Study Guide

Code Name Verity Themes

By Elizabeth Wein

  • Friendship

    As themes go, friendship is the big one, the white whale, the lucky penny, the x-marks-the-spot on the treasure map. In other words, Shmoopsters, Code Name Verity is all about friendship: what it is, how it forms, what it means, and how far friends will go for each other.

    As we've mentioned elsewhere in this learning guide, the two narrators—Julie and Maddie—are best friends, and the whole book is about their friendship. Of course, there are a lot of World War II shenanigans going on at the same time, but that's all backdrop to the story of how Julie and Maddie became best friends, what the friendship means to each of them, and what they will do to protect each other.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Julie writes that it's unlikely two people so different would even have met during peacetime. What makes Julie and Maddie such good friends?
    2. What sorts of things do Julie and Maddie have to overcome in order to maintain their friendship? Is there any evidence in the text that Julie or Maddie values anything more than their friendship?
    3. In the end, Maddie proves her love for Julie by killing her. How does Julie prove her love for Maddie?

    Chew on This

    Maddie and Julie become best friends so quickly because the circumstances under which they meet quickly reveal a lot about a person's character.

    Readers understand each character better by seeing her through her best friend's eyes.

  • Manipulation

    Really, was there a chance manipulation wouldn't be one of the themes in a spy novel? Espionage and interrogation are all about manipulating people, about carefully lying and carefully telling the truth to get what you want out of your enemies. Or so we've been told. We don't actually know this from personal experience.

    In Code Name Verity, Julie learns to manipulate those she interrogates, then her captors manipulate her even as she's manipulating them with the careful interplay of lies and truth in her story. Meanwhile, the Bloody Machiavellian English Intelligence Officer playing God manipulates everyone he can get his hands on. We should mention, too, that the reader isn't immune: Julie is an unreliable narrator from the start, but it's only after her story ends that we realize how cleverly she's played us.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. What role does the Bloody Machiavellian English Intelligence Officer playing God play in the novel? Is he deserving of sympathy or not? 
    2. Julie tells von Linden they do the same job. Who do you think is better at it?
    3. What qualities make Julie good at manipulating people? How does she manipulate people in civilian life? Are these qualities admirable or not?
    4. Does Maddie ever manipulate any other characters? If not, would she even be capable of doing so?

    Chew on This

    Manipulation is a skill possessed by all the major characters in Code Name Verity.

    Julie actually manipulates her captors more than they manipulate her.

  • Warfare

    Warfare is another great big glaring theme in Code Name Verity. Without warfare, we wouldn't have much of a book, after all—there'd be no interrogation, no flying to France, and no friendship between Julie and Maddie in the first place. None of the terrible things both narrators describe would happen at all, plus they never would have even met. Julie and Maddie both take refuge in their friendship, by being together and then by writing about their time together when they're apart. For both, it's the one really good thing that comes out of something truly terrible.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. If Julie and Maddie had met in peacetime, how might their relationship have been different?
    2. How does the pairing of a story of friendship with a story of war work or not work for you?
    3. Code Name Verity gives us an alternate image of World War II from the one we normally see, both by focusing on female characters and by directing attention toward smaller scenes rather than toward large battles. How does this enhance readers' understanding of the war?
    4. Is there a message about war in the novel? If so, what is it?

    Chew on This

    Themes of war and friendship are intertwined in Code Name Verity to the point that they cannot be separated.

    The war provides the backdrop for the story of Julie and Maddie's friendship, but the story could have been set anywhere and at any time.

  • Fear

    We'd be surprised if fear weren't a theme in a book about fighting the Nazis. Maddie and Julie talk about their fears a lot, to the point where they each maintain a list of ten things they're afraid of.

    The book isn't just about sitting back and being afraid of your fears, though, and significantly, both Maddie and Julie manage to overcome their major fears in order to get their jobs done. Julie conquers her fear of heights to parachute into France, and Maddie ultimately conquers her fear of gunfire to shoot Julie on the night of the raid. In Code Name Verity, fear is something to be acknowledged and overcome.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What do Julie's and Maddie's initial lists of fears reveal about each of them?
    2. How do the changes in Julie's and Maddie's revised lists of fears demonstrate changes in their characters?
    3. How do Julie and Maddie manage to either overcome their fears or to cope when those fears come true?
    4. What do you think is each character's finest moment of overcoming fear?

    Chew on This

    Changes in Maddie's and Julie's mental states can be traced by examining their lists of fears.

    While fear is omnipresent, it is not what motivates most characters' actions.

  • Perseverance

    Perseverance: hanging in, hanging on, getting the job done. It's a useful quality to have in war, and in life. In Code Name Verity, Julie has a mission to complete, Maddie has a friend to save, and both of them are determined to accomplish their goals no matter what the odds or what the cost.

    The theme of perseverance shows up both as endurance and as determination, as Julie and Maddie endure terrible conditions in occupied France, determined to finish their jobs. Maddie and Julie aren't the only ones demonstrating perseverance, though. How do other characters, like Jamie, the members of Damask circuit, Lady Beaufort-Stuart, and even the Gestapo officers, show their willingness to see things through? This is one dedicated cast of characters, that's for sure.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. To what extent does the SOE consider qualities like endurance and determination when recruiting operatives?
    2. How do Julie, Maddie, and other characters demonstrate the quality of perseverance?
    3. In the novel, is perseverance ever shown to be a negative quality?
    4. Is perseverance seen as something a character has or doesn't have, or can it be learned?

    Chew on This

    In Code Name Verity, Julie demonstrates perseverance through her endurance of torture and her determination to complete her story.

    In Code Name Verity, Maddie demonstrates perseverance by completing Julie's mission.

  • Betrayal

    What's a war without a few traitors in the mix? Julie calls herself a traitor on every other page of her "confession," mostly to convince the Ormaie Gestapo that she's actually giving them valuable information—but she's lying about that, so technically she's betraying them even as she's pretending to betray her own country. Maddie feels like she betrays Julie by killing her, but everyone who finds out about it says Maddie did the right thing. Betrayal, in other words, is tricky in Code Name Verity. In occupied France, in a situation where nothing is as it seems and everyone has secrets, trust is valuable, but betrayal runs rampant.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. Are there any real traitors in the novel? Does anyone actually commit treason?
    2. Beyond her frequent admissions that she is, are there any indications that Julie actually believes she is a traitor?
    3. Julie states that the Geneva Convention does not protect her. Is spying itself regarded as an act of betrayal?
    4. What is the relationship between the actual act of treason and the concept of betrayal? Are the two always linked in the novel?

    Chew on This

    Julie's performance of treason in her confession is utterly convincing until her last diary entry.

    Julie's interrogators, von Linden, Engel, and Thibaut, are the ones who actually commit treason.

  • Mortality (Death)

    Most books about any war will deal with the idea of mortality, if only because lots of people tend to die in war, which puts it on everyone's mind. In Code Name Verity, there's a lot of waiting for death as Julie anticipates her execution or transfer to a concentration camp. She has a lot of time to think about not only her own death, but also about how death is portrayed in literature and how people in history have faced their deaths, too. As readers, it's easy both to feel as though Julie's death is inevitable, and to hope it isn't—and then, of course, to have that hope crushed.

    Questions About Mortality (Death)

    1. How does Julie both dwell on and avoid the idea of her own death as she writes her confession?
    2. While Julie's ultimate fate both drives the story and becomes its climax, many other deaths occur. How do these affect the novel's impact?
    3. What is the effect of the reader's discovery in Part 2 that Maddie is still alive?
    4. Is death a dominant theme in the book, or is it subtler compared to other themes?

    Chew on This

    Julie's death is both inevitable and necessary for the novel to be realistic.

    Julie could realistically have survived the raid as other prisoners did.

  • Society and Class

    The theme of society and class comes in to play in Code Name Verity mostly through the contrast between Maddie's and Julie's backgrounds. Maddie is middle-class and Julie is a titled aristocrat, but they're best friends anyway, thanks to the war and their respective general awesomeness. It's interesting to think about society and class as a theme in a novel in which the Nazis play a major role, given the way they judged people based on various identity markers that really had very little to do with the person underneath the label. Just like class.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Would the novel be markedly different in any way if the two main characters were of the same socioeconomic background?
    2. Do Maddie and Julie experience any real barriers to their friendship due to differences in social class?
    3. Do differences in social class contribute to the roles individuals play in the war effort?
    4. Does Julie's privileged upbringing ever provide her with any sort of protection, special treatment, or courtesy?

    Chew on This

    The differences between Maddie's and Julie's socioeconomic backgrounds actually serve as the basis for their friendship.

    Maddie's and Julie's socioeconomic backgrounds make no difference to their characters or to the development of their friendship.

  • Truth

    It's impossible to title a novel Code Name Verity and not deal with the concept of truth. Okay, we guess it's possible, but it's not very likely since verity, or la vérité in French, means truth. This novel asks us to think about the nature of truth. What's the difference between truth and lies? Is it possible to tell the truth while lying? Is truth an absolute, or are there gray areas and shades of meaning? Can what is true for one person be false for another? No matter how you answer these questions, though, this much is certain: truth is a very odd code name for a spy.

    Questions About Truth

    1. By definition, code names are lies about a person's true identity. What does it mean that Julie's code name means truth?
    2. By the end of the novel, do readers have a clear understanding of which parts of the novel were true and which parts were lies? Does anything remain ambiguous?
    3. Julie's code name is in a separate category from others involved in Operation Dogstar. Why might this be, both in the historical context and as a literary device?
    4. Can the reader trust either narrator to tell the truth? Does one seem more or less truthful than the other?

    Chew on This

    Julie's code name does not make sense in the context of the novel, and is just an opportunity for the author to emphasize a specific theme.

    Julie's code name was chosen to conceal the fact that she is an excellent liar.