Study Guide

The Bourne Identity Strength and Skill

By Robert Ludlum

Strength and Skill

"Because you've injured three men who will lose at least a month's wages between them. And something else that's infinitely more important."
"What's that?"
"The insult. An off-islander proved himself more than a match for not one, but three respected fishermen of Port Noir."
"Respected?"
"In the physical sense. Lamouche's crew is considered the roughest on the Waterfront."
"That's ridiculous."
"Not to them. It's their honor…" (2.116-122)

This is the first demonstration of Bourne's super awesome fighting skills:he beats up a bunch of fishermen. When Bourne says, "That's ridiculous," he might be saying that violence in the name of honor is wrong or silly. But Bourne could also mean: "It's ridiculous to think that those incompetent pushovers are considered the roughest crew on the waterfront." The second interpretation seems more likely in the context of the novel. The Bourne Identity doesn't have much of a problem with fighting—only with losing.

It was not professional, and if he had learned anything about himself during the past forty-eight hours it was that he was a professional. Of what he had no idea, but the status was not debatable. (4.42)

The word "professional" pops up throughout the novel. In this case, Bourne knows he's a professional before he knows what he's a professional of. The status of competence, and of being worthy of payment, is more important than the details.

Determined killers avoided taking the wrong life, not from compassion but for practicality; in any ensuing panic the real target might escape. (5.78)

The Bourne Identity loves throwing out practical tips for the cold-blooded killer. These tips are almost certainly nonsense—we doubt that Robert Ludlum has actually talked to many cold-blooded killers to find out how they roll. But so what? The novel is fun because it seems to know a whole lot of cold-blooded-killery, and also because we feel like we're being let in on hard-boiled, professional secrets, whether they're true or not.

Killing was a practical matter, nothing else. (6.115)

Bourne states the spy code. It's not exactly true, though: killing in The Bourne Identity isn't practical—how could it be, when it's fiction, and nothing practical is being accomplished? Rather, practical killing, or the idea of killing as an efficient job, is a pleasure. It's fun to see the tough, messy business of killing reduced to a systematic, competent job. What does this tell us about the novel's moral code? What do you think of this attitude toward killing? Is this also Carlos's attitude toward killing?

"I work with statistics, Mr. Washburn or Mr. Bourne, or whatever your name is. I respect observable data and I can spot inaccuracies; I'm trained to do that." (9.140)

Marie is making her own statement of competent efficiency. As an economist, she has a special talent for evaluating data and inaccuracies. Economists have been known to argue that they do, in fact, have a better sense of how reality works than the rest of us do. Are they right? Or are their claims to competence and professionalism just fantasies, like the dreams of superspies?

It had to be said: there was a certain dignity to be found in working for Carlos. And there was no lack of generosity. This was what his small army of infirm old men understood; he gave a purpose to the ends of their lives. (10.147)

Carlos is a professional, too; he pays well and treats his workers with dignity. Better than many employers, in other words. Of course, Carlos is also more likely than most employers to off you if anything goes wrong. Or if he just feels like it. Job security isn't exactly his thing.

"Whereas tales of his exploits give rise to images of a world filled with violence and conspiracy…the facts would seem to indicate at least as much Adam Smith as Ian Fleming."(13.45)

Adam Smith is an important economic theorist; Ian Fleming is the author of the James Bond spy novels. Carlos is described as a mix of both, since he's familiar with both espionage and economics. The Bourne Identity itself loves the mechanics of Swiss bank withdrawals as much as it loves the machinations of international assassins. The novel often draws a parallel between the complicated world of finance and the complicated world of espionage. Both seem to be highly professionalized, highly technical, and therefore highly appealing ventures.

"Two stallions in a paddock," answered Walters. "They tustle." (16.81)

The two stallions here are Cain (Bourne) and Carlos. Treadstone was based on the idea that if it set up another assassin as a rival to Carlos, Carlos would freak out on thwarted machismo and would be flushed out into the open. Bourne has, of course, forgotten the plot…but he's still a stallion, and he still goes into the paddock for a tussle. The fake machismo plot concealed the fact that Bourne is up to his gills in real machismo, just like Carlos.

"What sort of man is he?"
"A professional," answered Gordon Webb. "Someone who had the training and the capability, who understood that Carlos had to be found, stopped." (19.106)

This quote is about David Webb. David Webb is, of course, Gordon's brother. There's something a little strange about the fact that the highest praise Gordon can give his sibling is that he's a professional. But that's the dirty, practical, pragmatic world of espionage for you.

"For these were not ordinary men; they were seasoned professional soldiers. Unless he was grossly mistaken, thought Bourne, the depth of experience and range of influence in that room was staggering." (24.98)

Bourne is confronted with the old soldiers Villiers has gathered. He is staggered by the experience and professionalism and influence, just as we as readers are supposed to be staggered by experience, professionalism and influence. Seasoned professionalism, in The Bourne Identity, gets the blood pumping.