The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What is the function of Conrad's frequent use of free indirect discourse in the novel? How would the story be different if it were narrated entirely by an omniscient third-person narrator?

    As a technique that came to characterize modernist prose in general, free indirect discourse allows the reader to take the individual perspective of a character. This emphasizes the specific sensory experiences the characters have and their general sense of being an individual, both of which are especially important in portraying the sensory overload and social alienation of the city. Free indirect discourse also conceals the views of Conrad the author, since what seem to be the narrator's views are often also just as easily read as a particular character's views, which, due to their narrow perspective, cannot be fully accepted. This ironical doubling and distancing forces the reader to take a more participatory and interpretative role in reading, since he or she is no longer able to depend on an all-knowing narrator.

  2. 2

    What is unusual about the way that Conrad uses sensory description?

    Although Conrad follows nineteenth-century realist canons in providing the reader with descriptions of characters' defining physical traits and the makeup of the settings in which they find themselves, he also occasionally zooms in to an unusual degree on some object which then takes on an inflated importance in illustrating some key feature of the emotional atmosphere of the scene or a moral judgment. This effect can be extremely disorienting for the reader and often directly reflects a disoriented state of mind of a character; for example, after Mrs. Verloc's stabbing of her husband, the narration focuses on the sound of the dripping of his blood, to the exclusion of presenting Mrs. Verloc's thoughts or continuing the action.

  3. 3

    Who is the protagonist of the story? What is the significance of protagonicity itself in Conrad's fiction?

    Although back-cover synopses usually speak of Mr. Verloc as the protagonist -- indeed, he is the titular secret agent -- Conrad somewhat provocatively tells us in his Author's Note to the book that it is Winnie Verloc, his wife, who is the main character. This is clarified in the final chapter, in which Mr. Verloc's murder passes completely out of the picture, and it is instead Mrs. Verloc's suicide that sets the tone and continues indefinitely as the menacing echo of "an impenetrable mystery."

  4. 4

    How does Conrad allude and interweave different kinds of texts into his novel? How does this influence the texture of the story?

    Conrad refers to at least three kinds of texts within the story, all of which hold a specific significance to his understanding of the novel form: pornographic literature, revolutionary tracts, and journalism. Mr. Verloc's shady shop sells pornographic literature while at the same serving as a meeting space for the Red Committee, which publishes anarchist tracts. The pornography stands as a representative of literature that is purely entertaining and without any literary merit, whereas the tracts are purely political -- in a sense, purely rhetoric without true human feeling. While these two make up underground literature, the newspaper is clearly depicted as pervading all of social life; Ossipon, for example, is very often carrying a newspaper in his back pocket. Moreover, he and Stevie are extremely affected by what they read in the newspapers.

  5. 5

    Does the novel put forth a coherent political philosophy? If so, what is it? If not, what precludes it from doing so?

    Conrad mounts a consistent parodic critique in this novel not only of radical politics but also of bureaucratic institutions. Either he has the characters implicate themselves in ridiculous and self-aggrandizing conversations that expose them as windbags, or he has other characters criticize them behind their backs. Overall, no character or political type escapes the author's pessimism; it would seem that Conrad despises the crookedness of society and the plain egoism of the people tasked with maintaining it, while at the same time he sees great danger, and ridiculousness, in attempts to clear it.