How Does Michael Frayn Portray The Character Of Stephen
When we first meet Stephen, he is described by his older self Stefan. This is the only description we get of Stephen and, as many of us do, his older self picks out all the negative things about him- “the too-short grey flannel school shirt hanging out of the too-long grey flannel school shorts.” Stefan even sees his younger self only in monochrome for a while. We get short, scattered descriptions of Stephen from time to time- “teapot eared Stephen, with the half-open mouth and grimy tennis shoes”, but for a true depiction of Stephen’s character we must look deeper into the novel.
Frayn uses symbolism often in this book, one of the first times being when Stephen is knocking at Keith’s door. Stephen’s socks are sagging and laces untied. When Keith opens the door we see Keith’s socks “neatly pulled up to half an inch below his knee and his brown leather sandals neatly buckled.” Stephen tries to pull up the socks and tie the lace, but “the sock with the failed garter slips back down.” Already we have learnt something about the two boys- Stephen is lower then Keith in everything of importance- class, status, etc, and that will never change.
Stephen says as much when he describes the relationship between the two boys- “He was the officer corps in our two-man army. I was the Other Ranks- and grateful to be so.” Stephen is saying that he takes the orders and doesn’t complain. When they begin to spy on Mrs Hayward, we find out that this is a very accurate metaphor. The fact that Stephen is grateful to be ordered around suggests that Keith is his only friend.
Frayn has already implied that the boys are not the same. Their belts reinforce this idea. Stephen has two green bands on his belt and Keith two yellow bands. They are “socially colour coded for ease of reference.” The codes are absolute- yellow is good, green is bad, and as Stephen says “everything about him was yellow and black; everything about me was green and black.”
Frayn uses gardens as metaphors of the household. The Berrill girls, running wild while their father is away are represented by wild roses in their garden. The Haywards perfect lives are indicated by the neat bed of roses in their front garden. Stephen’s garden, “full of who knows what” symbolises the mystery surrounding his family’s history.
There is more hinting at Stephen’s background from Frayn, but through one of Stephen and Keith’s games. They call the “secret organisation” at Trewinnick The Juice. It is not explained where they picked up this word, but it was probably at school, with boys saying, “The Juice are evil” or “The Juice aren’t wanted”. Keith and Stephen misunderstood though- the boys weren’t talking about juice, but the Jews. When Stephen tells his father about the Juice, his father “gave him one of his long, thoughtful looks.” His father also uses words such as “shnick-shnack”, and the whole family have to stay inside on Fridays (the Jewish Sabbath). “Tonight you can just stay in for once. It is Friday you know.” More suggestions at Stephen’s family’s culture.
Stephen is not close to his family- there seems to be a gulf between them, probably due to the fact that his parents and brother are concealing his true heritage from him. His father tries to bridge this gap with complicated questions such as “what is x if 7×2 is 49? His mother tries by asking Stephen to invite Keith over, something that Stephen almost laughs at her- “She doesn’t understand anything, and I couldn’t begin to explain.” Geoff bridges the gap by making fun of him. Stephen is embarrassed by his father’s words, by his mother’s plainness and even by himself. “Why do we have an embarrassing name like Wheatley?” an ironic statement, since we find out Wheatley isn’t his real name and his parents chose it because they thought it would help the boys to fit in more!
However, at least his parents acknowledge him. Mr and Mrs Hayward refuse to even talk to him. “She wouldn’t speak to him personally”, “Would he actually turn to look at Stephen for once”. When Mrs Hayward actually addresses him, it is because she is so lost in her thoughts. When Mr Hayward finally speaks to him, it is to beg him with the word “please”- and important shift in power between the two. The Haywards refusal to talk to Stephen is another reminder of Stephen’s class.
Stephen is given a huge imagination by Michael Frayn. This is shown in many places, such as the time when Keith makes the claim of his mother being a German spy. Stephen’s imagination creates a scenario in seconds to explain the incendiary bombing on Miss Durant’s house. “But if Miss Durant had found out the truth about Keith’s mother and was about to unmask her… And if Keith’s mother had realised, and had gone out into the blackout and signalled to them with a torch, to guide them to the target…” Stephen, and many children do now, finds his life and family so boring, that he has to use his imagination to create an exciting life for himself and this shows in Spies.
Stephen is portrayed by Frayn as not very well educated, not only on maths equations and Canadian wheat and minerals, but on basic facts of life. When Stephen describes Mr Hayward’s “notable attempts to reduce the German population during the Great War”, he says it as though the 5 Germans killed by Keith’s father made up a sizeable chunk of the German population. He probably thinks that the Close makes up most of the United Kingdom! Stephen also thinks that Mr Pinchers “activities”- another example of Stephen’s imagination- will provide great assistance to the enemy. He believes that a few stolen pieces of timber will have a huge positive effect on the Germans! Another time Stephen betrays his ignorance is when he is looking at a picture of Mrs Hayward and Auntie Dee and realises that they are sisters. “It occurs to me for the first time that if they were sisters when they were little they must be sisters still. An extraordinary thought.” Stephen’s revelation is both humorous and touching.
There is one aspect in which Stephen betters Keith. When Keith starts their spying logbook he crosses out BIRDS and writes SECRIT. Stephen has “private reservations about the spelling”, but keeps them to himself. The same thing happens with the PRIVET sign, but Stephen says nothing. Stephen’s linguistic ability becomes his career as we find out later that he is a professional translator.
Michael Frayn portrays Stephen as a child who is discriminated against because of his culture in class as well as by adults around him. This discrimination leads him to crave for friendship and no matter how badly he is treated he continues to be Keith’s “disciple” and accepts any order he is given. He develops independence after his friendship with Keith ends, going out into the night on his own and standing up to Mr Hayward. Stephen tries to do the right thing and comes across as an honest, loyal friend to Keith and, although he has a short span of concentration is a good example of the saying “it is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”