Frayn presents the character of Keith in Spies through the protagonist Stephen’s recollection of their childhood adventures as best friends. Keith is shown as aware and confident in his knowledge and status, with an imagination so seemingly limitless to the point of violence. Despite this, Frayn evokes sympathy from the reader by portraying Keith for what he truly is: a young boy who uses the spying game as a means of escape from what appears a normal, but harsh upbringing.
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Frayn presents Keith in relation to Stephen, within the context of their friendship. Through their contrasting characteristics and family backgrounds their personalities are created. Frayn’s use of Stephen as a subservient yet contented friend highlights Keith’s dominance: “He [Keith] was the leader, and I was the led.. He was the officer corps… I was the Other Ranks, and grateful to be so.” Frayn’s use of repeated sentence structure emphasises the divide in status of the two. The relationship is presented as balanced by both Stephen and Keith’s contentedness of the power imbalance. Stephen is ‘grateful’ to follow Keith, who enjoys being leader. Keith’s dominance and power over Stephen is made evident, especially as Frayn presents Keith, in Stephen’s eyes, as somewhat of a god: “One single heroic deed, to lay at Keith’s feet in the morning.” This image that is portrayed is that of a sacrifice, an offering to compensate for what Stephen feels are his inadequacies, and his betrayal of Keith’s trust.
Frayn also makes it evident that Keith’s assumed superiority above other children comes from his awareness of his status in society. Again Frayn uses Stephen’s memory as a framework to subtly inform the reader of Keith’s social status. In Stephen’s memory they are ‘socially colour-coded-’ Keith’s ‘yellow and black’ uniform immediately identifies him as coming from the ‘right’ school. Keith does not talk to other children in the Close, only to Stephen, whom he can easily manipulate. Frayn demonstrates Keith’s insensitivity as he patronises Stephen with “Go home if you’re bored, old bean,” a term Keith’s father uses on him to signal a punishment. Frayn clearly uses this phrase to demonstrate Keith echoing his father’s threat towards him, this time it is directed at Stephen. In this case, however, the punishment Keith intends for Stephen is not a caning, but the humiliation of appearing like a child in their pretend adult spying game.
Through Keith, Frayn demonstrates the power of a child’s imagination. From the outset he introduces Keith as an imaginative boy who leads fantastic ‘expeditions’ like investigating murderer-neighbours. This idea is further developed by Frayn with, “My mother… is a German spy.” This shows Keith’s awareness of his mother’s unusual and deceptive behaviour, with the war as a backdrop adding realism to his game. Frayn shows Keith’s imagination as an escape from his ‘perfectly ordered bedroom’- a reflection of his father’s strict control of the house.
Frayn employs the use of Keith’s father’s character to create fearsomeness within Keith’s character himself. The reader empathises with Stephen’s feeling of terror at Keith, as Frayn creates apprehension at Keith’s arrival into the boys’ den and the iconic ‘bayonet’ is taken out. In contrast with Barbara Berrill’s perception of it as simply and more importantly, realistically, a ‘carving knife’- in Keith’s hands tension is immediately created: portrayed as an echo of Mr Hayward through learned behaviour, Keith is capable of inflicting physical pain and violence, and does so. He makes a dismissive comment to Stephen, “If you think that hurt, you don’t know what hurting is.” One the one hand this could be interpreted as Keith’s typical undermining of Stephen’s feelings, challenging him to act like the brave, invincible adult Keith perceives himself to be. On the other hand, it could be read as a cry for help, suggesting that for Keith, physical pain from his father is more bearable than being restricted of his freedom to be what he truly is: a child.
In Keith Frayn shows a lost childhood, exploring within it the idea of secrets of what seem ‘normal’ and flawless in the surface, presenting imagination as a way to violence, and alternatively, a means of escapism from a harsh world.