Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*London. Center of the British Empire and home to exiled revolutionaries and refugees from throughout Europe. During the time of the novel, the great latitude and freedom extended by the British government to these exiles was a perpetual source of irritation and concern for more repressive governments on the continent of Europe, especially the unnamed country represented by Mr. Vladimir.

Verloc’s shop

Verloc’s shop. Shabby establishment at 32 Brett Street in the Soho section of London. As a cover to his activities as a secret agent for a foreign government (probably Russian), Adolf Verloc operates a small shop where he sells stationery, inks, and questionable publications, most of them of a vaguely revolutionary or quasi-pornographic nature. During business hours, the shop’s door is left open and the coming and going of customers is signaled by a small, loud bell. Faded magazines, obscure newspapers, a few shabby bottles of ink, and other writing materials are displayed in the glass front of the shop and ranged along the shelves behind the counter. During much of the time, Verloc sits on a stool at the counter, hardly moving.

Verloc’s home

Verloc’s home. Behind the shop live Verloc and his wife, Winnie, along with Winnie’s aged mother and mentally deficient brother, Stevie. The home is furnished with what furniture remains with Winnie’s mother from earlier, more...

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Literary Techniques

Unlike some of Conrad's other novels and stories, such as Lord Jim (1900; see separate entry), there is no dominating first-person narrator in The Secret Agent comparable to Charles Marlow. Moreover, the reader is not given a series of different narrative perspectives as in Lord Jim, or, as in Nostromo (1904; see separate entry). Conrad employs an apparently straightforward narrative technique in the tradition of conventional realism, a narrative method that appears deceptively simple.

Yet Conrad's narrative voice is controlled by a rigorous and masterful sense of irony. Conrad's selective use of incident tends to undercut the melodramatic and sensationalist nature of some of the story's events—a major bombing, a murder, a suicide. One result of Conrad's narrative method and tone is to deny glamour and dignity to nearly all his characters.

Social Concerns

The Secret Agent, considered by scholar F. R. Leavis to be one of Joseph Conrad's two "supreme masterpieces," is a brilliantly ironic narrative depicting Edwardian London's seedy and dispossessed underworld of revolutionist and anarchists. Having been a Polish nationalist in exile, and having experience of working with revolutionists and espionage agents in Switzerland and Marseilles, Conrad was familiar with the tactics and rationalizations used by political agitators and terrorists. Moreover, he had become fascinated with the twilight world of international political activity in London— a haven for political exiles from Europe during the late nineteenth century— after he learned of an actual attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory in 1886. However, although The Secret Agent is ostensibly set in the 1880s, some critics have observed that in many respects the novel is more representative of Edwardian London at the time of its composition in 1906. Readers today will be reminded of current examples of international terrorism involving dissident groups from the Middle East, as well as examples of America's domestic antigovernment terrorism, like the infamous Oklahoma City bombing.

Conrad's readers may also find themselves intrigued by the plight of Mrs. Verloc, the frustrated wife who becomes one of the victims of her husband's foolish and ineffectual covert political actions. Fettered by an unhappy marriage to a husband who sells pornography and spends much of his time in intrigues as a minor spy and mercenary informant, Winnie Verloc is a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of an intelligent and sensitive woman imprisoned by her circumstances. Perhaps the central figure of the novel, Mrs. Verloc becomes the victim of a tragic destiny which merits comparison with similar treatments of wives submerged in miserable circumstances in the finest of nineteenth century novels, such as Gustav Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857).

Ideas for Group Discussions

Readers will very likely be reminded of contemporary terrorist acts and situations, whether involving international terrorists in European cities, or acts of domestic violence in the United States by antigovernment agitators. Discussion could focus on the nature of terrorist groups and the motives which entice people to become involved in causes which induce acts of violence against society and governments.

Another area to pursue is the flawed marriage of Verloc and Winnie Verloc. In what ways is Winnie a victim of her husband's sexual aggression as well as his petty schemes? What justification does Winnie have for her tragic act of murdering Verloc? Perhaps Winnie Verloc's marriage can be seen as a paradigm of many Victorian marriages, which were apparently placid on the surface, but tarnished by the husband's attempt to dominate matters.

1. What elements of The Secret Agent seem to have contemporary relevance? What comments does the novel make about the nature of terrorist activities?

2. Discuss Conrad's handling of Stevie as a character. What makes Stevie a sympathetic character?

3. What is the British government's attitude toward the terrorist activities of Verloc and his circle? What picture of the authorities is offered by Conrad? To what degree is this view a satirical one?

4. Describe as many instances of irony as you can find in Conrad's treatment of the attempted bombing of the Greenwich Observatory.

5. In what ways is Ossipon an unsympathetic character? Is his final betrayal of Winnie Verloc to be expected?

6. How does Verloc's method of making a living offer an indication of his attitude toward his wife, especially as it is revealed in her moment of grief?

7. Is the Professor insane, or merely carrying his theories to a logical conclusion?

8. What purpose does the Russian government have for creating an act of terrorism in Great Britain?

9. What are the main reasons for Winnie Verloc's suicide? What is the cause of her greatest sorrow, the loss of her brother, the murder she commits, or her betrayal by Ossipon?

10. Compare Winnie to other famous tragic heroines, such as Thomas Hardy's Tess in Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891; see separate entry) and Gustave Flaubert's Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary(1857)?

11. What is Conrad's view of terrorist activities? Are they merely sordid and petty, or do they constitute a genuine threat to civilization? What might be Conrad's view of international terrorism today?

Literary Precedents

One of the major influences on Conrad's political fiction has generally been considered to be Dostoevsky's novels, especially The Possessed (also published as The Devils, 1 872; see separate entry) with its satirical treatment of Russian radicals. Whereas Dostoevsky, however, tended to view anarchists and revolutionaries as virtually demonic in their nature and behavior, this Conrad novel treats them as less dangerous and somewhat more ineffectual and self-destructive than Dostoevsky's radicals. Martin Seymour- Smith also concludes in his 1984 "Introduction" to the Penguin edition of the novel that Conrad's reading of the writings of revolutionaries and anarchists, especially Ivan Bakunin—as well as newspaper accounts of the 1886 attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory —-was a strong influence.

Other literary influences on Conrad were nearer at hand. Frederick Karl was one of the first to note, in A Reader's Guide to Joseph Conrad (1960), that Conrad's London owes much to the dingy gaslit and impoverished neighborhoods of London of Charles Dickens's later novels, especially Little Dorrit (1857) and Our Mutual Friend (1865). Conrad had in fact been an avid reader of Dickens's novels in his years at sea. Another influence that has been cited is that of Zola and other naturalistic fiction writers, particularly in regard to Conrad's depiction of urban squalor. However, yet another precedent for Conrad may have been somewhat closer to Conrad's own literary world, namely Henry James's major novel The Princess Cassamassima (1886), which also deals with London's twilight world of revolutionaries and radicals. Conrad admired much of James's fiction, corresponded with James, and made a gift of one his novels to the masterful American realist.

In his treatment of the frustrating circumstances of Mrs. Verloc's life, Conrad was probably influenced by the classics of nineteenth-century realism, particularly Flaubert's Madam Bovary, a classic study of a frustrated wife imaginatively smothered by a sterile environment and a marriage to an unimaginative mediocrity. However, it is less likely that Conrad was influenced by the fiction of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), whose Middlemarch (1872) is a classic treatment of the theme of an intellectually frustrated wife in an unrewarding marriage. As a matter of fact, Conrad may not have had a very extensive knowledge of Eliot's work.

At any rate, Zdzislaw Najder in Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle (1983) repeatedly stresses his contention that Flaubert was one of the major literary influences on Conrad's work. At any rate, Conrad had a fairly good knowledge of French, even writing letters in that language, and was clearly capable of reading Flaubert and his disciples (such as de Maupassant) without translations.

Related Titles

An obviously related work in Conrad's canon is Under Western Eyes (1911), his major effort to deal with the experience of Polish nationalists in exile. Unlike The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes is set in Switzerland and Russia, but the latter book also deals with the petty intrigues of revolutionists and political agitators, and the many ways they betray their cause and values.

The Secret Agent also shares some thematic concerns with Nostromo, Conrad's other major novel of political events. But The Secret Agent differs strongly from Nostromo in certain ways: The Secret Agent lacks both Nostromo's exotic setting and its epic presentation of the momentum of historical events.

At first glance, The Secret Agent seems to have little in common with Conrad's sea stories and his tales of Europeans tested in the Malaysian or Indonesian jungles. But a second glance suggests that the petty betrayals of Conrad's spies and anarchists are reminiscent of the world of Lord Jim where, the behavior of the white European characters, apart from Marlow, Jim, and Stein, is frequently cowardly and deceitful. The ragtag and self-serving band of political activists in The Secret Agent may remind readers of the officers of the Patna, the ship from which Jim deserts; and some of them might have been at home among the pirates in Gentleman Brown's crew of raiders.


Conrad himself produced a stage version of The Secret Agent in 1919-1920, hoping perhaps to gain some new revenue from an old novel. Unfortunately, Conrad's creative powers were now in decline, and his experience of writing for the theater was very limited. Nevertheless, the play was accepted for performance and presented in November 1922. Although Conrad followed rehearsals closely and was fairly pleased with the performance, the work was strongly rejected by the newspaper reviewers and treated with indifference by the public. Although at first Conrad professed indifference about the play, he was very disappointed by the outcome of its staging, and he eventually began to blame the reviewers rather than the director and the actors.

Since he turned to stage adaptations of his work late in his career, Conrad's work as a dramatist was not distinguished by commercial success or praise from critics. But motion picture adaptations of The Secret Agent have shown that this novel (like some other Conrad works) contains elements of effective drama.

Alfred Hitchcock's 1936 film Sabotage starring Sylvia Sidney, Oscar Homolka, John Loder, and Desmond Tester, brilliantly captures the sinister and ambiguous atmosphere of Conrad's tattered and seedy underground London in black and white and various shades of gray. Focusing on the entrapment of Mrs. Verloc, Hitchcock's film explores on of his favorite themes, the plight of an innocent person struggling to extricate herself from a situation inspiring paranoia which he or she does not understand. This film is considered by some as one of the masterpieces of Hitchcock's "British period."

Readers may find it confusing that another celebrated Hitchcock film of 1936 was given the title of The Secret Agent. However, this suspense movie, starring John Gielgud, Madeline Carroll, and Peter Lorre, is a more conventional spy story based on W. Somerset Maugham's novel Ashenden Or. The British Agent.

A fine 1996 film adaptation starred Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette, and Gerard Depardieu. This was a reasonably faithful adaptation, with excellent performances by Hoskins as Verloc and Depardieu as Ossipon. The lovely Arquette offers a surprisingly strong and credible interpretation of Winnie Verloc. It should be noted, however, that the youthful Patricia Arquette is perhaps more glamorous than the Winnie Conrad envisioned. Written and directed with great care by Christopher Hampton, this film produces some haunting images, particularly the opening sequence showing the Professor in his slow intense, obsessive walk, and a closing sequence reworking the same image.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Fleishman, Avrom. Conrad’s Politics: Community and Anarchy in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. The chapter on The Secret Agent discusses Conrad’s portrayal of the modern world in fragmentation and his advocacy of social order and human community.

Guerard, Albert J. “Two Versions of Anarchy.” In Conrad the Novelist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966. Discusses Conrad’s use of an elevated, ironic style, his narrative stance, and his aesthetic plan in The Secret Agent.

Hay, Eloise Knapp. The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad: A Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. Discusses how Conrad caricatures the aristocracy and mocks revolutionaries. Points out that Winnie Verloc suffers and faces despair alone, her condition made worse by anarchists.

Karl, Frederick R. A Reader’s Guide to Joseph Conrad. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Examines the novel’s moral purpose, its characters, and its style. Argues that the book’s concern is the moral corruption of all people. A good starting place.

Tillyard, E. M. W. “The Secret Agent Reconsidered.” In Conrad: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Marvin Mudrick. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. Discusses Conrad’s use of irony to create a necessary distance between the reader and the horrible lives of the characters.