A look at the character of James Bond in his first adventure
Who is James Bond? He’s seemingly the main character as the novel opens, but what do we know let alone learn about him in this first adventure?
The story opens and we are quickly, yet vaguely, brought up to speed on this man Bond who is gambling for high stakes in a casino in the south of France and it is very late.
We learn, through the narrative, that Bond works in London yet has established himself as a representative for a Jamaican newspaper and that he receives cables and monies from there, yet his true superior in London is a man with the monogram “M”.
Bond is clearly an operative of some sort but on which side of the law is unclear. He’s also suspicious and experienced enough to know that elevators can be dangerous late at night or in the wee hours of the morning and, presently, he would not be surprised to discover his room has been searched. In fact, he has set small “tells” throughout his room to detect just that – a random strand of hair, talcum powder on handles and locks and then it is established:
“He was a secret agent, and still alive thanks to his exact attention to the detail of his profession.”
So, we know his profession and that it is in the service of the United Kingdom and that it has the potential to be dangerous. He is using his name but under the guise of a high stakes gambler from Jamaica… and he sleeps with a gun under his pillow.
Aside from the job, number 007 is Bond’s apparent rank in the service and “double-0’s” are very highly regarded, he (like anyone) does have some particular likes and sense of both style and taste. The first of these (which will continue to be a staple of the character’s personality in subsequent adventures) is that he enjoys a good breakfast and that he smokes custom made cigarettes. It is the details of such things that make the man real and intriguing.
Bond takes his work seriously. His conversation with Mathis establishes this as they go through the motions of putting on a show for the benefit of the transmitter in Bond’s room. Bond expresses no apparent anger at the situation but takes it in stride. However, when Mathis reveals that London is sending a woman to work with him, Bond reveals his chauvinism. It’s not that he dislikes the company of ladies (far from it) but within his profession, they are best and only suited for office work or as a distraction, either for himself or his opponents in the “secret world”.
We then discover Bond’s other personal passion: His car. A 1933 4.5 litre Bentley convertible which he has had since before the War and it soon appears to be one his favorite personal possessions and he truly seems to enjoy driving it.
His first meeting with Vesper Lynd finally reveals how he viewed by others. Mathis mentions the fact after Bond leaves that Bond is serious and does not have a habit or reputation of being easily “melted” by a woman but seems to sense that Vesper has the potential to do so. Vesper, in turn, finds Bond to be “very good looking” but notices something cruel about him.
Before she can continue, the attempt on Bond’s life occurs with a devastating blast from an explosive charge which he survives but only through luck. Later, after a few solid drinks and lunch, he seems hardly phased by the attempt, once again taking it in stride as a part of the job. It is however important to note that Bond’s first reaction is to vomit after the blast, not from shock, but rather from the stench of roasted flesh. He is human and that again lends itself to the reality of the character. Details such as these are what Fleming created for just this effect.
The next detail of Bond is destined to be his trademark. The martini of his “own invention”. Bond explains to another new character, Felix Leiter, why he prefers it made to the exact specifications:
“I never have more than one drink before dinner.
But I do like that one to be large and very
strong and very cold and very well-made.”
And hence, another personal detail is revealed and later to become perhaps the first element of Bond to make it’s way into popular culture throughout the world and the world’s bartenders.
During his dinner with Vesper, Bond’s rank as a Double-O is very flatly laid out as basically being an assassin and that in the world they both operate in, one simply follows orders. He is not proud but conveys a sense of duty in his fulfilling his assignment by taking the required actions. Vesper herself recalls her briefing on Bond, which warns her of becoming involved in anything but the job at hand. He’s an expert and there are not many in the field as dedicated as himself. The Head of S. even admits that Bond’s “good looking” but probably doesn’t have much heart for emotion.
Bond’s understanding of gambling is first class, yet is unclear as to how he became such an expert. It is established through the events at “High Table”, that he does take risks and even failure as part of the task. Such dedication does establish again that he is a professional with his life on the line. Literally. So when he finds a barrel in his back and countdown to ten unless he removes his bet. He does manage to escape this through a highly risky move by toppling himself and his chair thus wrenching the “deadly tube” from the hands of his assailant. Upon regaining his composure, he is soaked with “the sweat of fear” again being quite human. He is by no means anything but an experienced operative who is willing to take a chance in a given situation. Part luck, part skill but all human.
The game plays out and ultimately (although not naturally as we later come to expect of Bond) he manages to clean out Le Chiffre in an incredibly suspenseful sequence which is engrossing to the end. The stakes are then “upped” by Vesper’s kidnapping and Bond’s pursuit ending with his beloved Bentley wrecked and himself at the mercy of Le Chiffre.
We now have Bond in a most vulnerable situation of being tortured in perhaps the cruelest manner a man can be. The villain wants information (the location of the cashier’s check for the winnings) and Bond will not give it. Bond knows how torture works, but this by no means promises survival. He actually knows he won’t reveal anything and likely will be killed. He will win by sacrifice and that (given all options he has – those being slim & none) this is once again, a part of his job. Amidst all the ensuing beating of his genitals his only concern is for Vesper. Once again though, fate (with simple luck) saves Bond from death and he does survive although certainly injured and having not had the requisite satisfaction of dispatching Le Chiffre himself and through luck, not being killed by the SMERSH assassin sent to kill Le Chiffre. It seems that spies the world over do (at this point in time) have a code of only following the specific orders given them.
Bond awakes in the hospital and we then get a glimpse into his outlook at his chosen path during his debriefing with Mathis. Bond has concluded that he is not certain if he is in the service of good or evil and therefore will resign upon his return to London. We finally learn the specifics of how Bond earned his Double-O in an almost confessional manner yet with no trace of particular emotion. He and Mathis debate the issue of good and evil in their work but it does again prove that Bond is a human and has his doubts as any of us do from time to time.
We then see the “secret agent” truly humanized by the strongest emotion of all. Love. His recovery and holiday with Vesper shows us a very different side to Bond. He is romantic, doting and looking to a future with this girl. A far cry from the man who does not “melt easily”. Given the extreme events and torture that he has survived he becomes grateful and respectful of life and the ability to live it. He’s even ready to both love and commit (he plans to propose to Vesper after their first night at the inn) which are hardly qualities that he would have expressed in his initial introduction to us and based on his reputation within the service and among those he has worked with.
It is with Vesper’s suicide that Bond seems to suddenly abandon his vulnerable side and realize that he is a professional and in being one, he can never truly live a normal existence but he does now understand the evil in his profession and that he must strive to do battle against it.
So to go back and restate my original question “Who is this guy?” it’s almost simple to answer but with a certain degree of understanding now that we have seen him go almost a full emotional circle. He’s what he started out as. A secret agent but only in title. He is a man that can love, hate and is capable of living his life by his own standards yet is accepting of the world around him and that he chooses to be a part of in his profession. We’re also intrigued by this world of his such that we want to learn more about him and be involved with it, if only as spectators.
We now know that “James Bond will return”, but with this first novel we don’t know for certain, but we do know we’d like him to.
And so did Ian Fleming.
Charles Axworthy posts in the CommanderBond.net forums under the screen-name of Bryce (003).