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.
Are you planning to read all of Conrad's novels? At least lately you seem quite deeply into him. I looked him up at Fantastic Fiction (a great resource by the way for finding full lists of any author's works complete with publication dates.) He wrote 27 novels!
His bio there: "Joseph Conrad (originally Józef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski) was born in the Ukraine in 1857 and grew up under Tsarist autocracy. His parents, ardent Polish patriots, died when he was a child, following their exile for anti-Russian activities, and he came under the protection of his tradition-conscious uncle, Thaddeus Bobrowski, who watched over him for the next twenty-five years." I had no idea, thinking he was British. But I copied this for you because it seems to relate to The Secret Agent. I also noticed that he co-wrote some novels with Ford Maddox Ford. I recently read A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway who paints a hilarious but critical portrait of Ford from the 20s in Paris. Your review got me interested because you know I love spy stories.
Thanks for the information Judy. Conrad has such and interesting background. His Eastern European background tends to surprise people. I did not know that he wrote books with Ford. I will need to check at least one of them out. I am not sure if I will read all Conrad’s books. But I will read those that are most esteemed.
Fantastic Fiction looks to be a great resource. Thanks for the tip.
This definitely sounds dark! And now you’ve told us the ending, I don’t need to read it! ;-) However, I see the BBC has filmed it, mostly in Scotland. Check out this article: https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/tv-radio/the-secret-agent-the-modern-period-drama-filmed-in-scotland-1-4173501
Apparently, the Professor’s cry of “Exterminate!Exterminate!” was what inspired the Daleks’ cry - who knew?
You have really delved into some of the key details of this novel. The notion of terrorists in our midst makes this novel very contemporary. I find it interesting that Conrad in some ways seems to present his seedy band of terrorists as both potentially evil and banal in their enterprises.
intriguing in-depth post... i haven't read this one yet and i might not; we live in an uncertain world, but so did Conrad: i really get the impression from your post and from the books i've read, that C didn't like people a whole lot, en masse anyway... after he retired he had literary friends but from what i've read i don't think he went out of his way to meet new people... for some reason i feel he was a bit like Kipling in that way...
Great review Brian. It is a tragic novel and since 19th century nihilism is a topic that interests me I think I would like to give it a read. Sounds like Winnie and Stevie are the two decent characters in this novel and they meet a sad fate. Joseph Conrad a brilliant author and Lord Jim was exceptional but I think I've learned when I tackle my next book by Conrad that you have to go slow with him, not rush through his books.
Hi Sue - I was wondering is there was a connect between The Professor and Davros as The Professor exclaimed “Exterminate! Exterminate I was aware of The BBC adoption. I must give it a try. !
Hi James - In many ways this book seems very contemporary. Evil and banality, something that is present in real life, is very much here in this book.
Hi Muddpuddle-.I get the impression that Conrad believed that the world was filled with very bad people with a few virtuous folks standing out.
Thanks Kathy. This was very tragic. It was shorter and a little less challenging then Lord Jim.
Even though I've never read the novel, I enjoyed the relatively recent mini series starring Toby Jones. Definitely worth a look if you're interested to see how some of the characters and themes transfer to the screen. (I do recall it being every dark indeed.) There's an earlier adaptation too, a Hitchcock film named Sabotage - from the 1930s, I think.
I'm glad you enjoyed this one, Winnie sounds like an interesting character. Novels filled with complex characters are satisfying reads. Great commentary as always.
I've never read any Conrad and you know, I really should.
Thanks for the reminder Brian. I read this some time ago and although I didn't think it was a perfect novel I did think it was both very modern and very prophetic in many ways. It was my first Conrad novel and I'll certainly be trying out more of his work (indeed I've already picked up a few).
I can definitely back up Judy's recommendation of the Fantastic Fiction website. I use it constantly to find more books by authors I like as well as to keep up with the latest releases.
Hi Jacqui - I have seen the Hitchcock version. I thought that it was a great film but different from the book. I must give the newer version a try.
Hi Naida - Complex characters are one of the things that makes a novel great.
Hi Debra - I am coming to love Conrad. This was a great book but a dark one. My favorite Conrad so far has been Lord Jim.
Hi CyberKitten- A lot of things from this book really anticipated many developments of the Twentieth Century. Unfortunately these bad things. I would recommend Lord Jim as a great Conrad book.
I am going to try to explore Fantastic Fiction today.
It *is* a great book I think, and very modern and relevant in many ways. Gets inside that kind of mentality quite brilliantly. This is the only Conrad I've read apart from Heart of Darkness, and I couldn't put it down!
Hi Kaggy - The The book is amazingly prescient. I would recommend Lord Jim. It was my favorite Conrad book so far.
I'm so glad to hear this was a worthwhile read! I skimmed your review a little; I plan to read this very soon.
You might also enjoy Under Western Eyes and The Shadow-Line. It's hard to choose favorite Conrad books, but so far, those are vying for the top spot on my list, along with Heart of Darkness.
Hi Marion - I will give those books a try soon. I have heard that Under Western Eyes was Conrad’s response to Crime and Punishment. I want to read that first.
I already have 'Under Western Eyes' on my Amazon Wish List [grin]
Dark, indeed. Layers upon layers upon layers, that is what makes the book difficult for me to hang onto. Stevie is the key for me as well. Knowing autism well, he is uncluttered by his brain holding onto unnecessary thoughts.
Hi Susan - These terribly dark Books can be difficult for me too. Stevie is drawn so well.
i found Winnie very interesting and compelling character dear Brain !
seems quite intense job by author though in very appealing way
i found main character also quite interesting and complex
to comprehend his psyche i might want to read this novel someday :)
powerful commentary as always that make reader to try the book immediately
Thanks Baili - The characters in this book are so well done. I think that “intense” is the perfect word for both the characters and the plot here.
I'm not sure Joseph Conrad has written anything that isn't dark? I'm glad you mostly enjoyed it despite the flaws.
Hi Rachel - Conrad did tend to play with dark themes. I did think that this was darker then typical for him.
This sounds like an interesting novel. I did not know that Conrad wrote such a novel. I haven't read a lot of Conrad. I liked Heart of Darkness and I didn't finish Lord Jim. However, I'm willing to give this one a try.
I'm glad that this novel seems contemporary, and therefore relevant, as it was written over a hundred years ago, and seems to be set in the 1880s! It sounds as if you enjoyed reading it, due to the characters and the (timeless?) themes. Excellent commentary, as usual!
Hi Sharon - This one is fairly short. If you liked Heart of Darkness I think that you might like this.
Thanks Suko. The current relevance of the book adds to its appeal. It is striking just how timely this book still is.
Does Winnie know her husband is a spy or secret agent? Verloc sounds terrible but Stevie and Winnie sound pretty good. I'd like to reread Heart of Darkness .... which reminds me of Apocalypse Now since they took from that ...
I have read The Heart of Darkness, and thought it was superb to the ultimate! I don't think I've read The Secret Agent, and I must do so, because Conrad is just the kind of writer I most admire. You know, John Le Carre sort of followed in Conrad's footsteps, I think. I really like the darkness of Conrad's novels. Must follow up! Thanks for this post.
Hi Susan - Winnie does not know about Verloc’s activities but that is partially because she does not want to know.
Heart of Darkness was a great story. I also thought Apocalypse Now was a great film.
Hi Judith- I agree that Heart of Darkness a great story. This, I think that you would like this.
Come tic think of it, I can see how Le Carre was influenced by this kind of dark spy tale.
I've only read Heart of Darkness, and it sounds like The Secret Agent is just as dark, but in a pacier sort of way. It sounds well worth getting hold of, just for the character of Stevie alone. Fascinating review.
Thanks Paula - I actually thought that this was darker then Heart of Darkness. Some bad things happen to likable characters in this book.
A book we were encouraged to read whilst at school and one I have been meaning to return to for some years now as I'm sure that at the time I didn't appreciate this in the way I would now; that I didn't get the complexity of the characters nor the subtle nuances.
Hi Felicity - I also read a bunch of things when young that I did not appreciate at the time. Much of this book would have gone over my head when young.
I read this book and enjoyed your analyses of the characters. Winnie and Stevie are tragic, but I like how Conrad gave them some depth and didn't merely make them two-dimensional innocents among unscrupulous people.
Hi Hila - They both were multidimensional. Winnie became very interesting toward the end.
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