The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale
by Joseph Conrad
1906 / 172 pages (Kindle)
Rating – ?
First off, this book is very difficult for the 21st century reader to peruse. The prose is convoluted and the language sometimes archaic – I get that there is an ironic tone and that had me chuckling occasionally. But mostly it feels like wading through a lot of anarchist propaganda and seemingly irrelevant domestic material for a long time. It’s pretty dreary and pessimistic material even if you manage to take to the language. But then at the end, if you have managed to get there, it clears right up and the thought is to reread and see what it was you missed to make that ending so plausible.
In its own way it really is a very good book – just maybe not for those lacking in persistence. The plot revolves around one Adolf Verlock a seedy shop owner and Russian “agent provocateur” who hangs out with a small group of anarchists. Verlock lives with his wife Winnie, and her widowed mother and mentally different brother. What Verlock needs to do is plan and execute an “incident.”
Written as a short story in 1906, The Secret Agent was published as a book in 1907. Conrad was directly inspired by the anarchist Martial Bourdin, who, in 1894, was trying to bomb the London Maritime Museum, when he blew himself up instead. Britain was outraged and started deporting anarchists. This was possibly the first ‘international terrorist” incident in Britain. See Propaganda by Deed: the Greenwich Observatory Bomb of 1894
Anarchism was very much on the mind of the public in the Western world. Only two years prior to Bourdin’s mishap, the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago brought the idea of foreign-born, bomb-throwing anarchists to international attention. But it was happening in many places where the industrial revolution and imperialist nationalism plus unfettered capitalism were taking their tolls.
Except for the women and children, there are no “good guys” in this book – everyone from top to bottom and sideways is hypocritical, cynical, greedy, morally corrupt, etc.
Mikail Bakunin and Piotr Kropotkin were famous anarchists of the day. Related to the book, Bakunin was notoriously fat and Kropotkin was brilliant zoologist and anarchist-economist.
In 1907, 13 years after the London bombing, Conrad went to work on his “simple” but deeply ironic little tale. Influencing him were the Bourdin bombing, obviously, but also Mikhail Bakunin, the father of anarchy, who was notoriously fat and Kropotkin who was zoologist and a brilliant anarchist-economist
Characters (from Wikipedia on The Secret Agent)
- Mr. Adolf Verloc: a secret agent who owns a shop in the Soho region of London. He is tasked by his superiors with destroying Greenwich by means of a bomb. He is part of an anarchist organization that creates pamphlets under the heading The Future of the Proletariat. He is married to Winnie, and lives with his wife, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law, Stevie.
- Mrs. Winnie Verloc: Verloc’s wife. She cares for her brother Stevie, who has an unknown mental disability. She is younger than her husband and thinks of what may have happened if she had married her original love, rather than choosing to marry the successful Verloc. A loyal wife, she becomes incensed upon learning of the death of her brother due to her husband’s plotting, and kills him with a knife in the heart. She dies, presumably by drowning herself to avoid the gallows.
- Stevie: Winnie ‘s brother is very sensitive and is disturbed by notions of violence or hardship. His sister cares for him, and Stevie passes most of his time drawing numerous circles on pieces of paper. He is implicated in Verloc’s attempt to bomb Greenwich, although the degree of his complicity is not known.
- Chief Inspector Heat: a policeman who is dealing with the explosion at Greenwich. An astute man who uses a clue found at the scene of the crime to trace events back to Verloc’s home. Although he informs his superior what he is planning to do with regards to the case, he is not aware that the Assistant Commissioner is acting without his knowledge.
- The Assistant Commissioner: of a higher rank than the Chief Inspector, he uses the knowledge gained from Heat to pursue matters personally. He informs his superior, Sir Ethelred, of his intentions, and tracks down Verloc before Heat can.
- Sir Ethelred: the Secretary of State (Home Secretary) to whom the Assistant Commissioner reports.
- Mr. Vladimir: an employee of an embassy from a foreign country, strongly implied to be Russia. Vladimir employs Verloc to carry out terrorist acts, hoping that the resulting public outrage will force the English government to repress emigre socialist and anarchist rebels.
- Comrade Alexander Ossipon: an ex-medical student and friend of Verloc, and another anarchist.
- Karl Yundt: a friend of Verloc, and another anarchist.
- Michaelis: a friend of Verloc, and another anarchist.
- The Professor: another anarchist, who specialises in explosives.
Setting: Late 19th century London – Belgrave and Soho districts mostly. See:
BookDrum (excellent photos and some annotations)
Point of View: Although it’s a third person narrative, the point of view changes regularly – from Verlock to his wife, Winnie to the Chief Inspector – I think even Stevie gets a couple scenes of his own. There are a few times when the narrator is omniscient. The execution is very smooth.
Metaphors: The metaphors are regularly related to water or to animals leading the reader to think there must be a theme here. The animals vary from the domesticated cats and dogs and fish to the very wild, “wolfish grimace.” The water metaphors relate to the “stream of life” or Conrad’s familiarity with the language of ocean tales and he uses words like “wave” and “at sea in a tempest” – even Ulysses is referred to.
Repetition – used a fair amount – some things will not leave the heads of the characters, “Fourteen feet down,” – others. – This kind of got on my nerves.
Themes: an indictment of the secret state and anarchism alike due to corruption. The banality of evil. All of society is corrupt. What is it with the animal metaphors.
Tidbits and Links To Tidbits
The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche
And Connections to Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent”
Introduction, ©1984, by Martin Seymour-Smith, to
The Secret Agent, (1907)
By Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
Western World Voices News
Terrific analysis focusing on background – although the site as a whole is suspect:
Swerve and Vanish
Borrowed Fire: The Secret Agent: Structure and Destruction
Swerve and Vanish page 2
The Secret Agent is said to have influenced the Unabomber—Theodore Kaczynski. Kaczynski was a great fan of the novel and as an adolescent kept a copy at his bedside. He identified strongly with the character of “the Professor” and advised his family to read The Secret Agent in order to understand the character with whom he felt such an affinity. David Foster, the literary attributionist who assisted the FBI, said that Kaczynski “seem[ed] to have felt that his family could not understand him without reading Conrad.”