Study Guide

The Secret Agent Quotes

  • Compassion

    It seems that two office-boys in the building had worked upon his feelings by tales of injustice and oppression till they had wrought his compassion to the pitch of that frenzy. (1.14)

    Apparently, Stevie lost one of his jobs in the past because two jerks working in his office got him all riled up about how badly the boss was treating them. So Stevie decided to go ahead and set off a bunch of fireworks in the company stairwell to show everyone how he felt about the situation. The problem is that poor Stevie got fired and the two office boys probably just laughed about the fireworks and kept their jobs. What this passage shows us is that Stevie really wants to help out other people. It's just that he's not all that bright, and people tend to take advantage of what a nice guy he is. This passage is really important for the book because it shows us early on that Stevie's niceness makes him an easy target for jerks who want to make him do what they want. Cue Verloc and a varnish can full of explosives.

    Stevie knew very well that hot iron applied to ones skin hurt very much. His scared eyes blazed with indignation: it would hurt terribly. His mouth dropped open. (3.31)

    As you might've noticed, Conrad isn't all that concerned about making his characters totally round and believable. In fact, he usually just makes his characters into symbols for specific emotions. In Stevie's case, were talking about compassion—a point that Conrad bashes us over the head with all through this book. More than any other character, Stevie takes the suffering of others and applies it to his own life. But this passage also shows us that Stevie's not exactly a Care Bear. Dude doesn't get sad when he hears about bad things happening. He gets really, really mad. This anger keeps him from being the simple little model of compassion we might want him to be.

    "I had to take the carving knife from the boy […] He was shouting and stamping and sobbing. He can't stand the notion of any cruelty." (3.88)

    Here, Winnie describes what a tough time she has trying to calm Stevie down once he's gotten himself worked up about the terrible things happening in the world. Again, we also get a pretty good idea of how ticked off Stevie can get when he hears about people being mean. Deep down, the poor guy thinks that the world is supposed to be a friendly place full of rainbows, hearts, stars, horseshoes and… well, that's Lucky Charms, but you get the idea. The fact that Stevies actually willing to grab a knife to show his anger makes you want to watch out for the guy as the novel continues.

    "You mustn't," stammered out Stevie, violently, "it hurts." (8.27)

    Stevie gets really upset when he sees a cabman whipping a horse. It's probably a good thing he doesn't have a knife on him, because from what we can tell as this point, he'd probably use it. Right after this moment, though the cabman starts poking Stevie with his weird hook-hand. He tells Stevie that the life of a nighttime cab driver isn't as glamorous as its cracked up to be, so he has to whip his horse to make as many fares as he can. Dude has a family to feed, and there's not much Stevie can do about that. Again, you see Conrad hammering away at the point of Stevie's compassion, which applies to all living things.

    His gaze remained fixed on the ribs of the horse, self-conscious and somber, as though he were afraid to look about him at the badness of the world. (8.86)

    When he keeps staring at the horse, Stevie starts worrying not only by the animal's painful life, but also the badness of the entire world. He tries as hard as he can to make sense of the situation, as though he might come up with some great solution to the world's problems. His sister Winnie, though, never thinks about these sorts of things because she feels that nothing can be done about them. Stevie never lets up in his efforts to figure a problem out, and in this case, the narrator ironically shows us that despite his intellectual disabilities, Stevie is actually a way deeper thinker than Winnie.

    He could say nothing; for the tenderness to all pain and all misery, the desire to make the horse happy and the cabman happy, had reached the point of a bizarre longing to take them to bed with him. (8.88)

    In his desperate attempt to think of a solution for all the pain and badness in the world, Stevie decides that he has to find an example of perfect compassion and bring everything back to it. For him, the best feeling ever is the feeling he had growing up when Winnie would take him into her bed. And no, not in a creepy way. Stevie would never associate going to bed with anything sexual. Instead, he remembers the feeling of Winnie bringing him into her bed to comfort him when he was growing up. So he wants to take this example and bring the whole world to bed with him. This passage gives us a really close look at the bond between Stevie and Winnie, while also showing how impossible it is for Stevie to heal the world. In this passage, Conrad might come closest to saying directly why he thinks compassion can't thrive on a social level.

    At the bottom of his pockets his incapable, weak hands were clenched hard into a pair of angry fists. In the face of anything which affected directly or indirectly his morbid dread of pain, Stevie ended by turning vicious. (8.92)

    Here, we find out directly from the narrator that Stevie's compassion has the ability to turn vicious. When he can't think of any way to stop the cruelty of the world, Stevie gets extremely angry. The image of clenched fists in his pockets shows that he might wish he could go all Bruce Banner on us and turn into the Hulk. But the mention of his "incapable hands," reminds us again that Stevie doesn't have gamma radiation powers (sigh), and he probably can't cause real change in the world.

    Shame! […] That little word contained all his sense of indignation and horror at one sort of wretchedness having to feed upon the anguish of the other—as the poor cabman beating the poor horse in the name, as it were, of his poor kids at home. (8.101)

    Like Michaelis with his manuscript, Stevie is always struggling to put his compassion into words. He's always trying to get a handle on the badness of the world, and he feels the only way he can do this is to put the badness into language. However, there's a pretty stark contrast between Stevie's efforts, which usually result in jumbled phrases and words like "Shame," and the efforts of Conrad, who gives us hundreds of pages of really sophisticated writing. Through this contrast, we get a constant reminder of how limited Stevie is in his abilities, despite how strong his compassion might be.

    At Stevie's appearance [Mrs. Neale] groaned lamentably, having observed that he could be induced easily to bestow for the benefit of her infant children the shilling his sister Winnie presented him from time to time. (9.13).

    Poor Stevie's compassion makes him very easy to manipulate, and there are few (if any) characters in this book that aren't willing to take advantage of him. In fact, there isn't really anyone in this book (other than Winnie and her mother) who wouldn't manipulate Stevie at the drop of a hat. Sure, Mrs. Neale has children at home and a crummy life, but the narrator isn't all that sympathetic to her. The only message you can really take from her is the fact that the world is a very rough place, and everyone is always struggling to get as much as they can for themselves.

    "[Michaelis] has divided his biography into three parts, entitled "Faith, Hope, Charity". He is elaborating now the idea of a world planned out like an immense and nice hospital, with gardens and flowers, in which the strong are to devote themselves to the nursing of the weak." (13.5)

    The Professor tells Ossipon about a visit he made to Michaelis out in the country (which doesnt fit with his character at all, and is never really explained by the book, FYI). The Professor lays down some of the same smack talk about Michaelis as the narrator does, saying that the idealistic Michaelis cant think "consecutively," and insisting that there's no logical order to the dude's thoughts. The Professor is only concerned about ideas and actions that can actually change the world. Here, Conrad draws a parallel between Michaelis and Stevie, the two most obviously compassionate people in the book. In both cases, their compassion just looks silly and naïve, and in this sense, Conrad might really be suggesting that their humanitarian ideals cant really lead to any substantial change in a world full of maniacs and jerks.

  • Loyalty (Devotion)

    He applied himself to that pastime with great industry, with his elbows spread out and bowed low over the kitchen table. Through the open door of the parlour at the back of the shop Winnie, his sister, glanced at him from time to time with maternal vigilance. (1.15)

    This is the first real taste you get of the devotion that Winnie has for her brother. The mention of the word "maternal" shows you that Winnie acts more like a mother to Stevie than a sister. Your sense of this devotion will only get stronger as the story unfolds, but at this early moment, you're just given a hint of it. Winnie watches Stevie as he draws his circles, a perfectly innocent activity that makes Stevie seem kind of childlike. Check out Conrad's wording, though, which doesn't say, "love," but "vigilance." Winnie's devotion to Stevie is not the same thing as compassion. It's protective, stubborn, and maybe a little competitive.

    There had been a steady young fellow, only son of a butcher in the next street […] with whom Winnie had been walking out with obvious gusto […] [Then] that romance came to an abrupt end, and Winnie went about looking very dull. But Mr Verloc, turning up providentially to occupy the first-floor front bedroom, there had been no more question of the young butcher. (2.138)

    Winnie's sacrifice seems to be a bit lost on her mother, who thinks that the end of Winnie's relationship with the butcher boy was something "providential" or god-sent. The woman turns a blind eye to the fact that Winnie has given up her true love for the sake of her family. Who knows? She probably knows the truth deep down, but feels guilty about it. With this decision, Winnie no longer lives for herself, but lives only for the safety of her brother. It's not really clear if the novel supports her decision, because her sacrifice only leads to death. Who knows? Maybe she would've had a chance at a good life if she'd married the young butcher boy, and maybe Stevie would've been able to survive. At the very least, they would've had first dibs on all the prime rib they wanted.

    Mrs. Verloc, turning towards her recumbent husband, raised herself on her elbow, and hung over him in her anxiety that he should believe Stevie to be a useful member of the family. That ardour of protecting compassion exalted morbidly in her childhood by the misery of another child tinged her sallow cheeks with a faint dusky blush. (3.74)

    Here, the narrator actually uses the word "compassion" to describe Winnie's bond with Stevie. It suggests that this bond was created in their childhood, when Winnie had to protect Stevie from their abusive jerk of a father. We see here that Winnie's bond with Stevie seems to come directly from their experience of abuse, and she's come to think of Stevie as an extension of herself. He represents total innocence and helplessness to her, and this is probably why she's able to sympathize directly with the pain he's felt, because she's felt it, too.

    She had wept because she was heroic and unscrupulous and full of love for both her children […] Of course, Winnie was independent, and need not care for the opinion of people that she would never see and who would never see her; whereas poor Stevie had nothing in the world he could call his own except his mothers heroism and unscrupulousness. (8.44)

    Stevie's mother figures that in order to make sure Stevie gets as much sympathy from Mr. Verloc as possible, shell go live on her own in an almshouse. She doesn't do this to guarantee Stevie's protection, but just to slightly increase his chances. Both Winnie's mother and Winnie completely define themselves through their ability to protect Stevie. The end of this passage also makes Winnies mother seem a little self-congratulatory, since she seems to consciously think of herself as heroic for protecting her son. Here, Conrad might be hinting that Winnie's mother kind of likes the idea of being a martyr, and there might be some self-interest in the way she looks out for Stevie.

    She took the cold and reasonable view that the less strain put on Mr Verloc's kindness the longer its effects were likely to last […] And the heroic old woman resolved on going away from her children as an act of devotion and as a move of deep policy. (8.45)

    Winnie's mom is no fool. She knows the score, and it ain't going in Stevie's favor. She's basically figured out something Winnie hasn't—that Verloc's only got so much sympathy in him, and it's going to run out quicker than the gas tank on your SUV. Winnie's mom probably has the best combination of love and strategy in this entire book. Winnie loves Stevie a lot, but she always chooses to keep her head in the sand when it comes to how much Verloc actually likes the kid. Her mom, on the other hand, knows that there's only so much you can expect from a world of selfish jerks.

    She saw [Stevie] amiable, attractive, affectionate and only a little, a very little peculiar. And she could not see him otherwise, for he was connected with what there was of the salt of passion in her tasteless life—the passion of indignation, of courage, of pity, and even of self-sacrifice. (8.122)

    Winnie likes to think of Stevie as being only a little bit peculiar, which shows us just how rose-colored her glasses are. Most of the other characters (like Verloc or Ossipon) see Stevie as really peculiar. In this quote, we also learn more about the reasons behind Winnie's connection to Stevie. He's really the only thing in Winnie's life that gives her passion, and here you can see a tiny glimpse of self-interest in Winnie's devotion. From a very young age, Winnie has made Stevie her top priority, and she doesn't really know how to live any other way. Without doubt, there's some love and affection here; but there's also more to it than that. Winnie Verloc won't be getting canonized as a saint anytime soon.

    Before his extended arm could put down the hat Stevie pounced upon it, and bore it off reverently into the kitchen. And again Mr Verloc was surprised. "You could do anything with that boy, Adolf," Mrs Verloc said, with her best air of inflexible calmness. "He would go through fire for you." (9.10-9.11)

    Bam, the theme of devotion pops up again; but this time we're seeing an example of Stevie's devotion to Adolf Verloc… wait. Hold up. This guy's name is Adolf. No wonder he's a baddie.  Tragically, the reason Stevie thinks Mr. Verloc is so great is because Winnie and her mother have trained him for seven years to believe that Mr. Verloc is the moral center of the universe. They've done this because they want to basically guilt Verloc into taking care of Stevie, so they treat Verloc like a god of kindness. However, it's when Verloc realizes Stevie's devotion that he decides to use the boy for his own dastardly schemes. This is the tragic irony of the book, since the devotion that was supposed to protect Stevie is what ends up getting him killed.

    "Might be father and son," she said to herself. She thought also that Mr Verloc was as much of a father as poor Stevie ever had in his life. She was aware also that it was her work. And with peaceful pride she congratulated herself on a certain resolution she had taken a few years before. It had cost her some effort, and even a few tears. (9.29)

    Like her mother, Winnie is not above giving herself a pat on the back for protecting Stevie. What she doesn't realize, though, is that she's just sent Stevie to his death. The passage also mentions the sacrifice that Winnie made in her younger years when she decided to break up with her young lover so she could marry the much older Verloc. The mention of the father symbol is just about as warm a thought as Winnie has throughout this book, because she dreams of Stevie finding a place in Verloc's heart. Winnie has completely given herself to Stevie, and the only way she's ever going to feel happiness is if he does. But then again, living through somebody else never tends to work out. It's actually Winnie's devotion to Stevie that makes her lose her mind after he's dead, because she has no clue who she is without him. It's like Garfunkel without Simon, or Ringo without the rest of the Beatles.

    She remembered brushing the boy's hair and tying his pinafores—herself in a pinafore still; the consolations administered to a small and badly scared creature by another creature nearly as small but not quite so badly scared. (11.51)

    News of Stevie's death creates a huge flashback for Winnie, where she remembers the entire life she's spent caring for him. The whole thing has come to an end now, and Winnie's devotion no longer has anything to hold onto. The fact that Stevie's been completely blown to bits even robs her of a body to mourn over, and this fact is actually part of what inspires her to make a Verloc-kebab with her carving knife. The thought that her brother's been scooped up like kitty litter destroys her. This passage in particular also reminds us just how young Winnie was when she started caring for Stevie. The closest she's ever come to having her own life is her romance with the butcher's boy. Again, Conrad suggests that there's something very admirable about Winnie's self-sacrifice, but he's also quick to point out that this isn't necessarily the best way to live your life. When it comes to a bad world full of dirtbags, self-sacrifice ain't going to guarantee you anything.

    The protection she had extended over her brother had been in its origin of a fierce and indignant complexion. She had to love him with a militant love. She had battled for him—even against herself. His loss had the bitterness of defeat, with the anguish of a baffled passion. (11.65)

    Here, you really get a good sense of Winnie's devotion to Stevie, and how there's a lot more to it than Stevie's brand of simple compassion. Winnie's given her whole life to Stevie and has based who she is on her ability to protect the boy. That's why, when Stevie dies, she basically dies with him. This isn't just because she loves him, but because she's based her entire life on him in a way that Conrad might not actually find healthy. Winnie is a symbol of self-sacrifice, definitely. But Conrad is a little suspicious of the long-term health benefits of self-sacrifice. Turns out that madness and despair ain't great for longevity.

  • Lies and Deceit

    At once, with contemptuous perversity, Mr. Vladimir changed the language, and began to speak idiomatic English without the slightest trace of a foreign accent. (2.30)

    Mr. Vladimir is something of a cultural chameleon. His name suggests that he's Russian, but then again, this might just be a code name like "Yellow Dart" or "Swamp Thing" (that's the one no one wants). Also, his ability to suddenly switch between languages without a trace of an accent suggests that he's even more familiar with the world of deception than Verloc. This gives Vladimir a very intimidating vibe, and it's part of what makes Verloc afraid of him. This ability to shift languages also shows that Mr. Vladimir has no principles, no core moral beliefs that he's trying to protect. He's a total cynic, and is willing to do anything he can to crush the people who actually do have moral ideals. Pardon our (flawless, idiomatic) French, but the dude's a bit of a meanie.

    "As I've had occasion to observe before, a fatal infatuation for an unworthy—[…] Ah yes. The unlucky attachment—of your youth. She got hold of the money, and then sold you to the police—eh?" (2.43, 2.45)

    Mr. Vladimir totally grills Verloc on how he (Verloc) got caught by the French police in his younger years. Verloc tries to explain that he went all goo-gah over a femme fatale who sold him out to the police, but Mr. Vladimir doesn't care. Femme fatales are a dime a dozen in the spy game. This might not seem all that important, but it's significant for showing that Verloc himself has been the victim of deception in the past. While it might not justify his lying to Winnie, it definitely makes the guy a lot more human.

    His voice, famous for years at open-air meetings and at workmen's assemblies in large halls, had contributed, he said, to his reputation of a good and trustworthy comrade. (2.61)

    When he finally has something resembling an upper hand with Mr. Vladimir, Verloc decides to show off his booming voice, which has made him trustworthy as an undercover agent because its allowed him to speak at open-air meetings and to look like a good leader. That said, this is a pretty superficial way to gain peoples trust, and the book might be critical of just how easy it is to fool people. In any case, Mr. Vladimir isn't impressed, and doesn't care about how well Verloc can deceive people. What he cares about is getting the police to stop worrying about people's rights and to start taking down left-wing thinkers whether they've committed crimes or not.

    These outrages need not be especially sanguinary, Mr. Vladimir went on, as if delivering a scientific lecture, but they must be sufficiently startling—effective. Let them be directed against buildings, for instance. (2.104)

    Mr. Vladimir hatches his plan for Verloc to stage a bomb attack somewhere in London. Vladimir does this because he really, really hates political radicals, and feels like the English police are too respectful of people's stupid rights. He wants to create a situation in which the police will start rounding up all political dissenters and arresting them, and he feels he can do this if he stages an attack. The fact that he wants the attack to be on a building might make us think for a moment that he respects human life, but in reality, it's just a strategic choice. The most meaningful attacks on society, the book suggests, are symbolic ones. Oh yeah, and Vladimir doesn't care if anyone dies.

    He closed the door behind their backs with restrained violence, turned the key, shot the bolt. He was not satisfied with his friends. In the light of Mr. Vladimir's philosophy of bomb throwing they appeared hopelessly futile. (3.47)

    Verloc has spent the evening listening to his anarchist friends, hoping to get one of them to plant the bomb for him at the Greenwich Observatory. But he soon gets fed up with his "friends" for just being a bunch of talkers. Here, Conrad gives you an in-depth look at the lazy work Verloc's been doing for the past seven years. Verloc cherishes his lazy life more than anything else, and he's really threatened by the idea of getting a (gasp!) real job. Through this scene of deception, Conrad shows us that anarchists and political radicals tend to be all talk, and the person who's supposedly spying on them from the "lawful" side of society is just trying to protect his laziness. Neither side is all that admirable, since at the end of the day, it's just a bunch of people not doing anything.

    His face, averted from the room, expressed a startled, intense interest while he examined closely the triangular piece of broadcloth. By a sudden jerk he detached it, and only after stuffing it into his pocket turned round to the room, and flung the velvet collar back on the table. (5.33)

    Here, Heat commits an act of deception by stealing evidence from a crime scene without informing the reporting constable. In fact, he's really careful to hide what he's done, since Heat is a dude who likes to play by his own rules.

    In this scene of deception, Conrad again shows how the police try to cultivate an image of themselves as upholders of the law. But in reality, Heat uses deception just as much as (if not more than) the criminals in order to get things done. He's totally the Dirty Harry of London.

    And he himself [the Assistant Commissioner] had become unplaced. It would have been impossible for anybody to guess his occupation. (7.98)

    In a funny way, the Assistant Commissioner of Police takes it on himself to get involved with the spy games going on in this book. He plans to visit Verloc's shop without Heat, even though its pretty weird for a bureaucratic to do this. He even twists up the ends of his moustache and eats an anonymous meal at an Italian restaurant so he can enjoy what it feels like to be a spy. Just as Heat has his own (not always legal) way of doing things, the Assistant Commissioner decides that he's going to investigate a case on his own terms. This whole sequence satirically shows how very important matters of justice are often decided by the personal whims of police officials.

    At that moment he was within a hairs breadth of making a clean breast of it to his wife. The moment seemed propitious. Looking out of the corners of his eyes, he saw her ample shoulders draped in white […] and he forbore. (8.139)

    Verloc comes very, very close to telling Winnie about being a secret agent and about the insane task he's been assigned. But when he looks at her, he decides not to. At several points in the book, he's tried to talk to her about how he isn't feeling well. But she always takes this as a sign that he's getting fed up with Stevie, so she starts talking about how useful and kind her brother is. There is a total lack of communication between the Verlocs. You might almost feel bad for Verloc, considering how little his wife ever thinks about him. Both have their own reasons for not communicating, but the book strongly suggests that this lack of communication is what allows Verloc's deception to keep going.

    He took down a small cardboard box from a shelf, peeped in to see that the contents were all right, and put it down gently on the counter. Not till that was done did he break the silence, to the effect that most likely Stevie would profit greatly by being sent out of town for a while. (9.31)

    At this fateful moment, Verloc proposes the first phase of his terrible plan to Winnie, suggesting that they should send Stevie out into the country to live with Michaelis. Winnie's noticed that Stevie has been acting weird; but what she doesn't realize is that Verloc's been brainwashing him to plant a bomb. This is definitely the worst lie in the entire book, and as readers, we might already be able to tell where all of this is heading. Our ability to see the lies, combined with our inability to do anything about them, gives a sense of dramatic irony to the book, but also a sense of helplessness. Just as there's nothing Stevie can do to heal the world, there is nothing we can do to save Stevie.

    He felt the train roll quicker, rumbling heavily to the sound of the woman's loud sobs, and then crossing the carriage in two long strides he opened the door deliberately, and leaped out. (12.197)

    Comrade Ossipon commits the last terrible act of deception in this novel. He pretends that he'll help Winnie escape from England after killing her husband, but at the last second, pulls a total James Bond and jumps off a train with all her money. In doing this, he basically signs Winnie's death warrant. This act of deception is the one final kick in the gut that Conrad gives you as a reader. Despite how awful the world of this book has been so far, this sudden betrayal can still come as a total shock. But Conrad can't resist; he needs to tell you one last time that people are huge jerks.

  • Pride

    The lamentable inferiority of the physique was made ludicrous by the supremely self-confident bearing of the individual. His speech was curt, and he had a particularly impressive manner of keeping silent. (4.6)

    The Professor fancies himself as a superior kind of human being, but this self-image is totally contrasted with how much of a little pipsqueak he is. The Professor also loves to stay silent, which is a tactic of mental intimidation that he practices on Ossipon at several points in the book. By having the Professor's body be so scrawny, Conrad highlights the fact that anyone with enough gumption can strap a bomb to himself and feel like a king. But it also shows that the Professor's belief in his own greatness doesn't have any connection to the real world.

    Ossipon had a vision of these round black-rimmed spectacles progressing along the streets on the top of an omnibus, their self-confident glitter falling here and there on the walls of houses or lowered upon heads of the unconscious stream of people on the pavements. (4.12)

    Ossipon sort of confirms the Professors sense of self-importance. He uses the metonymy of the Professor's glasses to stand for the Professor himself, and imagines these glasses walking around London like a great king. The irony, though, is that it's these types of moments on the London streets that make the Professor super insecure.

    "I shall never be arrested. The game isn't good enough for any policeman of them all. To deal with a man like me you require sheer, naked, inglorious heroism." (4.35)

    The professor claims that the reason he's so confident and proud is because he knows there's no policeman willing to die just to get rid of him. This would require a level of sacrifice that doesn't exist in the London police force. Like Chief Inspector Heat, the Professor knows that the relationship between criminals and the police is just a game. But he thinks this is a game he'll always win, since he's willing to die and others aren't.

    "[It] is character alone that makes for ones safety. There are very few people in the world whose character is as well established as mine." (4.50)

    The Professor sums up the reason for his confidence when he claims to have more "character" than the people around him. He refers to his character as well-established because he thinks of himself as a very solid person. But he also says well-established because he can only show his power by having people know that he's carrying a bomb and willing to use it. Again, we find here more evidence of the Professor's overwhelming pride. The logic of his position, though, is almost airtight, and this often frustrates Ossipon, who constantly looks for cracks in the Professor's confidence and comes up empty.

    "I am not impressed by them. Therefore they are inferior. They cannot be otherwise. […] They depend on life, which, in this connection, is a historical fact surrounded by all sorts of restraints and considerations, a complex, organized fact open to attack at every point; whereas I depend on death, which knows no restraint and cannot be attacked. My superiority is evident." (4.55)

    At the beginning of this quote, The Professor seems to suggest that just by thinking something is true, he makes it true. But he goes on to explain his position further, basically saying that everyone around him works with the assumption that they'll continue to go on living. The Professor, though, lives with the assumption that he will die, and this puts him in a position of total advantage over them. For him, it's just a matter of mental arithmetic: (Professor + Death) > (Everyone Else + Life). Conrad is definitely critical of the Professor's pride and individualism. But here, he kind of admits that there's a solid logic to what the Professors saying.

    His struggles, his privations, his hard work to raise himself in the social scale, had filled him with such an exalted conviction of his merits that it was extremely difficult for the world to treat him with justice—the standard of that notion depending so much upon the patience of the individual. (4.104)

    This passage gives you a really good sense of how totally antisocial the Professor is. Not only does he think that he's greater than everyone else; he thinks that the world is to blame for him not being totally famous and respected. This helps show that the Professor's pride is actually kind of childish in its self-centeredness. He thinks that his struggles to prove his greatness have made him different than everyone else, even though it's clear that everyone in this book has struggles of their own. There's almost nothing the world can do to treat him with justice because he insists on having everything his way all the time.

    "And what remains?" asked Ossipon in a stifled voice.

    "I remain—if I am strong enough." (13.9-13.10)

    This comment comes right on the heels of the Professor saying that he'd like to see social codes done away with. He wants there to be a social cleansing that would weed all the weak people out of society. Here, he basically says the opposite of what Michaelis believes, which is that society should function like a giant hospital where the strong take care of the weak. The Professor wants to see weak people exterminated, and his speech gives us a pretty spooky prediction of the genocide that Nazi-Occupied Germany would wage a little more than thirty years after this book was published.

    "Haven't I suffered enough from this oppression of the weak?" he continued forcibly. Then tapping the breast-pocket of his jacket: "And yet I am the force […]" (13.11)

    In this comment, the Professor says something that sounds a lot like its coming from an Ayn Rand character. He feels that he's spent his life being oppressed by the leeches of society who fail to recognize how much better he is than them. (Don't you just hate it when the leeches are like that?) He refers to himself as a force because he believes that the modern world suffers from a form of inertia, where you get political radicals like Ossipon who just sit around talking instead of actually doing something. In this case, the narrator might actually sympathize with the Professor. But the novel definitely doesn't endorse his insane fantasies as a healthy alternative.

    But rolling to the feast on the top of the omnibus the Professor lost his high spirits. The contemplation of the multitudes thronging the pavements extinguished his assurance under a load of doubt and uneasiness which he could shake off after a period of seclusion in the room with the large cupboard closed by an enormous padlock. (13.20)

    When he's on top of a double-decker bus, the Professor has a really tough time maintaining his belief that he's better than everyone else. This is because he's been faced with a very annoying fact of life: other people exist. Realizing this, he needs to retreat to his room where he can be alone and rebuild the fantasy that he's the only truly great person in the world. The enormous padlock on his cupboard also represents the isolation and sense of protection the Professor gets from being alone. He's basically in a catch-22. He needs other people to acknowledge his greatness, but can't admit to this need without shaking his sense of pride. Here, Conrad really shows the limits of being an egomaniacs, who are always caught between needing acknowledgment from others and trying to be totally independent.

    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 […] Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men. (13.56)

    In the closing lines of The Secret Agent, Conrad shows the tensions that make the Professor feel like garbage when he's walking through the street. On the one hand, we hear the guy's got no future. On the other hand, he's supposed to be a "force." The final line tells us that he's deadly, but then it compares him to a pest in a street full of men. One last time, Conrad reveals to us the unavoidable contradiction that'll always torture a man as proud as the Professor. He hates other people and thinks he's greater than them, but still feels small among them. They don't know anything about him. He becomes anonymous in a crowd, just squeezing the little ball in his pocket and thinking about blowing himself up. He'll never have the total confidence his bomb is supposed to give him, because in the end, he needs other people. He needs recognition from them, but he can't admit this need to himself because this would mean admitting to weakness. In a way, it's kind of like being permanently stuck in adolescence.

  • Appearances

    His big, prominent eyes were not well adapted to winking. They were rather the sort that closes solemnly in slumber with majestic effect.

    Undemonstrative and burly in a fat-pig style, Mr Verloc, without either rubbing his hands with satisfaction or winking skeptically at his thoughts, proceeded on his way. (2.1-2.2)

    This early description of Verloc seems to be generous at first, saying that his laziness has a "majestic" quality to it. But in the next line, we find out that Verloc is burly in a "fat-pig style," which totally shakes us as readers. Conrad loves to throw in these drastic shifts of tone. He'll follow a gentle image with a rough one that seems to come out of nowhere. One of the reasons he does this is because his writing tends to be very dense, and he needs to keep your attention for every line, since it's easy to miss something important. Also, these sudden changes help to establish the balance of distance and closeness that Conrad always strikes between his narrator and characters. Just when you think the narrator has become sympathetic or admiring, he'll go and call the main character a fat pig.

    "Bah!" said the latter. "What do you mean by getting out of condition like this? You haven't got even the physique of your profession. You—a member of the starving proletariat—never!" (2.39)

    Mr. Vladimir tells Verloc he's way too fat, since anarchists are supposed to be poor and starving. Vladimir here might just be looking for reasons to be mean to Verloc and call him lazy, but he's actually got a strategic point in saying that Verloc's weight makes him less believable as an anarchist. Here, Conrad also shows off a bit of his humor, which can be tough to pick up at times because the dude is so gloomy all the time.

    A bush of crinkly yellow hair topped [Ossipon's] red, freckled face, with a flattened nose and the prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the Negro type. His almond-shaped eyes leered languidly over the high cheek-bones. He wore a grey flannel shirt, the loose ends of a black silk tie hung down the back of his chair. (3.13)

    During Conrad's time, people like Ossipon who read Lombroso would've believed that black people were a less evolved form of human being. What this passage shows us, though, is the hypocrisy of Ossipon's belief in Lombroso, since Ossipon himself has all of the physical characteristics that Lombroso would have called "degenerate."

    "That's what he may be called scientifically. Very good type, too, altogether, of that sort of degenerate. It's good enough to glance at the lobes of his ears." (3.23)

    Ossipon takes an interest in Stevie because he thinks Stevie's a "degenerate" in the terms of Lombroso. It's actually really tough to pin Conrad down in terms of his opinion on Ossipon and Lombroso. Yes, Karl Yundt says that Lombroso "is an ass," but there's probably no one this book respects less than Yundt. The idea that you can tell a person's intellectual capacity and honesty by looking at the lobes of his ears seems a bit nuts. But there were a lot of people in Conrad's time who thought this was a scientific fact.

    Michaelis […] had come out of a highly hygienic prison round like a tub, with an enormous stomach and distended cheeks of a pale, semi-transparent complexion, as though for fifteen years the servants of an outraged society had made a point of stuffing him with fattening foods in a damp and lightless cellar. (3.3)

    The physical effects of a fifteen-year imprisonment have been devastating for Michaelis' body. At one point, the book also refers to his gut as a ball and chain that he has to carry around with him for the rest of his life. Here, Conrad might be criticizing the long-term effects of imprisonment. The outrage of Michaelis' physical condition is made even worse by the fact that his prison sentence was far too strict for the crime he committed. His paleness also makes him sound like some sort of underground dweller, and gives him an almost half-dead look. Although when you look at Conrad's world, it's hard to believe that anyone gets sunshine ever.

    Karl Yundt giggled grimly, with a faint black grimace of a toothless mouth. The terrorist, as he called himself, was old and bald, with a narrow, snow-white wisp of a goatee hanging limply from his chin […] When he rose painfully the thrusting forward of a skinny groping hand deformed by gouty swellings suggested the effort of a moribund murderer summoning all his remaining strength for a last stab. (3.6)

    Of all the unattractive people in this book, Karl Yundt has to be the grossest. He almost sounds like a Disney villain. The use of certain words like "limply" show how old and weak Yundt is. But symbolically, they also show that like all the anarchists in this book, he never actually does anything to back up all his big talk about being a terrorist. Conrad seems to single out Yundt as the worst of the worst, and basically puts him in a dunking booth for us to throw apples at.

    With his big florid face held between his hands he continued to stare hard, while the dingy little man in spectacles coolly took a drink of beer and stood the glass mug back on the table. His flat, large ears departed widely from the sides of his skull, which looked frail enough for Ossipon to crush between his thumb and forefinger. (4.6)

    Arguably, the professor is the most dangerous and powerful man in this novel, but he's also the scrawniest. He's really small, and Conrad might actually suggest that his bomb is his way of compensating for the fact that he's a tiny guy who no one has ever paid much attention to. The Professors tininess seems to symbolize the fact that no matter what fantasies he might have about himself, he'll always be a little dude.

    Vast in bulk and stature, with a long white face, which, broadened at the base by a big double chin, appeared egg-shaped in the fringe of greyish whisker, the great personage seemed an expanding man […] From the head, set upward on a thick neck, the eyes, with puffy lower lids, stared with a haughty droop on each side of a hooked, aggressive nose […] (7.8)

    Like Michaelis, Sir Ethelred is totally huge. He also sounds like a cartoonishly snooty British man, especially with his hooked nose. Here, Conrad is definitely spoofing the upper crust of London, but his description of Ethelred's vast body is also connected to the fatigue that always hangs over this guy. Ethelred may have a very good reason for being so tired all the time, but his tiredness makes him avoid looking into the details of life, which might be bad for the people of England. In the end, Ethelred's physical appearance is almost exactly what you'd expect from Conrad, who tends to give his flattest characters the worst physical descriptions.

    She cast a swift glance at the boy, like a young man, by her side. She saw him amiable, attractive, affectionate and only a little, a very little peculiar. And she could not see him otherwise […] (8.122)

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or something like that. When Comrade Ossipon looks at Stevie, he sees a whole list of "scientific" characteristics that tell him Stevie is a degenerate, or less evolved than other human beings. When Winnie looks at Stevie, though, she sees only her brother, and even thinks he's an attractive young man. This passage actually makes you feel pretty good about the bond between Winnie and Stevie, which just makes it that much harder when you find out that Stevie's blown himself to pieces.

    [Ossipon] was scientific, and he gazed scientifically at that woman, the sister of a degenerate, a degenerate herself—of a murdering type. He gazed at her, and invoked Lombroso, as an Italian peasant recommends himself to his favourite saint. He gazed scientifically. He gazed at her cheeks, her nose, at her eyes, at her ears… Bad! ... Fatal!" (12.186).

    Ultimately, Ossipon betrays Winnie because he's afraid she'll murder him the same way she murdered her husband. Then again, Ossipon might just be a huge jerk that wants to steal Winnie's money, and all his Lombroso nonsense is just a way to justify his decision to himself. In this sense, Conrad might be criticizing people who use science to justify the crummy things they do.

  • Society and Class

    Born of industrious parents for a life of toil, he had embraced indolence from an impulse as profound, as inexplicable and as imperious as the impulse which directs a mans preference for one particular woman in a given thousand. He was too lazy even for a mere demagogue, for a workman orator, for a leader of labour. It was too much trouble. He required a more perfect form of ease […] (2.1)

    Conrad almost browbeats you when it comes to showing that Verloc is a really lazy guy. And you'd think that in a fair society, Verloc would be punished for his laziness. But instead, he actually makes a very good living at doing… nothing. He came from very hardworking parents, but there's this basic laziness in him that the narrator doesn't really know how to describe. Verloc's sense of entitlement is so strong he's actually willing to plant a bomb to protect his easy life. Here, you get a real sense of what a leech Verloc is, even though he doesn't tend to think of himself as a bad guy. It's just that when something tries to come between him and his idle life, he's like a mother wolf protecting a cub.

    [Verloc] trod the pavement heavily with his shiny boots, and his general get-up was that of a well-to-do mechanic in business for himself. He might have been anything from a picture-frame maker to a locksmith; an employer of labour in a small way. But there was also about him an indescribable air which no mechanic could have acquired in the practice of his handicraft […]. (2.2)

    Mr. Verloc looks like he's some sort of middle-class employer, but carries himself in a way that no honest, hard-working man would. He gives off a vibe that's only given off by people who make their money off of humanity's darkest desires. In this case, Verloc makes his money by deceiving people and selling them pornography. There's a cynicism to him that makes him different from other people in his social class, and this might actually be an indirect compliment paid to the middle class on Conrad's part. Then again, Conrad might also be suggesting that Verloc's cynicism has made him stronger than these other people, because their morals keep them from making even more money.

    Mr Vladimir, First Secretary, had a drawing-room reputation as an agreeable and entertaining man. He was something of a favourite in society. His wit consisted in discovering droll connections between incongruous ideas. (2.27).

    In this passage, Conrad calls out high society for being totally superficial. A dude like Mr. Vladimir is trained in the art of getting into people's good books, and there's a good chance that no one in London's high society even knows where he comes from. But hey, the guy know show to tell a joke, and this make him a favorite in the lavish "drawing-rooms" of the idle rich.

    "History is dominated and determined by the tool and the production—by the force of economic conditions. Capitalism has made socialism, and the laws made by the capitalist for the protection of property are responsible for anarchism." (3.1)

    Riffing on straight Marxism, Michaelis argues that people's ideas and beliefs don't really have any impact on how the world is run. What matters is who's got the money and who doesn't. You can spend your whole life trying to change the way people think; but you won't make any real impact until you change the amount of cash in their wallets. The fact that this speech is coming from Michaelis, though, almost dooms these ideas from the get-go. Michaelis is someone who believes what he says, but lacks any practical way of bringing his ideas to the real world.

    [Michaelis] optimism had begun to flow from his lips. He saw Capitalism doomed in its cradle, born with the poison of the principle of competition in its system. The great capitalists devouring the little capitalists, concentrating the power and the tools of production in great masses, perfecting industrial processes, and in the madness of self-aggrandizement only preparing, organizing, enriching, making ready the lawful inheritance of the suffering proletariat. (3.32)

    According to Michaelis, capitalism is doomed to destroy itself because it can never make a peaceful society. The reason it can't create peace is because the whole system is based on the idea of competition, which means that you cant get things for yourself without taking them away from others. It's like a game of poker. There'll always be losers, which means there'll always be really angry people. At the end of the day, though, Conrad doesn't seem to think that anarchism or Marxism are worthwhile alternatives.

    Married young and splendidly at some remote epoch of the past, she had had for a time a close view of great affairs, and even of some great men. She herself was a great lady. Old now in the number of her years, she had that sort of exceptional temperament which defines time with scornful disregard, as if it were a rather vulgar convention submitted to by the mass of inferior mankind. (6.1)

    Here, you really see Conrad spoofing the upper classes of English society, especially through the great lady who's decided to take care of Michaelis. Lines like these really tend to make this woman into a caricature of wealthy privilege, especially when you consider that she inherited all of her wealth from her dead husband. She even thinks that worrying about time is gross, since time is a concern for people who need to worry about working. That said, Conrad's narrator also says some pretty nice things about this woman, because the guy just cant bear to let us get settled in our opinions. That'd be too easy.

    That made the groundless fame of his condemnation; the fame of his release was made for him on no better grounds by people who wished to exploit the sentimental aspect of his imprisonment either for purposes of their own or for no intelligible purpose. (6.3)

    Michaelis went to jail unjustly, but that's not the reason he got released. He was released because some people in really influential positions decided to make him into a symbol for whatever the heck they believed in. Others helped get him out for reasons they don't even understand. This passage shows just how much the personal whims of rich people influence the lives of working-class people like Michaelis. Again, Conrad pokes fun and even shows some anger at the upper classes, who treat people like Michaelis as pieces on a Monopoly board more than human beings. Then again, it'll probably take you longer to finish a game of Monopoly than it will to finish this novel.

    From the head, set upward on a thick neck, the eyes, with puffy lower lids, stared with a haughty droop on each side of a hooked, aggressive nose, nobly salient in the vast pale circumference of the face. A shiny silk hat and a pair of worn gloves lying ready at the end of a long table looked expanded, too, enormous. (7.8)

    Apart from Karl Yundt, Sir Ethelred is probably the most ungenerously described character in this novel (at least in terms of physical appearance). Conrad seems to be at his happiest as a writer when he writes about how fat Sir Ethelred is. As is often the case, Conrad focuses more on a dude's appearance when he has doesn't have a lot to say about the guy's inner thoughts. Sir Ethelred is an entitled, fat, rich man in the same way that water is wet. He's just there, and Conrad leaves it to us to decide whether we should laugh at him.

    Not a murmur nor even a movement hinted at interruption. The great Personage might have been the statue of one of his own princely ancestors stripped of a Crusaders war harness, and put into an ill-fitting frock coat. (7.23)

    Sir Ethelred is a really influential man, not because he's worked his way up in the world, but because some ancestor of his did a great thing in some battle hundreds of years ago. Sir Ethelred's sense of entitlement probably comes from the fact that his family has probably been upper crust for centuries. This satirical point by Conrad is brought home by the suggestion that instead of wearing a suit of armor, Ethelred wears a frock-coat. Just in case the point wasn't clear, Conrad's suggesting that (gasp) British society is pretty pathetic.

    Till they came to the door of the great man's room, Toodles preserved a scandalized and solemn silence, as though he were offended with the Assistant Commissioner for exposing such an unsavory and disturbing fact. It revolutionized his idea of the Explorers' Clubs extreme selectness, of its social purity. (10.24)

    After hearing that a member of the posh Explorers Club has been involved in criminal affairs, the secretary named Toodles is totally scandalized. He even gets mad at the Assistant Commissioner for telling him this information. Toodles is a young man who totally buys into the British status quo, which clearly says that upper-class people are above the filthy affairs of criminals.

  • Rules and Order

    [Mr. Verloc] surveyed through the park railings the evidences of the towns opulence and luxury with an approving eye. All these people had to be protected. Protection is the first necessity of opulence and luxury. They had to be protected; and their horses, carriages, houses, servants had to be protected. (2.1)

    There's nothing Verloc values more than his ability to live a lazy and privileged life. In this passage, Conrad comes closest to giving Mr. Verloc an ethos or moral code of some kind. Verloc believes that he's part of something beyond himself: a social effort to protect the privileged people from all the filthy beggars. The tone of the book really doesn't seem to be on Verloc's side, though. The narrator has just called him a fat pig, and has suggested that his laziness is something the maybe he shouldn't be allowed to get away with. Just maybe.

    "Madness alone is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate it either by threats, persuasion, or bribes […] The demonstration must be against learning—science. But not every science will do. The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy." (2.111)

    In describing his plans to Verloc, Mr. Vladimir explains that in order to freak out English society, someone has to do something that totally makes no sense. When people can explain something in everyday terms, that thing doesn't have a big impact. When something awful happens that makes no sense at all, though, people start standing up and shouting for something to be done. The logic is similar to the Professor's. Like Vladimir, the Professor knows that if you want to really shake things up, you've got to do something that totally shatters peoples idea of how things are supposed to go. This is why the Professor has such a deep impact on Inspector Heat.

    "They have more character over there [in the United States], and their character is essentially anarchistic. Fertile ground for us, the States—very good ground. The great Republic has the roots of the destructive matter in her. The collective temperament is lawless. Excellent." (4.86)

    Here, the Professor tells Ossipon that the United States is a better place than England because the United States (according to him) is basically a lawless place. The Professor admits that if he tried his bomb-tricks in the U.S., he'd probably get shot in the head. The reason this doesn't happen in England is because English society still believes in the ideals of law and order. The Professor, and possibly the book as well, believes that the America of 1886 was still pretty much the Wild West. The Professor speaks of this with approval, since in a place like America, the weak people get weeded out by the strong.

    "To break up the superstition and worship of legality should be our aim. Nothing would please me more than to see Inspector Heat and his likes take to shooting us down in broad daylight with the approval of the public. Half our battle would be won then: the disintegration of the old morality would have set in in its very temple. That is what you ought to aim at." (4.89).

    In speaking to Ossipon, the Professor reveals what is probably the biggest ace up his sleeve. When Ossipon tells the Professor that a cop could probably shoot him without giving him time to set off his bomb, the Professor says that he wishes this would happen, because then the police would no longer be working with a false idea of law and order. They would embrace anarchy and just start shooting anyone they didn't like the look of. In this case, the Professor character could easily be the inspiration for Christopher Nolan's Joker.

    Chief Inspector Heat […] stepped out with the purposeful briskness of a man disregarding indeed the inclemencies of the weather, but conscious of having an authorized mission on this earth and the moral support of his kind. All the habitants of the immense town, the population of the whole country, and even the teeming millions struggling upon the planet, were with him—down to the very thieves and mendicants. (5.58)

    Here, Heat is confident that the majority of society is on his side. Most people like the fact that life is governed by a clear set of rules, and Heat enjoys working with the support of the majority. Even the thieves, it seems, are with him when it comes to dealing with nuts like the Professor. Thieves make sense because the law has clear rules for dealing with them. They want what everyone else wants; they just choose unconventional ways of getting it. The Professor, on the other hand, can't be bought off with money or goods. He actually seems quite happy about being poor. What he wants is to know that he can't be touched.

    Catching thieves was another matter altogether. It had that quality of seriousness belonging to every form of open sport where the best man wins under perfectly comprehensible rules. There were no rules for dealing with anarchists. And that was distasteful to the Chief Inspector. (5.61)

    Chief Inspector Heat has no problem with criminals. After all, he wouldn't have a job without them. And the thing he loves most about his job is the thrill of the hunt, as long as the hunt takes place inside a really clear set of rules (don't try talking if you ever play Pictionary with him). People like the Professor, though, threaten Heat's whole world because they don't really make sense to him. There are no rules for dealing with the Professor, because the Professor doesn't acknowledge the law. Here, Conrad shows us that the ideals of justice and order are much more fragile than we might think.

    The perfect anarchist was not recognized as a fellow creature by Chief Inspector Heat. He was impossible—a mad dog to be left alone. Not that the Chief Inspector was afraid of him; on the contrary, he meant to have him some day. But not yet: he meant to get hold of him in his own time, properly and effectively, according to the rules of the game. (6.54)

    Again, we get a sense that Conrad's exploring how the human mind tries to deal with things that aren't quite normal. Chief Inspector Heat is a good cop who enjoys his job because there are certain "rules to the game." But the Professor isn't after money or any of the stuff that criminals usually want. He can't be bought off with money or even fame. He wants the social order to collapse, partly because of his pride, and maybe even because he's really bored. Heat knows the Professor wants him to step outside the rules of the game; but Heat won't take the bait. He believes in the rule of law, and plans on one day arresting the Professor in the proper way. Then again, he might just be terrified of the little dude.

    "[Verloc] would not be much good to anybody but myself. One has got to know a good deal beforehand to make use of a man like that. I can understand that sort of hint he can give. And when I want a hint he can generally furnish it to me." (6.102)

    Heat reveals to the Assistant Commissioner that for years, he's been using Verloc as his personal Wikipedia of secret information. The Assistant Commissioner thinks it would've been better to do things by the book and bring Verloc in as an official informer. But Heat feels he can do his job much better by bending the rules a little. In this sense, his unwavering belief in rules seems to take a little vacation, since he feels like he's got the right to do whatever it takes to get results. In this case, Conrad might be pointing out Heat's hypocrisy, or might actually be siding with Heats point of view.

    "I must do my work in my own way," declared the Chief Inspector. "When it comes to that I would deal with the devil himself, and take the consequences. There are things not fit for everybody to know." (6.110)

    Here's how committed Heat is to getting the results he wants. In fact, he's totally willing to send Michaelis to jail for a crime he had nothing to do with, just for the sake of preserving the status quo. For Heat, the truth doesn't even matter—what matters is preserving the social order and the rules that govern it, which means meeting people's expectations and giving the simplest possible answers to problems whenever you can.

    "What pleased me most in this affair […] is that it makes such an excellent starting-point for a piece of work which I've felt must be taken in hand—that is, the clearing out of this country of all the foreign political spies, police, and that sort of—of—dogs. In my opinion they are a ghastly nuisance; also an element of danger." (10.96)

    The Assistant Commissioner hates the fact that he's got foreign embassies sending their spies all through his city, and he takes this opportunity to gloat in Mr. Vladimir's face and tell him that he's going to completely throw everyone like Vladimir out of England. For the Assistant Commissioner, there's only one sheriff in town, and anyone else trying to do the job of the London police is only going to cause problems. It seems like we're supposed to take his side here, since Mr. Vladimir is a bad dude, and its pretty cool to see him come down a peg or two.