Although Joseph Conrad’s literary reputation has been built largely on his nautical tales, such as Lord Jim (1990) and Heart of Darkness (1899), The Secret Agent marks a new creative direction for Conrad. It is a rather straightforward, realistic novel set in the heart of London, a city characterized by its filth, immorality, and despair. The novel has been identified as the prototypical serious spy novel. In the “Author’s Note” written in 1920, thirteen years after the novel’s original publication, Conrad acknowledges that he had been criticized “on the ground of sordid surroundings and the moral squalor of the tale.” Populated by wretched political figures who believe in nothing but the absolute destruction of all principles and institutions, the world of the novel focuses upon the anarchical political plots disturbing 1880’s England. The human condition, however, is of greater concern to Conrad.
A failed bombing of the Greenwich Observatory in 1894 served as the author’s inspiration for the plot. Conrad recounts that he and fellow writer Ford Madox Ford recalled that one of the revolutionaries was “blown to bits for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other.” Ford’s casual observation, “Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterward,” prompted Conrad’s creation of Winnie Verloc and her half-witted brother, Stevie. Conrad admits that Mrs. Verloc is the imaginative center of his story. She and the city of London provide him with the appropriate forum for the discussion of lives of “utter desolation, madness and despair.”
A mark of Conrad’s fiction is his use of a controlling symbol that unifies the work. A symbolic scene also often functions as an expression of Conrad’s themes. As the author pondered how he might bring together his ideas regarding politics, modern life, and the individuals caught up in it all, Conrad reports, “the vision of an enormous town presented itself, of a monstrous town . . . a cruel devourer of the world’s light.” London embodied for him the fragmentation, the isolation, the loneliness, and the inhumanity of contemporary society. The cab ride through the city as Winnie and Stevie accompany their mother to the almshouse is the scene that manifests all those qualities. The cabman’s cruelty to his half-starved horse, Stevie’s inappropriate outrage, and the indifference with which Winnie allows her mother to enter a life of loneliness and poverty point to Conrad’s principal ideas. Other repeated symbols figure in the novel: the grotesque obesity of the main characters as a marker of immorality (only the Assistant Commissioner and Stevie—men somehow unaffected by the city’s corrupting influences—are described as thin); the reference to human beings as body parts; Stevie’s dismemberment; Stevie’s endlessly drawing concentric circles, ironically the symbol of perfection.
Conrad’s use of irony is another striking element in the novel. In many of his previous works, Conrad created a narrator—often similar to the Heart of Darkness’s Marlow figure—through whom he could speak. This narrator is merely a detached observer of the events he describes, uninvolved and distant from the people and the events of the story, enabling him to judge them. In The Secret Agent , the narrator’s ironic tone allows him that distance. In the “Author’s Note,” Conrad observes that the “ironic treatment alone would enable me to say all I felt I would have to say in scorn as well as in pity.” In mock-heroic language, he portrays the absurdity of the anarchists as they hold their regularly scheduled meetings in the security of Verloc’s rather respectable and bourgeois household, accept their financial dependence upon generous aristocratic gentlewomen, and remain unaware of their...
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absolute ignorance of the world they are supposedly out to save. This ironic scorn is not as appropriate in dealing with Winnie. In her case, Conrad uses distance and detachment, which prohibit the narrator from slipping into Dickensian sentimentality as she sacrifices her only love and hope for happiness—ironically with a young butcher, a foreshadowing of the role Winnie plays at the end of the novel—in exchange for her mother’s and her brother’s security. Even in Winnie’s despair after murdering her husband, irony controls emotions. Comrade Ossipon, finally realizing that Winnie killed Verloc and that Verloc is not blown up as Ossipon thought, remarks how much she resembles her brother, whom he regards as degenerate. The idiot boy and his mad sister do not find a savior. Disgusted and fearful, Ossipon jumps from the moving train carrying Winnie to the Paris ferry, consigning her in her despair and utter loneliness to suicide. This story is told with a scrupulousness that appeals to judgment, not sentiment.
Conrad’s greatest achievement in The Secret Agent is his vision of the human condition. His nineteenth century London teems with life and activity but is absolutely devoid of meaning and community. The Verlocs live in a tiny triangular island in a deserted Soho street cut off from the surrounding neighborhood. Although married for seven years, Winnie has never inquired into her husband’s comings and goings, his friends, or his activities. She deems that life does not warrant too much looking into. Husband and wife hardly speak. Keeping Stevie quiet and occupied are of major concern to her. Winnie’s mother wishes most to keep out of the way of Mr. Verloc, even to the point of consigning herself to the almshouse. There is no sense of social interaction, of communication, or of community. When in desperation Winnie seeks someone who might aid her escape from the gallows after she kills her husband, Winnie realizes her absolute aloneness in the world. She has no one to whom she can turn. Only coincidentally does she encounter Ossipon, who is on his way to visit the woman he thinks is recently widowed by the unfortunate accident in Greenwich Park. Ostensibly, he seeks to console, in truth he is looking for someone to support him. The one person Winnie thinks will help her only exploits her. Conrad’s point in presenting this vision of modern life as fragmented and isolated is not to confirm it as the only possibility. Instead, he wishes to assert, through negative example, the ideal of a unified community.