The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent Study Guide

Joseph Conrad published The Secret Agent in 1907 and the work is often taken to be the major work in a trilogy of political works that Conrad published around this time (the other two are Nostromo and Under Western Eyes). The book is also taken to be Conrad's greatest metropolitan novel and makes use both of Continental and English writing styles. The Secret Agent is one of the first spy novels and is written in such a way as to require great attention on the part of the reader to make sense of the plot developments that occur (Simmons and Stape, viii).

Conrad writes in an Author's Note to the work (written twelve years after the initial publication) that he was motivated to write the book after having a brief conversation with a friend about anarchism. Conrad believed that anarchism was dangerous because it preyed on humankind's tendency to be eager for its own self-destruction. In the course of the conversation, Conrad and his friend remembered the story of an attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, an act that Conrad thought was "so fatuous...that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought" (229). For Conrad, all this had accomplished was a man who died for nothing--not for an idea or for anything else. The friend recalled that the man's sister committed suicide afterward.

Shortly afterward, Conrad came across a book of recollections by an Assistant Commissioner of Police during the period; a line in the work stimulated Conrad to write the novel. Conrad notes that the book was received well by people in the know--diplomats said that the representation of Vladimir was very perceptive, and revolutionaries said that the portrayal of their activities was correct.

Conrad was criticized for writing a novel that seemed to be intended to shock the reader. He defended himself against this charge, writing that "telling Winnie Verloc's story to its anarchistic end of utter desolation, madness, and despair, and telling it as I have told it here, I have not intended to commit a gratuitous outrage on the feelings of mankind" (233). As suggested above, the book seems to have been motivated by a desire to show the foolhardiness of anarchist ways of thinking.

Conrad became interested in drama later in his career and The Secret Agent was the first work of his that he tried to put on the stage (in November, 1922). The adaptation was a failure, likely because it was difficult to convey in dramatic form the complex narrative voice of the work (Simmons and Stape, viii).