This post contains spoilers.
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad is a dark tale of spying, radicalism and family strife. Like other Conrad books that I have read, the prose and characters are masterly crafted. First published in 1907, the story seems to take place in the 1880s. This is the fourth Conrad book that I have read. I had previously completed Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and Nostromo. Though I found this novel to be nearly great, I thought that the ideas and some characters could have been developed more. This also seemed like darkest Conrad novel that I have read so far.
This is the story of Adolph Verloc. The protagonist is currently living in London and is covertly employed by a foreign embassy, possibly Russian. Verloc has spent his life infiltrating anarchist and other radical circles with the intent of monitoring and disrupting these organizations on the behest of various governments. Mr. Vladimir is Verloc’s new supervisor who hatches a plot that involves the incitement of violence. The theory is that if the anarchists set off a bomb, it will rouse the British government and public to take more vigorous action against radicalism. Thus, Verloc is set into motion to set off a bomb at the Greenwich Observatory.
In the non - covert world Verloc runs a shop that sells all kinds of shady wares including pornography. He lives with his wife Winnie, his mother - in - law and his brother - in - law Stevie. Verloc’s young brother – in – law is someone who in our present times would likely be diagnosed with autism. Over the course of the book it is revealed that Winnie and Stevie’s father had been abusive. Even after he died, Winnie’s family faced a world of abusive men and a future that would probably see Stevie institutionalized. Winnie married Mr. Verloc because he showed himself to be a financially stable, outwardly good natured, non - abusive man who would tolerate Stevie. Her actions are almost entirely motivated by her desire to take care of and protect her brother. For his part, though easy going, Mr. Verloc is emotionally detached and exhibits almost no ethics. Though the characters that he surrounds himself are disreputable, it is not to Verloc’s credit that he spies upon and betrays them.
Verloc’s radical friends are portrayed as a combination of immoral and ridiculous people who advocate terrible theories. A few, like the bomb - making “Professor” are willing to commit or at least assist in the perpetuating violence and are horrifying people.
In an effort to carry out the bombing of the observatory Verloc enlists Stevie to assist him. After procuring a bomb from The Professor, Verloc sends the trustful and naive Stevie to plant the explosive at the observatory. Unfortunately, in route to place the device, Stevie trips on a tree root and blows himself up. The book ends on a bleak note as both Verloc and Winnie fall into personnel catastrophe.
I think Stevie’s character is key here. Though he has difficulties with the world, Stevie spends a lot of time thinking about topics such as morality and suffering. He shows a great deal of empathy for others. At one point he becomes aware of the difficult and painful lives of both a carriage driver and his horse,
“Poor brute, poor people!” was all he could repeat. It did not seem forcible enough, and he came to a stop with an angry splutter: “Shame!” Stevie was no master of phrases, and perhaps for that very reason his thoughts lacked clearness and precision. But he felt with greater completeness and some profundity. 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— at the poor cabman beating the poor horse in the name, as it were, of his poor kids at home. And Stevie knew what it was to be beaten. He knew it from experience. It was a bad world. Bad! Bad!
The above is just one example in the text where Stevie’s character manifests itself. He also creates artwork through which one gets the sense that he is trying to makes sense of a very chaotic universe,
innocent Stevie, seated very good and quiet at a deal table, drawing circles, circles, circles; innumerable circles, concentric, eccentric; a coruscating whirl of circles that by their tangled multitude of repeated curves, uniformity of form, and confusion of intersecting lines suggested a rendering of cosmic chaos, the symbolism of a mad art attempting the inconceivable.
Stevie’s views are contrasted with the motley crew of anarchists who operate on all kinds of social theories that purport to make the world better. These men are nihilistic, egotistical, callous to suffering and are willing to hurt people. Like Fyodor Dostoevsky did with his portrayals of radicals, Conrad seems to anticipate the mass murders and genocides of the twentieth century as The Professor talks about plans for mass extermination of people. One of these anarchists label Stevie as “degenerate”; the irony being that it is actually the accuser who shows degeneracy. The radical world eventually kills Stevie, further heightening the contrast.
Of course, Stevie’s morality is also at odds with Mr. Verloc’s narcissism and the embassy official’s callous disregard for ethics and human life. At the end however, Stevie’s conceptions of justice have their day to some extent.
There is a lot more going on in this book. There are multiple characters, including police officials and criminals that Conrad digs into. One flaw in the narrative manifests itself as some of these characters seem only partially formed. The author spends a fair number of pages developing some of the police officials and their stories but seems to leave them hanging in the end.
Winnie is also explored in great depth. She shows great selflessness in her devotion to Stevie. By the story’s end, her understandable decisions lead to disastrous consequences for herself. I could devote an entire post to her.
Like the other Conrad books that I have, the prose here is very dense. The description of places and people are filled with words. I found myself rereading passages often. Others have observed that Conrad tends to construct long sentences that go in circles. I tend to agree with this. I do not consider these things drawbacks however, in fact, I love Conrad’s style. It is unique, interesting to read, and bursting with meaning.
Despite a few flaws and despite the fact that it is very dark, this is a suburb novel. It is filled with interesting and complex characters. The plot and themes are fascinating. It is also filled with Conrad’s unique but wonderfully crafted prose. With that, I thought that the ideas here might not have been as complex as Lord Jim or Nostromo. Still, this novel deserves its reputation of being a classic.