The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent Summary and Analysis of Chapter IV


Ossipon meets with the Professor in an underground bar to ask him about a bombing that has just happened in Greenwich Park. The robust Ossipon and the diminutive Professor face off, and it becomes apparent that the socialist publisher is no match for the solitary explosives expert. The Professor gives an account of his anarchist philosophy of destroying society without, as socialists of Ossipon’s, Michaelis’, and Karl Yundt’s ilk would, thinking about the future of society. Crucial to his project is the invention of a perfectly reliable detonator and the corresponding toughness of personality of the man who would carry the bomb. When Ossipon shows him the newspaper reporting the detonation of a bomb that only took the bomber’s life, the Professor tells him that the man was Mr. Verloc and advises Ossipon to find Mrs. Verloc.


As in Chapters 2 and 3, Chapter 4 is structured primarily as the confrontation and dialogue of characters that contrast both in terms of their personalities and political worldviews. Moreover, this meeting also takes place in a discreet and somewhat claustrophobic space – an underground hall – which exacerbates the feverish tone of the characters’ discussions.

Ossipon and the Professor are presented as opposites in stature and demeanor; in one of Conrad’s characteristic uses of irony, their differences do not line up: the physically imposing Ossipon is cowed by the impish Professor because the latter has a fanatical conviction where Ossipon has uncertainty. Given that so much of the Professor’s personality seems to depend upon his solitary lifestyle and his “grit to work alone, quite alone, absolutely alone … for years,” it may be of interested to compare him to the other particularly solitary radical: Michaelis (52). As with many other characters, the aspect of labor seems to be what differentiates the two loners: Michaelis’ solipsistic ponderings during his time in prison has left him unable to cope with conversation with others, whereas the Professor’s work has made him antisocial in a way that he rejects others’ beliefs.

In a key passage, the Professor lays out the essence of his political and existential, beliefs: “I am not impressed by them. Therefore they are inferior. They cannot be otherwise. Their character is built upon conventional morality. It leans on the social order. Mine stands free from everything artificial. They are bound in all sorts of conventions. They depend on life, which, in this connection, is a historical fact surrounded by all sorts of restraints and considerations, a complex organised fact open to attack at every point; whereas I depend on death, which knows no restraint and cannot be attacked. My superiority is evident” (51). By taking the side of death against life, social order, and conventional morality, the Professor embodies a kind of nihilistic ideal that may in part be traced back to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.