Conrad would be an awesome snarky best friend and a terrible enemy. Just check out this bone-dry witty passage from Chapter 10:
The Assistant Commissioner, driven rapidly in a hansom from the neighbourhood of Soho in the direction of Westminster, got out at the very centre of the Empire on which the sun never sets. (10.1)
Here, Conrad is slapping England across the face for it's Colonial Empire. The fact that England had colonial outposts all over the world prompted people to say that the "sun never sets on the British Empire." Here, Conrad is being funny and sarcastic; but he's also being really dark. After reading the dreary, foggy descriptions of London throughout this book, it seems more appropriate to say that the sun never rises on the British Empire.
It often sounds as if Conrad is laughing at his characters. The anarchists in this book, for example, are all caricatures of completely useless, do-nothing people. Karl Yundt is a man of "worn-out passion, resembling in its impotent fierceness the excitement of a senile sensualist" (3.7). In other words, Yundt is a gross old man who gets off on thinking about how much he hates the world.
By constantly referring to Michaelis as an "apostle," Conrad also seems to devalue or satirize the supposed grace that this impotent anarchist has achieved. In fact, every character in this book seems to have some flaw or blind spot that completely defines him (or her). When the book does delve into issues of compassion, it never really seems to embody compassion itself, but instead comments from a distance on how truly compassionate people like Stevie or Michaelis will end up getting destroyed by the cruel and corrupt world.
The Modernist element of this book is the way that Conrad messes with time. In the first stages of the book, we learn that Verloc needs to initiate an attack on the Greenwich Observatory. Suddenly in the next chapter, we learn that this attack has already taken place, and that someone carrying the bomb has blown himself up.
We are led to think that the person who has blown himself up is Verloc. But wait a second; it turns out that there were two people who got off the train at Greenwich—one husky and one thin. The husky one got away, and we know that "fat pig" Verloc ain't the thin one.
Just as we think the mystery is about to unravel, the novel leaps backward several weeks in time, but as readers, we don't know this right away. Now that we see Verloc and Stevie both safe and sound, we wonder what has happened with the bomb at Greenwich. It's not until Verloc proposes the plan of Stevie going out to stay in the country that we realize the backward leap has happened.
We know that were approaching the day of the bombing after Conrad has already shown it to us, and this strongly contributes to the sense of fatalism and dread that the book conveys. In other words, by showing us the future and then forcing us to move toward it anyway, Conrad makes the events of his book seem unavoidable. More than anything else, his use of time shows us just how little hope there is for people like Stevie in the modern world.
You can go either way on whether you think this novel is a mystery. If it is a mystery, it's not all that tricky. Chances are you were able to figure out who got blown up at Greenwich quite a while before the book reveals it. By having you figure out the mystery before the characters do, Conrad forces you to take part in the inevitability of Winnie and Verloc's destruction.
At its core, this book is also a family drama, since its action results completely from the relationships between Verloc, Winnie, Stevie, and Winnie's mother. Their inability to understand one another leads Verloc to take Stevie for granted and get him killed. His further inability to understand Winnie's love for her brother gets him killed, and finally, Winnie's unwillingness to look beyond the surface of things keeps her from becoming suspicious when Verloc takes her brother out into the country. Oh, yeah: also Winnie stabs Verloc with a carving knife. Ain't no family drama like stabby family drama.
The original title for this book was Verloc, and over the course of 1906, it changed to The Agent. By the time he published the novel, Conrad had come up with The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. The title is provocative because even though the book deals with very complex issues in an often confusing way, Conrad decides to call it "A Simple Tale." Is he making fun of us?
He might be (this book is pretty brutally snarky at times)…or he might be tying to say that no matter how complex things seem, the general message of the novel is quite simple: human beings are not nearly as good or important as they seem to think they are. Bummer, Conrad. Thanks to you, we'll be drinking cocoa and streaming Netflix and thinking about our insignificant lives all night. Jerk.
Also, by changing the title from one mans name (Verloc) to the name of a job (The Secret Agent), Conrad shows us that the problems of the world don't just come from Verloc alone, but from everyone else like Verloc and from the kind of corrupt society that rewards lazy people and liars (i.e. the "secret agents" of the world) with cushy lifestyles.
"And the incorruptible Professor walked, too, averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind. He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men." (13.56).
The Secret Agent doesn't end with a comment on Verloc, Winnie, or even Stevie, but with a conversation between Ossipon and the Professor, two of the most unlikeable characters in this entire book. By ending on this note, Conrad isn't exactly showing us his optimism. Instead, he's suggesting that when the dust clears, it's cockroaches like Ossipon and nutjobs like the Professor who will be still standing.
In their final conversation, Ossipon feels overwhelmed by the "madness and despair" of Winnie's death. He also feels pretty guilty about betraying her and leaving her to die (we hope). When he asks the Professor about madness and despair, though, the Professor says that these feelings aren't part of modern society, because there is no passion in modern society at all—just boredom. Aww, Conrad. You should have lived to see the era of Advice Animals: where there be cute seal babies, there be no boredom.
In the final paragraph of the novel, the Professor leaves the Silenus Restaurant and finds himself back in the streets of London. He cant bear to look at how many people are walking around him, because he knows that there's nothing he can do as an individual that will make an impact on the world.
It's been only a week since Verloc's bomb went off in Greenwich Park, and already no one cares. But the Professor won't let go of his fantasies of greatness so easily. He continues to think that in a world of lazy, bored people, he is "a force." But then the narrator undercuts him, saying that he's "frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable." It's almost as if in this final passage, the Professor is struggling to think he's awesome even as the narrator keeps whispering in his ear that he's pathetic.
Ultimately, the Professor might actually believe in something bigger than himself. He might truly think that the world needs to be born again, and that this can only happen through destruction. But one last time, Conrad undercuts him, calling him a "pest in the street full of men." In the end, the Professor might survive. But, as Conrad asks us, what is the man surviving for?
After spending hundreds of pages talking about how awful the world is, Conrad can't offer us any clear ideas of how the world can change. The Professor says it needs to be completely rebuilt, but the guy's a lunatic. Ultimately, Conrad shows us that the world of capitalism is not a terribly good idea. But he doesn't have any alternatives, and he ends the book on a note of despair—maybe even madness.
London: the total center of civilization, where the bright lights of reason and progress are always shining, right? Well not according to Conrad. Throughout this book, London is a very dark and wet place. There seems to always be rain or fog. Also, there is almost always a sense of menace in the streets, as you get with the following description of horses and a carriage:
…the van and horses, merged into one mass, seemed something alive—a square-backed black monster blocking half the street, with sudden iron-shod tramplings. (7.102)
You have several not-so-cheery indoor settings such as the house of Michaelis' lady patron, the Silenus pub, the Professor's apartment, and the Verloc's shop and home. These locations are neither light-filled nor pleasant: they suck. For example, the Silenus Restaurant is supposed to be a nice, warm place, but Conrad only talks about:
Bronze chandeliers with many globes depended from the low, slightly vaulted ceiling, and the fresco paintings ran flat and dull all around the walls without windows. (4.1)
Sheesh, Conrad. Did you really need that bit about no windows? Even if the place had them, it'd be a super grey day outside anyway. As you've probably noticed, everything in The Secret Agent is always dreary and dark, and in general, tends to reflect just how unpleasant and soul-crushing turn-of-the-century London was.
To H.G. Wells: The chronicler of Mr Lewisham's love/ the biographer of Kipps and the historian of the ages to come/ this simple tale of the nineteenth century/ is affectionately offered
However, it is important to know that Conrad and Wells' friendship pretty much died the same year that The Secret Agent was published. This might be because Wells had recently published two books—Mankind in the Making (1903) and A Modern Utopia (1905) that outlined the same kind of socialist future that Conrad ruthlessly satirizes in the figure of Michaelis.
It could very well be that Conrad's generous tribute to Wells is actually a sort of final payment of friendship, a farewell as their ideas become irreconcilable. On the other hand, Conrad might be totally joking in giving this praise… he is a pretty bitingly sarcastic dude.
Calling Wells the "biographer of Kipps" is an allusion to Wells novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, whose title might have actually inspired the "A Simple Tale" part of The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. Hmm. So maybe Conrad is actually being earnest?
You can definitely understand what Conrad's saying in this book, but every now and then, you might have to read a sentence two or three times to figure it out. This is probably why even in Conrad's time, Country Life magazine criticized the book for having a "dense and elliptical style."
This description basically means that Conrad's sentences can sometimes contain contradictory or circular logic, refusing to lead our thoughts in a comfortable, straight line. You know, like life.
You can see this style cropping up in passages like this:
She congratulated herself more than once on having nothing to do with women, who being naturally more callous and avid of details, would have been anxious to be exactly informed by what sort of unkind conduct her daughter and son-in-law had driven her to that sad extremity. (8.43)
Hoo boy. That's a mouthful. The phrase "to be exactly informed by what sort of unkind conduct her daughter and son-in-law" is especially difficult to follow, and it takes quite a bit of thinking to figure it out. That said, you can figure it out… if you're willing to do the thinking part.
Conrad's writing can be very difficult to follow, since he has a tendency to start a sentence going in one direction, to change direction, then change back to his initial direction before the sentence is even over. As a reader, you might find yourself reading the same sentence two or three times (if you've got the patience to do so).
You can see an example of this meandering prose in the following sentence:
At last Michaelis rose, and taking the great lady's extended hand, shook it, retained it for a moment in his great cushioned palm with unembarrassed friendliness, and turned upon the semi-private nook of the drawing-room with his back, vast and square, and as if distended under the short tweed jacket. (6.4)
The sentence starts by talking about Michaelis getting up and shaking the woman's hand, then talks about him turning away, then takes another moment to throw in a few adjectives about his back, and closes with a phrase beginning with "as if." But by the time you reach the end of this sentence, you're no longer even sure what this "as if" clause refers to. It's simply your best guess is that it's referring to Michaelis' body. Dang, Conrad. Now we need more coffee.
Throw in a couple more hundred pages of lines like this, and you're going to get pretty tired. Conrad seems to write this way because his thoughts are always moving between different objects without drawing entirely clear connections. This leaves you confused, but you're in good company… many of his characters fail to make connections between the isolated details of their lives.
When Karl Yundt raves about the terrible injustices that some humans commit against others, he uses the image of eating and cooking flesh to describe it. Humans, he claims, are cannibals, constantly participating in capitalism so that the rich can keep "nourishing their greed on the quivering flesh and the warm blood of the people—nothing else" (3.44). This speech really skeeves out Stevie, who can't draw a distinction between symbolic and literal meaning.
Also, there is a hint of cannibalistic imagery in the ravenous hunger Verloc experiences after causing Stevie's death, cutting pieces of roast beef "without restraint or decency, cutting thick slices with the sharp carving knife, and swallowing them without bread" (11.92). Blegh. This guy needs to learn some table manners.
The narrator lingers on the image of the Verloc's carving knife, which Mr. Verloc uses to cut slices off a roast in order to gorge himself. Winnie stabs Verloc with this selfsame carving knife, and Verloc's blood runs off of its handle in a particularly gory and vivid scene. In a sense, the book shows us that Verloc's time of gobbling down roasts has reached the end. It's time for him to become the roast.
Through this imagery, Conrad is actually making many of the same comments that Karl Yundt makes about capitalism. The narrator might not like Yundt, but is happy to use the old man's cannibal motif to talk about how awful the world is. Cannibal imagery basically represents the dog-eat-dog (or man-eats-roast-man-becomes-roast) mentality of modern times.
There's only so much money to go around, so everyone scrambles over each other to get it. But worse yet, the people who do have a lot keep making their money off of the efforts of workers who have nothing. That's kind of like cannibalism: using other people's bodies to fulfill your own greed and insatiable appetite.
Conrad was many things: brilliant, eloquent, well-traveled. He was also fat-phobic.
In the figures of Verloc, Michaelis, and Sir Ethelred, Conrad indulges his weird and recurring desire to talk about how fat people are. Fatness for Conrad has subtly different meanings in each of these men, but what it has in common among all of them is that it is a symptom of the bloated modern world.
Verloc's "fat-pig style" body is connected to his laziness (2.2), while Sir Ethelred's "double-chin" and "egg-shaped" body seem to be products of his physical and spiritual fatigue (7.8). Michaelis, on the other hand, is neither lazy nor tired, but his body has been destroyed by years of malnutrition in the prison system, and even though he eats extremely little, his body remains a big, soft marshmallow that causes him significant mobility problems.
Michaelis' obesity is a product of his victimhood and jail time, while Verloc's and Ethelred's seems to be an expression of their privilege. What obesity does in all three cases is create a general imagery of ill health and lack of vitality. This could be related to the Professors claim in Chapter Thirteen that the modern world is "mediocre, limp, without force" (13.44).
When Ossipon gets fed up with the Professor's bragging, he asks the Professor what he wants from the world, since all the man does is criticize both political radicals and the people in power. The Professor's response is simple: "a perfect detonator" (4.60). The Professor's problem is that at any given moment, the police might jump him from behind or shoot him in the street before he has a chance to trigger his bomb. Even with his hand constantly on the detonator, he still needs that crucial half-second to trigger it.
What he wants is a detonator that "would adjust itself to all conditions of action, and even to unexpected changes of conditions" (4.45), and this desire demonstrates the Professor's wish to overcome the randomness of life altogether. He wants to have a feeling of total control, which is embodied in his idea of a perfect detonator. This desire, though, can only ever be a fantasy, just like the Professor's belief in his own greatness, or his ability to control the world around him.
Whenever the Professor seems to be really confident in how awesome he is, he has a way of going out onto the street and finding it "peopled by a mere fraction of an immense multitude" (5.2). The Professor is super-rattled by seeing so many people walking around him, because he's scared that these people might be "impervious to sentiment, to logic, to terror, too, perhaps" (5.2).
In other words, how's he supposed to feel awesome when he's constantly reminded that no one cares about his stupid bomb? Shucks. Life is hard when you're the Professor.
Whenever the Professor sees the multitude of people in the street, he tries to reassure himself by thinking of "the refuge of his room, with its padlocked cupboard […] the hermitage of the perfect anarchist" (5.3). In other words, he can only fantasizes about how great he is when he's alone, because the sheer numbers of the London multitude are constantly reminding him that he doesn't stand out in a crowd. Womp womp.
When Stevie sees a cabman whipping a horse, he freaks out so badly that it almost seems as if the man is whipping him. In this way, animals play an important part in this book because they represent living things that are capable of feeling pain, but are not treated with human compassion.
Similarly, Stevie isn't considered fully human by Mr. Verloc, who extends him "as much recognition [...] as a man not particularly fond of cats may give to his wife's beloved cat" (2.138). Burn, Verloc. Who doesn't like a nice kitty?
Verloc's neglect for Stevie eventually leads to the boy's death. But hey—justice gets served to Verloc on the end of a carving knife. Take that.
Through animals, Conrad represents humanity's ability to be cruel without considering the feelings of others. However animals also represent how cruelty is caught up in a cycle that is difficult to stop. For example, after Stevie gets upset with the cabman for whipping his horse, the cabman replies that "This ain't an easy world" and goes on to talk about how awful his life is compared to the horse's.
The narrator actually backs him on this earlier in the chapter, saying that the man whips his horse "not because his soul was cruel and his heart evil, but because he had to earn his fare" (8.28). In a capitalist world, there'll always be people who have to scrape for whatever little they can get, even if it means being cruel to others. It's not only dog-eat-dog, it's man-whip-horse.
As Mr. Vladimir explains, it won't do for Verloc to arrange an attack on a head of state, church, or parliament building, because all of these attacks could be explained as acts of angry violence undertaken by a crazy individual against an institution.
In order to really make people sit up and listen, Vladimir says, Verloc needs to initiate an attack on an institution of science, which is the thing that people in Conrad's time had total confidence in:
"Any imbecile that has got an income believes in that. He does not know why, but he believes it matters somehow. It is the sacrosanct fetish." (2.111)
The Greenwich observatory is also on the Prime Meridian, which sets the clock time for the entire world and, because of this, structures the way everyone lives out their days. The fact that this building is never so much as touched by the blast that kills Stevie adds another note of absurdity and futility to this already bleak, hope-depleting book.
It doesn't figure all that prominently into the story, but the player piano in the corner of the Silenus Restaurant adds another note of randomness and absurdity (even comedy) to Conrad's dark universe.
The thing starts playing random songs at random times, always when the Professor and Ossipon are having their conversations and entering or leaving. As the narrator describes in Chapter Four:
The lonely piano, without as much as a music stool to help it, struck a few chords courageously, and beginning a selection of national airs, played him out at last to the tune of "The Blue Bells of Scotland." (4.125)
The instrument provides almost a comedic backdrop to the supposed epic-ness of what the two anarchists are discussing. The narrator takes great pains to imply that there is no rhyme or reason to when the piano, which "cease[s], as abruptly as it start[s]" playing (4.3).
This third-person narrator constantly weaves in and out of different character's minds, giving you a god's eye view. Even when the narrator doesn't give you all the pertinent details about a character, it isn't because the narrator doesn't have this knowledge, but because withholding knowledge amps up dramatic effect.
The narrator even uses a movie-like technique in the way it'll often pivot between different characters. For example, after the narrator lives inside the mind of Ossipon for much of Chapter Four, it switches into the Professor's mind at the beginning of Chapter Five, and shortly after latches on to Inspector Heat. We recommend some Dramamine for those of you who get motion sick: the point of view in The Secret Agent moves around like the Alice In Wonderland Tea Cup ride.
Conrad's mind-hopping technique is something you find all over late-Victorian novels, such as in George Eliot's Middlemarch. But Conrad wasn't just following a Victorian literary fad; this narrative voice helps us to empathize with some pretty unsympathetic characters. When we're in their heads, we kind of have to feel what they're feeling, and that makes them human.
There's one weird moment early in the book when the narrator steps right in and talks in the first person: "But of that last [point] I am not sure, not having carried my investigations so far into the depths […]" (2.2). This moment doesn't fit in at all with the rest of the story, and it seems to show that Conrad is worried about what people might think if he keeps showing off his knowledge of pornography shops. It's as if he's saying, "Here's exactly what the inside of a porno store is like…uh… or so I've heard."
Mr. Verloc runs a pornography shop, which is a front for his activities as a secret agent. He loves his job, since its not hard like other types of labor. Basically, he's paid very good money to sit around with anarchists and pretend to be friends with them. It's a really good gig, but he's not all that happy when his new boss, Mr. Vladimir, tells him that he needs to do more to earn his money than send reports.
He actually needs to get up and do something, like plant a bomb to make the anarchists look bad. The thought of having to do something active scares Verloc… but not as much as the thought of losing his cushy job.
Next thing we hear, there's been an explosion in Greenwich Park. Someone has blown himself by accidentally detonating a bomb. At this stage in the plot, were not quite sure who the victim of the bomb was. Ooh, a juicy mystery.
Back at the shop, Verloc is overcome with nervousness, and Winnie doesn't know why. Verloc's worst fears come to pass when the Assistant Commissioner of Police shows up at his shop. Verloc has no clue how the police were so quickly able to connect him to the dead bomber in Greenwich. He feels as though the world is closing in on him, and thinks about maybe leaving the country. Then he dismisses this idea and decides that he's going to take down his bosses at the foreign embassy, seeking revenge for being put in such a difficult position.
Winnie finds out about her innocent brother Stevie being killed in the blast. At this exact moment, the tragic figure of the book switches from Verloc to Winnie. The book completely drops Verloc as it transitions into telling us about Winnie's inner turmoil. She refuses to speak to Verloc and is overcome with grief. Finally, when she can't bear to hear Verloc justify what he's done any longer, she grabs a kitchen knife and stabs him in the chest, Psycho-style. Now it's Winnie who must live with the nightmare of avoiding a murder charge and execution. She stumbles into Comrade Ossipon in the street and pleads with him to help her.
Ossipon steals all of Winnie's money and leaps from a train, leaving her with no one to help her and no money to go anywhere. As we discover in the final chapter, Winnie was so overcome by this betrayal that she committed suicide by jumping off the boat that was supposed to take her out of England. She leaves behind her wedding ring as a sign of her broken bond with Verloc.
We learn about the Verloc household: Mr. Verloc financially supports his wife Winnie, along with her mother and brother Stevie, who is mentally disabled. Verloc has a double life: he runs a pornography shop and spends a lot of time hanging out with anarchists, but is also an undercover agent keeping an eye on them for a foreign government.
One day, Verloc has to meet with his new boss (Mr. Vladimir), who says he's sick of having Verloc draw a government paycheck without doing any tangible work. Verloc is very afraid of losing his job (which allows him to make a lot of money while being lazy), and claims that his work has prevented many deaths, but Vladimir doesn't care about prevention. He wants to see results. So he tells Mr. Verloc to make sure that an attack is carried out in London: he wants someone to bomb the Greenwich Observatory. This initial situation sets in motion all the events that will occur for the rest of the novel.
We find out from an anarchist named Alexander Ossipon that someone has blown himself up in Greenwich. Already, the action starts to rise as we wonder who has gone and blown himself up. When another man named the Professor says that he recently gave explosives to Verloc, Ossipon is dumbstruck.
The plot thickens as Chief Inspector Heat, going through the human remains left by the bomb, finds a piece of fabric with Verloc's address stitched into it. Uh oh.
Heat's boss wants him to leave the case alone, and instead takes it upon himself to investigate. As the plot unfolds, it eventually comes out that Verloc has killed Stevie by bringing him into his plot to bomb the observatory. Verloc's plan was to have Stevie bomb the Observatory. But Stevie tripped and blew himself to smithereens.
When Winnie finds out that her brother Stevie is dead, she is disgusted with Verloc. After he ridiculously tries to blame her for Stevie's death, she becomes insane with grief and stabs Verloc with a kitchen knife, killing him. Once the deed is done, she freaks out at the thought of being hanged for murder, and runs out into the street to escape.
She doesn't know where to go, but she runs into Ossipon, who agrees to help her. She hands him her life savings so he can buy each of them a train ticket. At the last second, though, he leaps from the train they've boarded (with all of Stevie's money) and leaves Winnie high and dry.
A week after Verloc's death, Ossipon is hanging out with the Professor, still obsessed with the newspaper article that reports the suicide of a young woman. Ossipon knows that the woman is Winnie, and that she committed suicide because of what he did to her. He cant stop thinking about the wording that the newspaper uses to describe her death, and doesn't much feel like meeting with any of the women in London who support him financially.
After speaking with Ossipon, the Professor walks out into the London streets, where he's completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of people living in his city. Throughout the book, the Professor has tried to preserve the fantasy that he is superior to everyone else. But this fantasy pretty much dissolves in the face of so many people, especially considering that someone blew himself up a week earlier and everyone has already forgotten about it. It's not much in the way of a resolution, but it definitely tops of a pretty bleak sundae of a story with an ultra-depressing cherry.
Verloc gets his mission from Mr. Vladimir—bomb the Greenwich Observatory—and then spends the next chapter stressing about what he's going to do. After listening to his anarchist "friends" wax philosophical about capitalism for a while, he realizes that not one of them has the wherewithal to plant a bomb for him.
We learn from Comrade Ossipon that a bomb has gone off in Greenwich Park, and someone has blown himself to pieces. This sets off a police investigation that involves Chief Inspector Heat tracking the crime back to Verloc's shop, while the Assistant Commissioner of Police takes it upon himself to beat Heat to Verloc and wrap up the case personally.
We discover that Verloc has used his mentally disabled brother-in-law to commit the outrage at Greenwich. He gave Stevie the bomb to plant, but Stevie tripped on his way to the observatory and blew himself up. Winnie finds out and murders Verloc. After Ossipon betrays her, she then commits suicide. We're left with Ossipon and the Professor drinking together, neither one of them feeling particularly good about his place in the world.