The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent Summary and Analysis of Chapter XI


After the visitations of Mr. Vladimir and Chief Inspector Heat to their shop, Mr. Verloc and Mrs. Verloc sit in their kitchen. Mrs. Verloc is mute with shock; Mr. Verloc, his appetite suddenly regained, eats, drinks, and talks about what they must do next. Thinking to himself, he regrets Stevie’s stupidity and reflects about the circumstances of his taking Stevie on walks through Greenwich Park to accustom him with the correct path to take, his confidence in using Stevie as an agent, and his conviction that he would have truly pulled off something to impress Mr. Vladimir – if only his wife had not foolishly sewn their address into Stevie’s overcoat and led the police to them.

He begins to plan a couple of years abroad laying low with his wife. Meanwhile, Winnie remains silent, almost unmoving, and mostly uncomprehending. He tells her that he would not go without her and tries to express marital affection for her, though these seem to not register on her. He begins to complain to her about Mr. Vladimir and the Embassy people, and flouts revenge fantasies upon them. While Mrs. Verlco is sitting there, dimly aware only of the fact that Mr. Verloc is saying something, images of her wretched past in the lodging house flash through her mind; more recent memories of Mr. Verloc and Stevie going out for walks rouse her painfully to her present circumstances. She realizes that, without Stevie to take care of, she is no longer bound to Mr. Verloc and is a free woman. She goes up to her room to get dressed to go outside.

Mr. Verloc, assuming that she is only somewhat emotionally off-kilter, tries to calm her down in the parlor and does not worry too much about her reticence and unresponsiveness. However, eventually, he takes offense at Mrs. Verloc’s behavior, feeling hurt by the presumption that she is keeping quiet as a deliberate tactic. Eventually, he sinks down in pleasant exhaustion. She seems to come to and follows him, but also picks up a knife. Before he can react, she stabs and kills him. After a bit, when she realizes that blood is coming out of him, bursts out of the parlor.


Though the novel abounds in failed conversations, it is this non-dialogue between the relieved Mr. Verloc, who has just gotten a confession off his back, and his still-flabbergasted wife that represents the most dysfunctional interchange between characters. The numb, uncomprehending silence of Winnie Verloc slowly but surely proves to be Mr. Verloc’s undoing: despite his adeptness for verbal explanation and even amorous coaxing, the intensity of the idea in his wife’s mind is so overwhelmingly strong that nothing comes through to her.

In fact, we can think of her, as with her brother Stevie, as the unexpected “perfect anarchists” sought after by Mr. Vladimir and the Professor; their exaggerated moral sensitivity is unbound by ideology and so, corresponding to the anarchist conceptions of the former two men, they do not choose particular targets and limit themselves to particular aspects of bourgeois society. Rather, both Winnie and Stevie seem to almost look through (not past) specific injustices to allow themselves to be confronted by a fundamental, irredeemable injustice behind all of social life. Although this extraordinary sympathy that they share may awake our admiration, it is also depicted unequivocally by Conrad as possessing the potential for pure violence and destruction – because it is based on a blind moral outrage.

The scene in which Winnie stabs Mr. Verloc is especially important with regard to how Conrad does not only make her commit an act of violence but also narrates her violence in such a way that it seems as impersonal as possible: we do not hear her thoughts, and when we do, everything seems to be passing as though in a dream. We will remember that this is precisely the kind of violence that Mr. Vladimir predicted would shock society – one without any comprehensible motive. The passage of the stabbing itself is worth quoting in full to see precisely how this impersonal mode of narration works:

They were leisurely enough for him to take in the full meaning of the portent, and to taste the flavour of death rising in his gorge. His wife had gone raving mad—murdering mad. They were leisurely enough for the first paralysing effect of this discovery to pass away before a resolute determination to come out victorious from the ghastly struggle with that armed lunatic. They were leisurely enough for Mr Verloc to elaborate a plan of defence involving a dash behind the table, and the felling of the woman to the ground with a heavy wooden chair. But they were not leisurely enough to allow Mr Verloc the time to move either hand or foot. The knife was already planted in his breast. It met no resistance on its way. Hazard has such accuracies. Into that plunging blow, delivered over the side of the couch, Mrs Verloc had put all the inheritance of her immemorial and obscure descent, the simple ferocity of the age of caverns, and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of bar-rooms. Mr Verloc, the Secret Agent, turning slightly on his side with the force of the blow, expired without stirring a limb, in the muttered sound of the word “Don’t” by way of protest (192-3).

The perspective switches from that of Mr. Verloc—who realizes, too late, that he is about to be murdered—to that of his wife, and then out from both of them to an impersonal view. Not until Mrs. Verloc realizes that blood is pouring out of him does she actually think or feel anything in particular; in this description, there is naught but a kind of pure energy of memory pouring through her.