The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Ride in the "Cab of Death" (symbol)

Though the characters usually walk through the labyrinthine streets of London, there is one particularly significant scene in which Mrs. Verloc, her mother, and Stevie drive in a dilapidated carriage through the city on a disorienting ride that makes them see it in a very different light: "Before the doors of the public-house at the corner, where the profusion of gas-light reached the height of positive wickedness, a four-wheeled cab standing by the curbstone with no one on the box, seemed cast out into the gutter on account of irremediable decay. Mrs Verloc recognised the conveyance. Its aspect was so profoundly lamentable, with such a perfection of grotesque misery and weirdness of macabre detail, as if it were the Cab of Death itself, that Mrs Verloc, with that ready compassion of a woman for a horse (when she is not sitting behind him), exclaimed vaguely: 'Poor brute!'” (125). The vehicle itself symbolizes the literary vehicle of the novel itself, which transports readers through hellish, disturbing scenes and, like the cab, halts the usual progressive sense of narrative momentum: "The cab rattled, jingled, jolted; in fact, the last was quite extraordinary. By its disproportionate violence and magnitude it obliterated every sensation of onward movement; and the effect was of being shaken in a stationary apparatus like a mediæval device for the punishment of crime, or some very newfangled invention for the cure of a sluggish liver" (120).

Newspapers (motif)

Throughout the novel, the newspaper pops up as a kind of doppelganger of the novel itself: a modern medium of communication through words that presents the various happenings of life in the form of a vivid, sensationalistic experience for its readers. Conrad ventriloquizes Mrs. Verloc, in her criticisms of the anarchists' bombastic talk and newspaper sensationalism out of her concern for her impressionable brother, to indicate the dangers of this particular kind of writing in the directness of impact it has upon the individual psychology of an urban dweller. In fact, we learn about how Stevie is lead to his death by Mr. Verloc, and how Ossipon is thrown out of his mind by the newspaper article reporting Mrs. Verloc's suicide.

Horses (motif)

Although horses do not show up so often in the story, the appearance of the miserable-looking, cab-drawing horse in the scene in Chapter 8 link it unmistakably to a curious nineteenth-century tradition of sympathy for the equine kind. Rodion Raskolnikov, the protagonist of the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment, once dreams of running over and wrapping his arms around the head of a lamed horse being clouted to death by its owner; and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, at the time of his losing his sanity, similarly embraced a tormented horse.

Greenwich Royal Observatory (symbol)

Mr. Vladimir instructs Mr. Verloc to arrange a bombing of some scientific institution because he believes science to be a kind of central symbol at the heart of bourgeois life, an attack on which would cause maximal destruction. As he explains: "A murderous attempt on a restaurant or a theatre would suffer in the same way from the suggestion of non-political passion: the exasperation of a hungry man, an act of social revenge. All this is used up; it is no longer instructive as an object lesson in revolutionary anarchism. Every newspaper has ready-made phrases to explain such manifestations away.… The sensibilities of the class you are attacking are soon blunted. Property seems to them an indestructible thing. You can’t count upon their emotions either of pity or fear for very long. A bomb outrage to have any influence on public opinion now must go beyond the intention of vengeance or terrorism. It must be purely destructive. It must be that, and only that, beyond the faintest suspicion of any other object. You anarchists should make it clear that you are perfectly determined to make a clean sweep of the whole social creation. But how to get that appallingly absurd notion into the heads of the middle classes so that there should be no mistake? … But there is learning—science. Any imbecile that has got an income believes in that. He does not know why, but he believes it matters somehow. It is the sacrosanct fetish" (24). Although he does not say it explicitly, part of the consideration in this line of thinking is that science itself has exerted a kind of violence (albeit an at least partly progressive and constructive violence), and that is taken for granted by society; a bomb outrage, therefore, is meant almost as a counterbalancing force of violence.

Bomb (symbol)

For the Professor, the bomb and detonator he carries on his person function as a prosthetic that changes the very nature of what kind of a person he is. Comparing himself to apparently all other people in the world, he says, bolstered by the confidence of the absoluteness of his bomb: "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).