The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent Irony

Conrad's contradictory descriptions of characters (verbal irony)

Since Conrad employs free indirect point of view so often, it is not always apparent whether a statement is attributable to the narrator or to a character. In some cases when a parenthetical statement ironizes something said before in the same sentence, the duality of the voice becomes apparent. For example: "And Mr Verloc, steady like a rock—a soft kind of rock—marched now along a street which could with every propriety be described as private" (11). In this case, we imagine that Mr. Verloc imagines himself as "steady like a rock," while the narrator, while not explicitly disagreeing with him, undercuts his self-confident claim by qualifying it.

The characters' contradictory aims and methods (dramatic irony)

What becomes patently clear throughout Conrad's exposition of the anarchists is not only the profound disagreement between their goals and their means, but also the ways in which actions that seemingly contradict the goal can be the most effective way in bringing them about. Mr. Vladimir's plot to tighten control over society by instigating a particularly shocking anarchist attack is an important example of such contradictory thinking: "What is wished for just now is the accentuation of the unrest—of the fermentation which undoubtedly exists" (13).

Characters reveal things in spite of themselves (dramatic irony)

One of the most remarkable way Conrad complicates his narrative is by making us, the readers, unsure of how much we know about the story going on and how much certain characters themselves know. Thus, for example, we know that Mr. Verloc has been working as a secret agent for the Embassy, but his position is predicated upon the concealment of this very fact from anyone else, including his wife. However, it turns out, surprising both Mr. Verloc and us, that she has a vague inkling of his work:

“I say, Adolf, he ain’t one of them Embassy people you have been bothered with of late?”
“Bothered with Embassy people,” repeated Mr Verloc, with a heavy start of surprise and fear. “Who’s been talking to you of the Embassy people?”
“I! I! Talked of the Embassy to you!” (146-7.)

Everyone is entangled with their enemies (dramatic irony)

In Conrad's moral universe -- in the late Victorian London he constructs -- there are no clear divisions between opposing sides; in the seemingly all-enveloping fog, all are visually blended into a crowd that is impossible to differentiate, and furthermore, social and power structures overlap in too many ways for any one person to be able to understand his position.