Study Guide

The Secret Agent Themes

  • Compassion

    It probably doesn't seem like the narrator shows a whole lot of compassion to the characters in this book, but compassion is definitely an important theme in The Secret Agent. It's especially through Stevie and Michaelis that Conrad tries to figure out if people in the modern world are even capable to looking after one another.

    Without doubt, Stevie and Michaelis are both really compassionate dudes, but for a bunch of reasons, neither of them can get anything done when it comes to making the world a better place. Maybe it's because they're surrounded by definitively uncompassionate psychopaths?

    Questions About Compassion

    1. Why do Michaelis and Stevie fail in their attempts to make the world a more loving place? What keeps them from making an impact?
    2. Apart from Michaelis, Stevie, and Winnie, do you see any other examples of characters in this book that show genuine compassion to another person?
    3. For a book that criticizes characters for their lack of compassion, why does The Secret Agent take such a distanced and ironic approach toward its characters? Why is the narrator not more loving?
    4. How do you interpret the awful feelings that Comrade Ossipon feels in the books final chapter? Does he feel guilty for his lack of compassion toward Winnie, or does his problem lie somewhere else?

    Chew on This

    In The Secret Agent, Conrad suggests that true compassion might very well exist, but it will be destroyed and exploited by a world full of bad people.

    The Secret Agent satirizes many of its characters, but when you get down to its core ideals, you discover that it ultimately sides with the socialist beliefs of Michaelis, regardless of whether or not these beliefs are practical.

  • Loyalty (Devotion)

    The theme of devotion pops up mostly in two characters: Winnie Verloc and her mother. Both these women show a very deep devotion to Stevie, but its important not to confuse their loyalty with Stevie's compassion. Stevie's compassion comes from a really deep emotional connection with the world, while Winnie and her mothers protective attitude toward him is more like a sense of duty or an ongoing project.

    Questions About Loyalty (Devotion)

    1. What is the basis of Winnie's devotion to Stevie? How is her devotion and loyalty different from Stevie's compassion? Use examples from the text to support your answer.
    2. What pushes Winnie over the edge and makes her kill Verloc? What is the specific train of thought that goes through her mind after she hears about Stevie's death?
    3. How is Winnie's devotion to Stevie similar to or different from her mother's? Use specific examples from the text to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    Winnie's devotion to Stevie gets in the way of her relationship with Mr. Verloc, preventing her from being a good wife.

    Ultimately, Winnie's tendency to not look too deeply into things makes her directly responsible for Stevie's death.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Its probably not much of a shocker to find out that a book called The Secret Agent contains a bunch of lies and deceit. In the style of James Cameron's True Lies, Verloc keeps his secret agent status a secret from his wife for seven years. Lies and deceit are secret agent man Verloc's main tools for living, but lies and deceit are also the tools that the police use. The whole social order seems to be based on lies and deceit, and the winners in life are the ones who use lies and deceit to their advantage.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. How does Verloc convince himself that Stevie's death is somehow Winnie's fault?
    2. Using specific references to the text, map out the timeline of how Verloc prepares Stevie to plant the bomb at Greenwich.
    3. How does Chief Inspector Heat use deception to do his job? Use specific examples from the text to support your answer.
    4. What does Mr. Vladimir hope to accomplish by staging an attack on the Greenwich Observatory?

    Chew on This

    In The Secret Agent, Conrad suggests that all levels of society function according to lies, and that honest people have little hope for survival in such a world.

    In The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad suggests that lies are not only the responsibility of those who create them, but also the responsibility of the people who fail to ask questions and look beneath the surface of things.

  • Pride

    Conrad explores the theme of pride in this book, especially through the Professor. In fact, calling it "pride" might even be the understatement of the century. The Professor is a completely insane egomaniac, possessed by the total certainty that he's stronger and greater than everyone else. He is small in stature, and doesn't really have anything to prove that he's so great other than the fact that he's willing to blow himself up just to show how untouchable he is. Conrad has very little time for people who are convinced of their self-importance, and by constantly confronting the Professor with the London masses, Conrad reveals just how much individualism and a personal sense of greatness is just a fantasy that destroys compassion.

    Questions About Pride

    1. What does the Professor believe in? Would it be proper to call him an anarchist? Is he the only true anarchist in the book?
    2. Why does the Professor feel the need to return to his room after spending too much time on London's streets?
    3. Do you think the Professor really has the willpower to blow himself up? Why or why not?
    4. Which other characters in the book exhibit pride? How is their pride similar to or different from the Professor's?

    Chew on This

    Ultimately, the narrator of The Secret Agent sets up the Professor as being emotionally stronger than any other character.

    Through the Professor, Joseph Conrad shows us how the desire to be better than other people is stupid, since were all going to die someday anyway.

  • Appearances

    Conrad is totally obsessed with physical appearances in The Secret Agent, and in general, his descriptions of peoples appearances seem to have two main effects: 1) Give Conrad a chance to really show off his mad writing skillz, and 2) Create a very chilly distance between the narrator and the characters of the book.

    In Conrad's case, physical descriptions of people almost always suggest a lack of sympathy in the narrator. Also, physical appearances have a huge amount of significance for the character Ossipon, who believes that you can tell someone's true personality through a scientific study of his/her appearance. This sort of idea has been completely discredited since Conrad's time, but Conrad himself never comes out and says it's false.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. In this book, there are three characters that are described as fat, and two of them (Michaelis and Ethelred) are morbidly obese. What's with Conrad's depiction of fat people in this book? Is there a broader point he's trying to make by dwelling so much on people's weight?
    2. What do you think the book's final verdict is on the ideas of Cesare Lombroso? Do you think it makes fun of Ossipon for believing in this man's ideas, or does it actually treat the ideas seriously?
    3. There's an old saying about how appearances can be deceiving. Is this ever the case in The Secret Agent, or do people's appearances always match their true personalities?

    Chew on This

    In The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad never directly invalidates the ideas of Cesare Lombroso. In fact, Conrad's obsession with appearances sometimes seems to support these ideas.

    Conrad's representation of obesity in The Secret Agent symbolizes a loss of energy and vitality in modern culture.

  • Society and Class

    Conrad isn't impressed with snooty upper-class people, and he likes to satirize them whenever he gets a chance. Society and class is also a dominant theme in The Secret Agent because its exactly what Verloc believes he's protecting. He strives to protect upper class people from the same filthy masses who get a lot of sympathy from people like Michaelis and Karl Yundt.

    Mr. Vladimir, although he's at odds with Verloc, also wants to protect the privilege that the upper classes have at the expense of the lower classes. During Conrad's time, a lot of Marxists and anarchists were instigating for massive social change in Europe. Conrad explores many of the tensions that were very prevalent in society while he was writing this book.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What can you conclusively say about Conrad's take on social class divisions in England? Ultimately, does he side with the upper crust or with the anarchists trying to transform society? Does he side with neither?
    2. What exactly does Verloc seek to protect through his work? How is he personally invested in the right of upper-class people to be lazy and idle?
    3. What is the books overall representation of the "great lady" who takes Michaelis into her care? What is this woman like? How has her wealth affected her personality?

    Chew on This

    In The Secret Agent, Conrad criticizes the stark division between the upper and lower classes, but ultimately shows that there is no preferable alternative way of organizing society.

    The Secret Agent shows us that society is not organized in a fair way because human beings are naturally selfish and cruel.

  • Rules and Order

    "Rules and Order!" is the battle cry of pretty much every character in The Secret Agent that isn't a political radical. It's also the biggest reason for why there should be different social classes, because many characters feel that if these classes didn't exist, you'd just have a free-for-all of everyone trying to take everyone else's money.

    Characters like Verloc and Chief Inspector Heat believe especially in the importance of protecting people's property, since the social order is mostly based on which property belongs to which people. As with almost all things in this book, it's tough to pin down Conrad's opinion on rules and order. But one thing that seems pretty clear is that Conrad has very little time for people who are ungenerous and uncompassionate, regardless of what class they're in.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. What is the Professor's attitude toward the rules and order of society? How does he tend to think of himself in relation to these rules?
    2. What is Chief Inspector Heat's relationship to the rule of law in society? How does he think of his job? How does he think about someone like the Professor?
    3. Does Conrad ever suggest that a huge revolution is going to turn society upside down? If so, what forces will bring about this revolution? If not, what forces will prevent it?
    4. According to Winnie, what is the purpose of the London Police? Whose interests do they work to protect? Are the police a force of moral good in this novel?

    Chew on This

    In The Secret Agent, there is only one foundation for the rules of society: the protection of private property.

    In the conflict between the views of Chief Inspector Heat and the Professor, The Secret Agent begrudgingly sides with Heat.