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...
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