter we learn that while at Oxford before the war, Jim was a loner and an “athleticus” and probably Haydon’s lover. While Haydon matriculates at Christ Church College, so connected with the British establishment, including among its old boys thirteen Prime Ministers, a half-dozen Foreign Secretaries, and a spymaster, Jim’s constituent college is left vague.  I would like to think that it was one of the cooler colleges, such as New College or Pembroke.

After the war, he joins the intelligence service and as he tells Smiley over a bottle of vodka, that in 1973, he is asked by Control to go to Czechoslovakia to debrief a Czech general who purportedly has information about a Soviet mole in the service. Jim thinks the idea is preposterous, a provocation and the mission dangerous. Nevertheless, Jim agrees because Control asked him. Even when he arrives in Brno, realizes his cover has been broken and finds himself the subject of what he calls a “grand slam” surveillance operation, he never considers dropping the job.  He had promised Control.  At the rendezvous, he senses a trap and tries to escape but is shot twice in the back and captured.

Like LeCarré’s earlier code heroes, Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Fred Leiser in The Looking Glass War, or Hemingway’s Robert Jordan, honor requires Jim to continue the mission, no matter how flawed and fouled up and meaningless it was.  For Jim, Leamas and Fred Leiser were, as LeCarré once put it, “the sacrificial victims” of others.[iii]

Like McCain, Jim suffered months of daily interrogations accompanied by beatings, but with the additions of white noise and electricity. He endured it all for months to protect Control’s aim and the in-country network of agents, at first giving the KGB hoods only what he knew they already knew, finally only breaking at the end, not because he was afraid he was going to die but because he was simply worn out.  Perhaps it was because he finally sensed he had been betrayed.  Repatriated, he was mustered out of the service and loyally kept quiet about the blown mission, burying his suspicions deep inside him, although “sometimes he thought of the wound as a memory he couldn’t keep down” but he liked correcting his French papers because “correcting kept his mind in the right places.”

Only now Smiley, searching for the Soviet mole, wouldn’t let it stay in the “right places.”

He faces up to the fact that Control had been right, there was a mole, and he follows Smiley as Smiley traps the mole who turns out to be Jim’s old friend and lover, Bill Haydon.   Under the code, Haydon’s treachery could have only one result.  Jim snaps his neck just as he did the owl in the opening chapter.  Returning to the boarding school, he resumes his teaching duties and as the code requires, continues to befriend and tutor Jumbo Roach.  “We were new boys together,” he tells a visiting parent.[iv]

[i] Young, Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration; Harcourt, Brace & World, NY, 1966, p. 63

[ii] Violent Image, Sunday Times of London, 30 March, 1969.

[iii] The Fictional World of Espionage, Leigh Crutchley, The Listener 75, 14 April 1966.

[iv] The 2011 cinema version changes the killing of the owl to beating it to death and the killing of Haydon by rifle shot, thus destroying the circle of Jim’s story from beginning to end that LeCarré created in the novel. Even more damaging to Jim as the code hero, the movie has Jim rejecting Jumbo Roach at the end, a clear violation of the code’s requirement of loyalty, an act which marred an otherwise sterling portrayal of Jim by the actor Mark Strong. While the movie took liberties with other characters, such as turning Peter Guillam from heterosexual to homosexual, and classing down the aristocratic Jerry Westerby, the centrality of Prideaux and his role as a code hero, requires that the true ending could only be the one LeCarré gave us.


  1. Gerhard Schreurs says

    Hi Stan,
    An impressive piece of research, and opinions and conclusions i wholeheartedly agree with. The story of John McCain is also known here in the Netherlands, there was a documentary about him. Also known, to everyone’s perplexity here, are Donald Trump’s slanderous capers, making a travesty of the election procedures concerning the most powerful post on earth. One can only speculate about what is going on between the ears of people paying attention to this man, let alone regarding him as a halfway worthy candidate for such a responsible position.

    As for Jim Prideaux, you are absolutely right, he paid the true price for the whole adventure. Smiley is consistently portrayed as an easily hurt man with deep and complex feelings, and in the 1979 BBC miniseries his behaviour towards Prideaux while interrogating him is uncharacteristically harsh. In the car he first compromises Prideaux with Haydon’s letter to Fenshaw, of which he can ” quote the odd line from memory”. Actor Ian Bannen’s contribution has not often received the acclaim it deserves, he portrays a very believable Prideaux. As Smiley quotes the lines, the stare of Bannen alone is enough for the viewer to grasp that Prideaux is forceably redrawn into something he has spent a lot of time and pain on to forget.

    Later, in a motel room, where the questioning goes on, Smiley quite casually informs Prideaux about the members of the Czech network having been shot, Prideaux runs to the bathroom to be sick, while Smiley simply lights a cigarette. The same cold attitude goes on in the field, where Prideaux says that you don’t so much as break, but rather run out of stories to tell, with the truths you were trying to hide being the first things coming up in your brain. The viewers know that this is quite an understatement and that the man has gone through hell and back. That’s why i think Bannen’s facial expressions while saying “… that’s when i… gave them…. what they wanted….” are amongst the finest seconds of the whole miniseries. The man obviously breaks again before Smiley and admits to what he finds to be a shameful act, with Smiley feebly placating that with “it’s a matter of health, much like anything”. Very unlike Smiley, i wonder why Le Carré made him behave likt that.
    Another such strange and cold moment is reserved for Jerry Westerby, when seated opposite Smiley while they eat. “Nothing ontoward going on, old boy? Tribe on the rampage? Not hunting alone, are you?” Westerby asks, receiving only silence from Smiley, accompanied by a frozen half-grin and a very cold comprehending stare. I wonder if Alec Guiness knew that his face had that effect the moment he stared like that. When someone stared at me like that, i would run for cover. Watch the scene, it’s chilling. It’s like Tatiana said in the sequel miniseries:” i respect your kindness, Herr Lachmann, but i know you are an extremy dangerous man…”
    I didn’t bother to see the 2011 movie remake, and i probably won’t even buy it on dvd on sale. Ian Bannen to me is the real Jim Prideaux, and i don’t care much about Gary Oldman, either.

    Thank you Stan, for another great blog. I will look into your books as well.

    Kind regards

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