“I have no doubt…that there had been moments in the writing of this book when I was an extreme revolutionist, I won’t say more convinced than they, but certainly cherishing a more complicated purpose than any of them.”
At first glance, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent seems to portray a world of nihilism, a dark and ironic tale where anarchists prop up the very system they swear to destroy, and gross incompetence leads to a tragic death spiral. However, between the lines we find a common sympathy evoked for those at the lowest rungs of society, from laborers and even animals who must inhabit this same world with hypocrites like Mr. Verloc. And yet, all these characters are trapped within the same system, and will remain so unless they can grasp onto a certain “moral agent” twin possibilities that fall between the two extremes that exist within the novel. The angelic sacrifice, Stevie, stands juxtaposed with the bomb-strapped professor: the innocent victim blown apart, and the insidious specter standing outside the plot. Stevie’s demise is a rallying cry for change, and his empathetic morality a signal for the way things should be, but the Professor’s survival is a dire warning, a reminder that the promises of Humanism are hollow, and all can come crumbling down. Stevie’s demise cuts through deceit and brings an end to the titular Secret Agent, while the Professor, despite providing the destructive implements, escapes all condemnation and judgment while he continues his dark designs.
Verloc’s entire character arc centers around Stevie. The story paints a pathetic picture of his business – the false, dingy pornographic store hiding the anarchist “operation,” one of a gross “fanatical inertness” that defined Mr. Verloc (Conrad 24). And yet, Mr. Verloc is a man pretending to be an anarchist, secretly a counterterrorist, and someone who also informs for the local police on the side while keeping his wife in the dark about everything. Despite this, even though he hosts actual anarchists at his false business, he has no need for deception because the majority merely sit there and wax philosophically. It is a miracle of procrastination that he avoided trouble for so many years. This man, “undemonstrative and burly in the fat pig style,” has his cozy inertness collapse as he is pressured into carrying out a bombing to galvanize the country, striking out the symbol of science itself (Conrad 25, 45). Considering that one of the tenets of Humanist thought is one of “rational progress” and “the universal powers of reason,” Conrad asserts that the power of this London society is tied up within the belief of science as sacred (Braidotti 13, 15). To attack what people see as progress is “madness…inexplicable, almost unthinkable…you cannot placate it by threats, persuasion, and bribes” a force of chaos that will inspire an overreaching response (Conrad 45).
One of the most tragic elements of this story is that the people fighting for “revolution” have no grandiose goals of equality or freeing people from oppression. The real goal of their leader, Vladimir, is retrogression. The bombing must bring an end to the open-door policy on political refugees, and Vladimir’s Russian origin is no accident: “No other nation had more reason to be irritated with Britain’s policy of granting asylum to political extremists and its categorical refusal to extradite alleged terrorists to their countries of origin” (Frank). The picture of society Conrad paints is bleak enough, but the emptiness and inaction of these revolutionaries speaks to a general malaise that has infected the world.
However, Conrad puts forward two characters who resist this stifling air. The first, an anarchist who looms above the rest, unpredictable as he is unsettling, dynamite strapped to his chest and searching for one thing – “the perfect detonator” (Conrad 80). The Professor lurked in the shadows for an hour while his associates were unaware, and just his “firmness, and assured precision” of his movements are enough to make them sweat (78). He laughs outright at the thought of getting caught by the police and states that “to deal with a man like me you need sheer, naked, inglorious heroism” (79). The Professor openly embraces the title of villain and declares that he draws his strength and “force of personality” from his opposition to the social order: “[Inspector Heat] was thinking about many things – of his superiors, of his reputation, of the law, of the courts, of his salary, of newspapers – of hundreds of things…He plays his little game – so do you propagandists – but I don’t play” (83-84). The only person who could reasonably kill him is someone who could “face their own institutions” and reject their police training in service to their own morality (86). He openly proclaims this as his goal, a “clean sweep and a clean start from a new conception of life” presenting his dynamite as a cleansing forest-fire that births fertile ground (87).
The following chapter reveals him as a victim of the “atrocious injustice of society,” one where wealth triumphs over merit, and people are fooled by the “tales of men who rise from poverty” to think they have a chance (95). As the son of a Christian preacher, the Professor embodies both the secular and religious world, the “moral agent” who stalks the land (96). But he has a unique, character defining fear: he believes in mankind. The Professor, the villain, only exists because he believes society CAN change, but when he sees the faceless masses moving about “like locusts, industrious like ants, thoughtless like a natural force…impervious to sentiment, to logic, and terror…” he doubts his entire enterprise, both the sword and shield of fear he uses to define himself (96-97). While this all ties into his insatiable ego, it does give an ember of humanity to a man who crafts bombs and detonators he hands out to “anybody” who asks (78).
However, he clearly has an effect on Inspector Heat, who muses that burglars and thieves operate within the same system as the police – a strikingly similar statement to what the Professor told the propagandists (108). When they encounter each other, what follows is reminiscent of a comic strip: the grim detective, Defender of Order, staring down the Cheshire Cat with his long cloak and seedy laugh. But although it begins with the classic “if I lay hands on you now, I would be no better than yourself” both of them find themselves at a crossroads – they run out of things to say (110). The Professor’s menacing presence is defused by Heat’s ineloquent obstinance (with such phrases as “Give it up – whatever it is”), and the two part ways with the professor sulking that he could not rile the detective, and Inspector Heat reassuring himself that the whole of society supports his investigation simply because anarchists “have no class – no class at all” (112).
While the professor is a byproduct of society’s evils, and one who, unlike the false anarchists, takes decisive action, he stands as a disturbing “unacknowledged and unacknowledgeable hero” (Ruppel 100). Driven to work “14 hours a day” and willing to starve for his craft, he struggles with intense loneliness, had his childhood dreams of upward mobility shattered, and rises up against a society “that seems impervious to the plight of the poor and takes a vicarious pleasure in the spectacle of anarchists fighting desperately and vainly for social justice” (100). The depictions of London throughout the story bears disturbing descriptions of “opulence and luxury” places “without shadows in an atmosphere of pure powdered gold” that must “be protected against the shallow enviousness of unhygienic labor” (Conrad 23). Adding to this, the newspapers and media throughout the tale gobble up any news about anarchists and socialists, but only as a matter of spectacle. With the propagandists sitting on their laurels, Mr. Verloc agreeing that this opulence “must be protected,” and with Inspector Heat vowing to defend society in any form, the Professor is the only person left who, willingly and honestly, fights for change, and even believes change is possible. Of course, at the same time, the Professor’s methods are monstrous, and will no doubt kill uncountable civilians if he actually got his way, or heaven forbid, someone tried to rob him and triggered his vest (that along with the classic anarchist problem of what actually replaces society – the critique versus the solution). Conrad makes the Professor so frightening because we have no idea how to judge him; he is a being “separated from heaven and earth”, a man who regards others as inferior insects (but is really the pest himself), and yet remains the only one actively trying to improve society (Conrad 111). He is the self-proclaimed “moral agent” willing to commit gross immorality for his purpose.
Since Joseph Conrad did regard himself as a former revolutionary, perhaps the Professor represents that “complicated purpose” that a man of conviction and ideals must hold onto (Ruppel 84). However, if he were the only potential “hero” of this story, than the traditional reading of The Secret Agent as a “study in nihilism, that all systems represented in the novel are held up to the same caustic scrutiny and are all found deficient” would seem dominant (Ruppel 92). However, like the Professor, there is another character motivated by moral outrage, one of a much purer stock – the unwitting victim, Stevie.
Already pushed to the fringe of society due to mental disability, Stevie could easily turn into a misanthrope, but he possesses a level of empathy that shames those around him. “Shame” being the same word he shouts as he witnesses the beating of a horse, understanding the plight of the desperate driver, but unable to cope with the beast’s cries (188). When Winnie made her accidental comment about the horse, Stevie did not sit idle – he sprung to action and begged the cab driver “Don’t…Don’t whip…you musn’t. It hurts” (174). Before the whip had even fallen, Stevie expresses more concern for animals than the majority of characters have shown for their fellow man. Stevie embodies the post-human, connecting, and directly feeling, the pain of both the beast of burden pushed to the limit, and the laborer barely able to feed his family. He himself connects that “a zoo-proletariat…[these] animals have been exploited for hard labour, as natural slaves and logistical support for humans” in the same way the poor people of society are othered and shunned by both the wealthy and middle class (Braidotti 70). He tries to work through this grief but “the anguish of immoderate compassion was succeeded by a pain of an innocent but pitiless rage” he possesses the wisdom “in knowing his powerlessness” but could not contain the “righteous indignation” over the incident (Conrad 186). While other characters might be capable of empathy, they might just as easily shut themselves off, stating “that’s just how things are” and continue forward. Stevie, though, can read a newspaper article about a “German soldier officer tearing half-off the ear of a recruit” and become inconsolable for the whole day (72).
Joseph Conrad’s narrator often finds ways to jab at his characters as his merciless opening description of Mr. Verloc shows. However, Stevie escapes these indirect insults, only facing direct scrutiny from spoken dialogue, and not from the narrator setting the scene. The Professor’s loneliness is mocked, but Stevie’s struggles are laid bare, letting the oncoming tragedy speak for itself.
The core nexus of the novel revolves around Stevie, even though he (while alive) gets minimal screen time. Winnie married Mr. Verloc over her sweetheart in order to provide stability for Stevie; Winnie’s mother removes herself from the family picture to ease their burdens, a pair of “lonely sacrifice[s]” that binds the family together (Ruppel 94). Winnie allows herself to be deceived, manipulating events so that Stevie views Mr. Verloc as a saint so they may grow closer together (Conrad 193). And there lies the crux of the novel. Mr. Verloc, though entirely unearned, has a family dedicated to him, devoted to the core, even though he views Winnie as a “possession” and to Stevie “extended as much recognition as a man not particularly fond of animals may give to his wife’s beloved cat” (Conrad 52). Verloc could lead an idyllic life if he either stepped away from his tepid terrorism, or gave an ounce of respect towards the boy he radicalizes for the sake of shirking his responsibility. Verloc provides the panacea for Stevie’s rage, showing him that there were others who understand this “bad, bad” society and were taking steps to change it. He rescues Stevie, gives the boy hope and a passion to learn more, but of course, this is all built on a lie.
Mr. Verloc does not believe the rhetoric he spews – he merely wants to create an unwitting dupe, a passionate and pure agent to carry out the attack he was too weak-willed to complete. But, when Verloc looks over the “innocent Stevie’s shoulders” he views “circles…innumerable circles, concentric, eccentric, a coruscating whirl of circles that by their tangled multitude of repeating curves, uniformity of form, and confusion of intersecting lines suggested a rendering of cosmic chaos” (Conrad 57). Just as Stevie needed the future murder weapon, the “carving knife” taken away from him by Winnie after the German officer incident, his actions foreshadow the recursive effect of the failed bombing, of Verloc’s own life crumbling before him for the transgression he takes against Stevie: the condescension and commoditization of Winnie goes unanswered until Verloc sinks his claws into the impressionable boy, taking advantage of the “father and son” dynamic setup by Winnie, and turning it into one of “submission and worship” (204, 250). Much like how the Professor’s suicide vest requires a twenty second countdown, Verloc’s demise is a slow breakdown of those circles, each one connected by the “house cat” he paid little attention too.
While the Professor claims the title of “moral agent,” Stevie owns the championship belt. Even after Verloc manipulates him into carrying out the bombing, Stevie proves incapable of murder, taking himself out rather than bringing harm to any bystanders. Could something have subconsciously held Stevie back, despite his willingness to “go through fire” for Mr. Verloc (201)? It would be one thing to dismiss this as a mere mistake, but can the boy who cried for animals and cab drivers really carry out the attack? While Winnie claims he was enraged and holding the carving knife to “stuck that officer like a pig,” it seems just as likely that Stevie would listen to the officer explain himself, perhaps how he must impress his superiors or risk losing his position, and feel intense pity for the man and the sad state of our world. Stevie’s bouts of violence turn self-destructive because of his own empathy, unable to inflict true pain on others. Convincing him (falsely) he has the power to change society and then sending him on a mission that demands (at least a risk of) murder leads to a predictable outcome: He dutifully explodes away from innocents, stumbling on his own anger just as he “stumbles on the root of a tree” (104). The man society regarded as degenerate becomes a sacrifice who sears himself into their minds, his honest outrage laid bare through his mangled corpse.
In doing so, Stevie becomes a source of horror for the novel’s inhabitants. The police officers must listen to the shovel scrape his “disintegrated” body, becoming “sick as a dog,” and sending Inspector Heat into a moment of existential dread as he ponders innumerable deaths and “the horrible notions that ages of atrocious pain and mental torture could be contained between two successive winks of the eye” (103). Not only has Stevie become an animal, a thing, he renders the same effect upon the officers who maintain the society that has caused him much mental woe. The anarchists of the shop too, save the Professor, are left flabbergasted, calling the incident “criminal” as they see the walls of their cozy operation crumbling down as the result of the impending police investigation into their activities (85). Ironically, Stevie has also outdone the Professor, for not only does he provoke an outrage, he “is simply a more intelligent mechanism than the one the Professor holds in his hand, since he is able to detonate immediately rather than within the twenty seconds the Professor’s flask takes to blow up” becoming the perfect detonator always on his mind (Clark).
On one hand, “Stevie is unable to moderate his behavior within “acceptable” Victorian bourgeois terms, so his entropy increases to the point of explosion, both in temperament and body, from inside to outside and vice versa when his image shows in Winnie’s face,” but that same explosion finally evokes a response that his brooding cries and passion failed to produce (Clark). While the rattling of the police and the fear of the anarchists might be temporary, Stevie’s demise exposes the boundless lies of Verloc’s existence. Mr. Verloc, with one last chance to repent, remarks through narration that Stevie “was a much greater nuisance dead than he ever had been alive” removing any notion of culpability (249). For the next thirty pages, Verloc belittles Stevie and Winnie as he tries to reassert control. However, with the blinders removed from Winnie’s eyes, the sweet, perfect, bourgeois housewife wields the tool of her marital oppression – the carving knife – and butchers Verloc just as he finishes consuming a piece of roast beef “ravenously, without restraint” (Conrad 269, 283; Lutz). She wields the same knife she took from Stevie to calm his rage, the one reserved for the inhuman “German slaver” that “don’t deserve much mercy” (73). And so ends the secret agent, the oppressor dead on a couch, the inactive, self-important villain of the story.
Stevie’s death is answered by turning his murderer into an animal of consumption, a lump of carved meat equivalent to the roast beef he just consumed, a darker echo of the “zoe-egalitarian” desire to bring unity between human and animal (Braidotti 71). The moments up to his death have a circular echo like his former writings, with Winnie constantly blurting “But what of Stevie?” and “This man took the boy away to murder him. This man took the boy away from his home to murder him. This man took the boy away from me to murder him!” embodying that crescendo of righteous rage Stevie always kept inside (266). The corpse of Stevie scatters the false anarchists, inspires terror in the police, and cuts through the deceit and lies that dominated his home. But as a corpse, he lies in the same realm as the Professor, that of death, not life. Winnie finds no solace after the death of Verloc, taking herself to the grave as she is abandoned by one of the remaining anarchists, Ossipon, and sees no future ahead for herself since the police will inevitably hunt her down.
But to call this struggle pointless or nihilistic diminishes the white-hot outrage of Stevie and Winnie, a cry that goes beyond the pages of the novel. We are meant to identify with their grief, to view the world with the surprising wisdom of the supposedly unintelligent Stevie. There is no simple solution for society, and while “His inarticulate compassion and rage are symptomatic of the difficulty both of finding an ethical justification for social and economic injustice and of constructing an ethical order,” there is a clear call to arms within Conrad’s writing, and a stark condemnation of those who live in gilded deceit, like Mr. Verloc (Lutz). But even if we have no panacea for our societal structures, Stevie’s death reminds us not to look past cruelty, no matter who or what it falls upon, lest we become as heartless as Verloc or trapped like Winnie, trapped within a box of our own creation, slowly filling with the water that will drown us, or rather, the bomb that will consume us. Change at the individual level, and not the macro-movements of anarchists, counterrevolutionaries, foreign powers, and the police force, is the only way to start a new circle.
But to say Joseph Conrad wishes to leave us with such a tragic yet poignant call for humanity understates the ending. After all, the Professor not only he lives, but unlike the majority of the cast, he is completely unaffected by the fallout, immune to the echo of the corpse. And only now do we get the Professor’s true philosophy: “The weak! The source of all evil on this earth…I told him that I dreamt of a world like shambles, where the weak would be taken hand in hand for utter extermination” (324). When Ossipon asks what remains he calmly replies, “I remain – if I am strong enough” (325). Stevie called for an equality where people could be made to understand each other; the Professor also calls for equality, but only of circumstance. Everyone starts from square one, and those with merit will consume the rest. Ossipon again asserts that “Mankind wants to live – to live” but the Professor replies “Mankind, asserted the Professor with a self-confident glitter of his iron-rimmed spectacles, does not know what it wants” (329). Ossipon tries to keep arguing, but he reads about Winnie’s suicide (which he played a part and is yet another echo of Stevie’s death) and suffers an existential breakdown as the words “impenetrable mystery” and “madness and despair” hang over his head (328-330). As readers, we hold little sympathy for Ossipon, who perhaps gets his comeuppance by suffering this breakdown, reduced to nothingness for his crimes, “feeling nothing, seeing nothing, hearing not a sound” (332).
But the Professor walks free. The enemy of everyone has the final say, and walks into a crowd:
He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable – and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in a street full of men. (Conrad 332)
Stevie, both living and dead, calls for a transhumanist renewal; the Professor, purged of any semblance of humanity, seeks an apocalypse to bring retribution both bloody and terrible. He will never succeed. By Conrad’s own admission, he is a pest who skulks the city of London. He is the byproduct, perhaps the warning, that a corrupt society will birth more incarnations of the Professor, and if the moral outrage of Stevie continues to be drowned out, those pests will multiply, and spark that slow chemical reaction to the perfect detonation.
Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity, 2013.
Clark, Jill. “A tale told by Stevie: from thermodynamic to informational entropy in The Secret Agent.” Conradiana, vol. 36, no. 1-2, 2004, p. 1+. Literature Resource Center
Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent. Wiseblood, 2014.
Frank, Michael C. “Terrorism for the Sake of Counterterrorism: Undercover Policing and the Specter of the Agent Provocateur in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.” Conradiana, vol. 46, no. 3, 2014, p. 151+. Literature Resource Center
Lutz, John. “A rage for order: fetishism, self-betrayal, and exploitation in The Secret Agent.” Conradiana, vol. 40, no. 1, 2008, p. 1+. Literature Resource Center.
Ruppel, Richard. Political Genealogy of Joseph Conrad. Lexington Books, 2016.