Study Guide

The Secret Agent

By Joseph Conrad

The Secret Agent Introduction

What kinds of things do you expect from a book called The Secret Agent? Maybe dark, foggy London streets? Mysterious bombings, perhaps? A few anarchists hanging out in porn stores? Some suicide leaps off of ferry boats? Crooked cops?

Well, Joseph Conrad's novel ticks all of these bleak and eerie boxes… and then some.

Published in 1907, The Secret Agent is a story of terrorism, politics, social corruption, and reality TV-caliber family drama. It might be because Conrad is a bit of a Debbie Downer (the understatement of the century) but the novel didn't sell very well during his time: it probably hit too close to home. Since 1950, though, The Secret Agent has risen to classic status, and is now taught in high schools and universities all around the world and holds the spot of #46 on Modern Library's 100 Best Novels… ahead of Conrad's most popular work, Heart of Darkness.

In 1920, Conrad wrote an Author's Foreword to The Secret Agent, in which he reveals that the book's plot is inspired by the "Greenwich Bomb Outrage" of February 1894, which happened when a young anarchist named Martial Bourdin blew himself up in Greenwich Park after a bomb he was carrying exploded in his hands. In his foreword, Conrad refers to this incident as "a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought."

Basically, the Greenwich Bomb Outrage filled even the uber-intelligent (and uber-skeptical) Conrad with questions about the world's capacity for reason and order…and he decided to ponder over the chaotic universe and its nuts-o inhabitants in The Secret Agent.

In this book, the cynical genius of Joseph Conrad pits cartoonishly unlikeable anarchists and left-wing radicals (who talk a big game without ever actually doing anything) against police officers who just love the thrill of their job and consider criminals to be a totally natural—and even necessary—part of society. Hey, no one has ever accused Conrad of telling people what they want to hear.

Conrad lived during a time when many people were talking about how awesome modern society was, while others—like anarchists, Marxists, and left-wing revolutionaries—were shouting that society in general had to be blown up so we could start over and get it right. Frankly, Conrad could never fully get behind either side of this debate, and you can see this in the way he pokes fun at both the police and the anarchists in The Secret Agent.

Among all the spy games and explosions, though, The Secret Agent is, at its heart, a family drama. The book's title character, Mr. Verloc, definitely seems to like his wife Winnie, who in turn seems to think about nothing beyond the safety of her brother, the mentally disabled Stevie. This family drama, though, has the bad luck of playing out in a cruel and often completely insane world.

If there is hope for humanity as a whole in this book, you're going to have to dig for it. The upside is that you'll learn an awful lot about your own beliefs while you're digging… and you'll get to bask in the bone-dry wit and stunning eloquence of Joseph Conrad's literary genius.

What is The Secret Agent About and Why Should I Care?

If you're anything like us, you know a few things about anarchism: the enclosed A that the guy who sat next to you in 8th grade math scribbled all over his paper-bag covered textbooks, a few inspiring quotes from Emma Goldman, and a couple of mosh pit-ready tunes.

Well Joseph Conrad, the maestro of the bleak n' depressing political commentary, is here to give you a quick lesson in both political anarchism and (his specialty) a look-see into the destructive, random forces that govern the entire world. Nope, it's not exactly a beach read…unless your idea of a beach vacay is wrapping yourself in layers of wool and misery and fog-tanning on the banks of the Thames.

Conrad wrote The Secret Agent because he was inspired by the Greenwich Bomb Outrage of 1894, when some French anarchist guy blew himself (and nothing else) up in the grounds of the Greenwich Observatory. This event got to Conrad, because it was so mysterious. The target could have been the Observatory…but it also could have been nothing.

Totally full of the heebie-jeebies at this point, Conrad was losing sleep over the incident. He wrote "…one remain(s) faced by the fact of a man blown to bits for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other."  Dude was spooked.

So why does it still matter today that one literary genius was creeped out by a weird bombing more than a century ago? Besides, of course, that it gave us a brilliant little novel called The Secret Agent?

After the attacks of 9/11, the world was launched right back into all of the same concerns and questions that The Secret Agent explores: this novel was actually one of the three most talked-about works of literature immediately after 9/11.

This isn't too much of a shocker, because The Secret Agent discusses (and makes fun of!) every conceivable angle of a terrorist act: the terrorists themselves, the masterminds behind the plot, the politicians' reaction, the public's opinion. No one is safe from Conrad's carving-knife sharp satirical outlook…even the readers.

Conrad wrote in this novel's foreword, "I have not intended to commit a gratuitous outrage on the feelings of mankind," which is basically him saying: Hey readers. I totally mean to hurt your feelings with this book…but not more than you deserve. Sorrynotsorry. Conrad, that sly dog, wrote a book that makes everyone look bad, because he thinks that everyone deserves to look bad.

Basically, Mr. C. wrote a book designed to shake everyone's faith in humanity, question the rules that regulate society, implode the ideas of fairness and order, and expose the chaos behind everything.

Yeah, that's right: The Secret Agent itself is an act of anarchism.

So whether you want to get a crash course in Anarchism 101, take a satirical look at the scheming that goes on behind an act of (botched) terrorism, or just read a super-brilliant novel… The Secret Agent is for you.

The Secret Agent Resources

WEBSITES

The Joseph Conrad Society
Check out the official website of an entire society of people dedicated to celebrating the work of Joseph Conrad.

Conrad's Works
This website contains links to a whole bunch of Conrad's work, which is now public domain and totally free.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

The Secret Agent (1996), Directed by Christopher Hampton
Starring a young Christian Bale as Stevie!

BBC's The Secret Agent, 1992
Yup, the BBC was all over this book back in '92.

BBC's The Secret Agent, 1967
They did one in '67, too.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Coldewey's Curiosities on The Secret Agent
Great little article offering impressions on reading Conrad's masterpiece

Conrad Interview (December 1919)
Hugh Walpole gives us a very in-depth and intimate portrait of the man behind The Secret Agent.

VIDEO

Book Trailer
Some students got together and made a trailer for The Secret Agent. Here's how it turned out.

Boom! On the Big Screen
The trailer for the 1996 film adaptation, with a star-studded cast.

AUDIO

Free Audio Book of The Secret Agent
Are your eyes tired from all that reading? Well take a break if you like and listen to the free (!) audio version of The Secret Agent.

IMAGES

Older Conrad
Here's a photo of Conrad lookin' pretty distinguished in his later years.

First U.S. Edition Cover
Here's what The Secret Agent would have looked like on American bookshelves when it first came out.

Another Cover
Here's a great rendering of a book cover for The Secret Agent.

The Greenwich Observatory
Here's a shot of the observatory, taken from the park that Stevie would've been walking through when he tripped.

The Professor, played by… Robin Williams?
Yep, that's who played the lunatic bomber in the 1996 movie.