Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Mr. Verloc

Mr. Verloc, an agent provocateur assigned to spy on anarchists in London; he poses as a shopkeeper. He is indolent and unkempt. Under pressure from his superiors at a foreign embassy, he plans to bomb Greenwich Observatory, a deed he believes sufficiently irrational and anarchistically shocking enough to stir up the London police in a campaign against the anarchists. His feebleminded brother-in-law, whom he enlists to carry the explosive, stumbles in Greenwich Park and is himself blown to bits. Because he uses her half-witted brother as his dupe, Winnie Verloc murders her husband.

Winnie Verloc

Winnie Verloc, a motherly woman who married Verloc mainly to provide security for Stevie, the half-witted brother whom she loves protectively. When she learns that her husband was instrumental in having her brother blown up, she murders him with a knife and attempts to escape to the Continent with Comrade Ossipon. Under great stress after Ossipon deserts her, she commits suicide by jumping from the steamer on the way to Calais.

Chief Inspector Heat

Chief Inspector Heat, an investigator of the Special Crimes Department of the London police. A methodical man, he wishes to follow conventional and routine procedures in trying to solve the mystery of the bombing, the motive for which he can in no way understand. He arrests Michaelis, the most harmless of the anarchist propagandists, whom he knows to be but slightly involved but against whom he can make a case. Because of the insistence of the new...

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Conrad's cast in The Secret Agent is composed of many eccentrics, a fact which led Martin Seymour-Smith in his 1984 "Introduction" to the Penguin edition to suggest that most of them are satirical caricatures. The influence of Dickens on the novel's setting has been suggested, and it is not difficult to argue that Dickens's world of London eccentrics influenced Conrad's characterizations. However, to say that would be to forget that London is a gigantic city which has always had its share of eccentrics. Indeed, a group of revolutionaries and anarchists on the fringe of society are likely to appear rather eccentric anyhow.

One of the central figures is the corpulent and lecherous Verloc, the "agent" of the title, who pretends to be an anarchist, but is essentially a petty mercenary, eking out a living from his bookstore, mainly from selling pornography, and trying to create a large savings account by the work he does for the Russian embassy. If his fate were not a tragic one, Verloc might well be a major comic figure, since his nefarious behavior and involvement in intrigue provide an ironic caricature of all the romantic associations the book's title can conjure up.

As long as his work does not involve violence, Verloc might arouse sympathy, if he were not so insensitive. Although Verloc is fortunate enough to have an attractive and younger wife, he does not appreciate her qualities of character; instead, he chiefly values her as a business assistant and sexual partner.

Although Verloc lacks tragic grandeur, he might be more sympathetic if he had a more perceptive affection for Winnie and behaved more responsibly toward Stevie. His use of Stevie, Winnie's retarded brother, as a carrier of the bomb intended to destroy the Greenwich Observatory seems unconscionable to the reader as well as to Winnie, for Stevie is both emotionally opposed to hurting anyone and is clearly an unreliable means of transporting the explosive.

In fact, since a very probable event happens when Stevie, carrying the bomb, stumbles, sets off the bomb, and blows himself up, Verloc is guilty of criminal negligence, at the very least. But it would be more appropriate to say that Verloc has committed a form of murder, and that he was unconsciously motivated by a desire to rid himself of the burden of taking care of Stevie. Moreover, when he attempts to console Winnie over her brother's death, Verloc reveals that he has no awareness of how greatly Winnie loved Stevie, when he suggests that she will be over her grief after a major emotional outburst ("a good cry"). Although her response, Winnie's anguish and her stabbing of Verloc, is not a moral act, few readers can feel much sympathy for Verloc at this point. Nevertheless, Conrad's pitiless portrait of Verloc is a masterful achievement.

Stevie and Winnie Verloc are probably the novel's most sympathetic characters. Although it has been suggested that Stevie was inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin in The Idiot (1868), because both are essentially innocent figures, Stevie is genuinely a person of childlike intelligence while...

(The entire section is 1275 words.)