The literary heritage of William Somerset Maugham and Ian Fleming firmly carved itself in the history of espionage literature of the 20thcentury. Both authors can surely claim the laurels of the political and spy thriller classics. Spy novels have always been very popular. Narration style changed with the course of time from heroic to the mundane, and from the adventurous to the subtle psychological games. Characters changed as well. Two undoubtedly remarkable characters came out at the same time. They were John Ashenden, created by W.S. Maugham, and James Bond by Ian Fleming.
A suggestion that both authors tried to emphasize the in-depth secrets of human soul rather than barely the spy action, will not be far from the truth. The romantic entourage of secret operations seems to be a decoration, which lets the reader clearly understand what happens on the stage. The characters are unique and far from being similar, though still having something in common. James Bond repeatedly unravels new facets of extraordinary in ordinary people and does not cease his interest in exploring the world of human passion, while Ashenden shows how thrill-less a spy work can be and how close the abyss of misanthropy and frustration is. The cause of it lies in the fact that they live in different worlds, which will never meet.
Maugham’s realistic and completely non-adventurous atmosphere of the real-spy-life confidently opposed heroic espionage literature of the twentieths. John Ashenden proves to be moderately patriotic and even not fully confident in what he is doing. John rarely experiences critical or dangerous moments in his life. Moreover, he is quite aware of his work being mostly boring. John Ashenden hardly makes a regular reader feel compassionate. Imperial conceit and exaggerated ‘self-attention’ cannot hide a shrill emptiness of his heart. That is what a treacherous and cold-blooded spy is. Attentive and somewhat ironic artist’s brush paints agents, spies, traitors and political intrigues masterfully and vividly. Among all the varieties of images and reflection he himself stays with a scalpel of cynicism as a real surgeon of human souls. Ashenden has no one he is fond of, no one dear. Yet, this emotional vacuum sometimes surprisingly does not reject the reader but makes him/her empathize with a strong desire to help him/her find a way out in his/her search for the core of life. Unlike his protagonist, Ashenden stays firm on his position of an independent observer who rarely appears in the center of action but if it happens it takes place only by the force of circumstances. In The Hairless Mexican, Ashenden was entrusted with assassination of a foreign gentleman who was inimical to British interests. Of course, he was not expected to do the dirty deed himself. A bald Mexican has been set as his hand of justice. Maugham’s protagonist can be hardly characterized as a man of active action. Driving around the towns and villages the hero awaits actions in response or tries to ingratiate himself with the enemy. Reckless car chases, shootouts – it is not about Ashenden. The course of action is almost never suspenseful. It is actually surprising as Maugham has repeatedly stated that the facts were bad storytellers, because they lacked colors and emotions. Ian Fleming somewhat agreed to Maugham but still he was an adept of traditional construction of the novel, with the heroes, who are white and the villains, who are black, as he used to say. The action should be an integral part of the entire story.
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Action is the second name for James Bond. James Bond is a completely unique character despite the fact that Fleming has been heavily influenced by W. Maugham. Bond is depicted in the atmosphere, which seems to be far from cynical observation, frustration or mundane reality. According to Fleming, he and Maugham both wrote about what people are really interested in – card games, money, gold and things like that. However, this fact is debatable. Traditions of a romantic spy novel, which Fleming professed, were actually pretty far from harsh life of the real spy (it is known that Ashenden is essentially an autobiographical character). Yet, James Bond’s image is worth of the careful and attentive investigation. The people around him and his decisions are far from being gray and toneless. In The Living Daylights Bond wounds the Russian assassin, though he could easily kill him. Clearly, his choice would not have been approved by his boss. In The Hildebrand Rarity Bond decides not to extradite Mrs. Cross, despite he knows for sure that she is to blame for the death of her husband. Does the hero think that the punishment will be too harsh, or is he sure that the murder is a conformable crime punishment for everything that she had to rub through? Fleming leaves it to the reader.
The protagonists have much in common and many traits of their characters intersect. They both serve their country faithfully. Both still believe in what they are doing. They are both honest to themselves and to others, brave and ready to take any action to comply with the orders. However, the internal motivation of the characters forces to state that with this line similarity of the characters ends. Despite the unchanging human essence Maugham never descends to the hatred of mankind. Moreover, it seems that he loves people as they are. However, if it so, the feeling is hidden deep in the heart of his ‘avatar’ and he is not allowed to manifest it outwardly. It is hardly a coquetry rather a harsh reality. Ashenden does not like people.
Fleming’s hero seems to be more sensitive. He is handsome and successful. He embodies the best features of a special agent as an envoy of his country in the fight against evil.