* Spoilers galore!
The Secret Agent was written by Joseph Conrad and published in 1907. Set in 1886 Victorian London, the story was inspired by the attempted bombing of the Greenwich Observatory a few years earlier. The main characters are Mr. Verloc and his wife, Winnie, a couple who run a shop selling shady wares. The Verlocs are pretty boring. I imagine them as a quiet, middle-aged couple whose relationship is agreeable because it is dull. As a lazy, overweight man, Verloc seems an unlikely choice as a secret agent but maybe that’s the perfect cover. Meanwhile Winnie is content to be ignorant about her husband, not even the least bit curious about his secret comings and goings, or strange friendship with anarchists.
Early in the book, we are introduced to the Future of the Proletariat and the anarchists Verloc associates with through this group. The men hardly seem dangerous, unless you count dangerously opinionated. They enjoy arguing about politics and publishing anarchist literature is the extent of their group’s initiatives. At first, I couldn’t understand why Verloc was interested in being an anarchist. What did a married, very domesticated man like himself have in common with Comrade Ossipon and the others?
To my surprise, the anarchists in The Secret Agent have very little to do with what I think Joseph Conrad wanted to explore in the story. Although anarchists draw society’s attention when there is an act of violence, who are the people directly or indirectly involved? How are their lives affected?
Comrade Ossipon, the Professor and the others have small parts in this story, but I think their greatest role is to provide readers with some understanding of anarchist beliefs, a glimpse into their world and how they walk among us, some mostly harmless, and some like snakes in the grass. As it turned out, associating with anarchists was part of Verloc’s job. He believed in protecting society and by keeping the enemy close was able to undermine any attempts to cause chaos. Something that took me awhile to understand in the book was that the order Verloc received to bomb the Greenwich Observatory was meant to stir up a public outcry against anarchists.
As for Winnie, we have all heard stories where ordinary people discover their loved ones are leading extraordinary double lives. What would you do if you found out your spouse was a secret agent? Ultimately, Winnie didn’t even meditate in the book on why her husband was involved with a bombing or that he was a secret agent. Only that he had used her simple-minded brother to carry out a plot that killed him. She might not have even blinked if Verloc confessed to having a double life. But I believe Stevie represents innocence in the story and Winnie, fighting to keep him safe her whole life, was horrified at how Verloc exploited Stevie’s innocence, his trust and love. The fierce protector at the very core of her soul sprang to life and sought vengeance for his death. Perhaps because he never really knew her, Verloc never saw the knife coming.
Maybe the point of the story is violence cannot touch ideas or bend opinions, all it does is hurt people and destroy lives. I think The Secret Agent is not necessarily about a bombing, but about how people need to live with the aftermath. Even Joseph Conrad wrote the book with Winnie Verloc in mind and not the anarchists:
This book is that story, reduced to manageable proportions, its whole course suggested and centred round the absurd cruelty of the Greenwich Park explosion. I had there a task I will not say arduous but of the most absorbing difficulty. But it had to be done. It was a necessity. The figures grouped about Mrs Verloc and related directly or indirectly to her tragic suspicion that “life doesn’t stand much looking into”, are the outcome of that very necessity.
The Secret Agent was my first book by Joseph Conrad. Wow! What can I expect from Heart of Darkness?