Study Guide

Winnie Verloc in The Secret Agent

Winnie Verloc

The Martyr

Winnie Verloc is the loyal and devoted wife of Adolph Verloc… although really her devotion to her husband never really goes beyond what's necessary to make sure Adolph keeps taking care of her brother Stevie. Let's re-label Winnie as the loyal and devoted sister of Stevie.

All through this book, you can tell that Stevie is always the first thing on Winnie's mind, and that she is always watching over Stevie "with maternal vigilance" (1.15). Winnie is described as a fairly attractive young woman who's quite a bit younger than her husband. She actually dated another boy when she was younger, but sacrificed her young love in order to marry Mr. Verloc. After all, her beloved butcher's boy would never have been able to take care of her mother and mentally disabled brother, Stevie, and Mr. Verloc could.

For most of the novel, Winnie's pretty proud of the decision she's made, and she "congratulate[s] herself on a certain resolution she [has] taken a few years before. It had cost her some effort, and even a few tears" (9.29). The choice to sacrifice her own (more age-appropriate and passionate) love for a relationship that could protect her family shows that Winnie really defines who she is by taking care of Stevie.

Now it might be tempting to see her as a selfless foil to her husband's selfishness, but Conrad's way too mean (not to mention brilliant and nuanced) to give us that sort of moral black and white. Instead, Conrad shows us that even though selfishness is a bad thing, self-lessness isn't all that great, either. After all, Winnie's efforts to protect Stevie fail. Steviepoo gets himself blown to smithereens, and we need to dig a little deeper if we want to figure out just what Conrad wants us to think about Winnie Verloc.

Lucky for you, we have our hand Lit Analysis picks and shovels on hand to get down to that next level.

The Murderer

Winnies can be pretty gentle a lot of the time, but when it comes to protecting Stevie, there's no telling how far she'll go. Oh wait, yes there is. She'll go as far as murdering her husband to avenge her brother's murder. No doubt, sis definitely loved her bro.

But this isn't the only thing that makes Winnie get all stabby with Verloc. As the narrator tells us in Chapter Eight, Stevie wasn't just a brother for Winnie. He was a project—a reason to keep living. The dude is "connected with what there [is] of the salt of passion in [Winnie's] tasteless life—the passion of indignation, of courage, of pity, and even of self-sacrifice" (8.122).

In other words, Conrad is showing us that Winnie's selflessness isn't actually all that selfless. She's chosen to live for another person partly because she loves him… but partly because she wants to run away from living her own life.

Winnie projects all sorts of emotions and personal drama onto Stevie that poor Stevie doesn't know anything about. This shows us that Winnie's no saint. She's just someone who's chosen to never think about herself, and according to Conrad, this might actually be an irresponsible thing to do.

After all, we only really see Winnie think about herself one time in this whole novel, and that's when she has to think about how she'll escape the police after murdering Verloc. Let's just say that that doesn't go so well. Even before she runs into Ossipon Winnie's thinking about killing herself: not only because she's just murdered someone, but also because now that Stevie isn't around to take up all her time and energy she's not sure what she'll even do with herself.

The Ostrich

Winnie's selflessness seems to be a total foil to Verloc's total gross self-absorption. But guess what? Conrad's got a little surprise for you, because it turns out that Winnie and Verloc basically suffer from the same problem: neither of them bother to look beneath the surface of everyday things.

As we discussed in the Verloc character analysis, the dude dies in part because he doesn't understand Winnie's attachment to her brother. But Winnie, though, might actually be even worse than Verloc, because she's the only character in this book who intentionally keeps herself ignorant of things by thinking that "things do not stand much looking into" (8.129).

Conrad repeats this line a bunch of times when he's describing Winnie, and he does this because this line shows us the real problem with Mrs. Verloc. She's devoted to her brother, sure. And like both Stevie and Michaelis, she's compassionate. But while Stevie, Michaelis, and even Verloc are all naïve, Winnie's the only one who intentionally chooses to be naïve, and in a world full of jerks, Conrad says there's no way you're going to get away with this hole-in-the-sand mindset.

In his author's foreword, Joseph Conrad suggests that The Secret Agent is actually the story of Winnie Verloc more than Mr. Verloc. If Winnie is this tragedy's hero, refusing to look beneath the surface of things is Winnie's tragic flaw. At several points in this book, she could've unearthed Verloc's whole scheme. But she always pulled back, because deep down, she feels like everything will work out if she stays in the dark and just thinks about Stevie.

This intentional naivety is something Conrad can't forgive her for, no matter how good a person she is otherwise. It's one thing if you're going to swim with sharks; it's another if you try to do it blindfolded and pretend the sharks aren't there. It's a tough modern world, and by choosing to stay ignorant, Winnie gets both herself and her brother killed. In the end, Conrad uses Winnie to warn anyone who might try to be oblivious and self-servingly selfless.