The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent Themes


All of the characters with deep social involvements, whether professional or personal, must deal with the stringent rule of convention in society. For example, the narrator tells us of the Michaelis' patroness: "Old now in the number of her years, she had that sort of exceptional temperament which defies time with scornful disregard, as if it were a rather vulgar convention submitted to by the mass of inferior mankind. Many other conventions easier to set aside, alas! failed to obtain her recognition, also on temperamental grounds--either because they bored her, or else because they stood in the way of her scorns and sympathies" (77).

In a different way, the Assistant Commissioner says of Chief Inspector Heat: "He is an old departmental hand They have their own morality. My line of inquiry would appear to him an awful perversion of duty. For him the plain duty is to fasten the guilt upon as many prominent anarchists as he can on some slight indications he had picked up in the course of his investigation on the spot; whereas I, he would say, am bent upon vindicating their innocence" (104). Effectively, either the narrator or the characters themselves see different persons as types, the diverse distillations of particular conventions that make up society and form the basis of its essential conflicts.

The Personal and the Social

On the surface, the major motivation for many of the characters is to bring about a transformation in the way society is organized. But in practice, what is ultimately at stake for most of them is a variety of personal preoccupations. The Professor seeks to be dangerous socially so that he personally can acquire prestige and respect from others. When the Assistant Commissioner weighs whether or not prosecute Michaelis, he worries that the effect of doing so will be that his wife's friend, Michaelis's patroness, will be upset with him (83). The narrator gestures toward this mixing of personal and more broadly social motives in observing that "in their own way the most ardent of revolutionaries are perhaps doing no more but seeking for peace in common with the rest of mankind" (61). Even more directly, the narrator writes that "the way of even the most justifiable revolutions is prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds" (60).

In this light, it may be useful to think about Verloc's peculiar failure to realize that Stevie's death is an important aspect of the explosion in Greenwich Park. When he discusses the explosion with his wife, he speaks of his anger with the Embassy and his plans for the future, but he is entirely blind to his wife's consuming grief about the death of her brother. In this sense, as in others, Verloc is one of the most complex characters in the novel.

Finally, it should be noted that, despite the Assistant Commissioner's recognition of his personal motivations in determining what to do about the explosion, he is the character that is perhaps the most aware of this mingling of the personal and the social. As Prickett has discussed, the Assistant Commissioner recognizes his position in the social order and realizes that the supposedly neutral actions that he takes in the name of the state are inevitably personal as well (Prickett, 55). One of the reasons the Assistant Commissioner prefers the work that he did in the colonies was that the difference between the society he watched over and his own personality was great enough to avoid any sort of confusing mixture of the two. As the narrator notes, "The Assistant Commissioner did not like his work at home. The police work he had been engaged on in a distant part of the globe had the saving character of an irregular sort of warfare" (83). Likely as a result of experiencing this kind of detachment, the Assistant Commissioner is more perceptive about the potential mixing of personal and social motives, and therefore is the most successful in determining what should be done in the aftermath of the explosion.

The Inescapable Entanglement of Modern Society

Both as an urban space and an urban society, the London in which Conrad sets the novel is a claustrophobically constrained sphere where every character is inextricably linked to many other characters. Rather than giving each person a sense of belonging, the myriad connections only make them feel all the more lost and alone within the great city.

In some cases, working for both sides (as Mr. Verloc does in his function as a secret agent) can make a character lose sight of his or her own worldview. However, perhaps even more so than those who are no longer able to figure out even to themselves what political stance they hold, the anarchists and police officials alike, such as Michaelis, the Assistant Commissioner, and Chief Inspector Heat, become so ensconced in bureaucracies that they lose all sense of autonomy -- that is, the free position from which one can worry about one's place in and views on the world in the first place.

The Psychological Force of the Highly Visual

As Conrad insists in certain of his critical writings, one of the ways that the modern novel can be most effective is by presenting its reader with images of great intensity: the conventional description of characters and exposition of their actions no longer suffices to capture the attention and secure the memory of the reader, for whose attention the novel has to compete with that all-too-effective medium: the newspaper.

Conrad presents us with a model of the highly visual text and the reader in the brother and sister Stevie and Winnie, who display a keen emotional sensitivity towards other beings, human or animal, that is primarily mediated through the sense of sight. Even when hearing about a story of injustices from his coworkers or reading about the cruelty of German army officers in the newspaper, Stevie seems to be provoked into moral outrage the most by the images that those words conjure up.

Verbal Expressiveness

Given the importance that Conrad accords to the way that characters speak in the novel, we can divide their whole number up into two rosters: those who speak volubly and eloquently, and those who speak disjointedly, incoherently, or barely at all. Such a division runs through the Verloc family itself: Mr. Verloc belongs very much to the former category, constantly scheming and thinking of different plans, whereas Winnie Verloc, her mother, and Stevie all tend to not to express themselves so directly, whether to themselves or to other people. Mrs. Verloc, for example, waits until she has figured out her plans to move to the widow's almshouse before even mentioning the idea to her daughter; and Winnie never admits to herself the extent of her frustration and pain in her marriage with Mr. Verloc until she actually kills him in an outburst of violence.


Conrad subtitled the novel "A Simple Tale" not to indicate that the narrative takes a simple structure -- indeed, it does not -- but rather to designate the main personality type that he tried to illustrate in the book. Characters such as Stevie, Mrs. Verloc, and the Professor look at the world in an extremist way, dividing things up into black and white, whereas other characters, such as Mr. Verloc and Chief Inspector Heat, are by their deep institutional involvements aware of how tangled the forces of law, crime, good, and bad are in the modern world. The characters with a simple view of the world are somewhat childlike but paradoxically also the ones that are most capable of producing actions of immense shock value and effectiveness to society, whereas seemingly experienced agents such as Mr. Verloc are unable to do more than to inform their superiors of what is going on.

Action, Effectiveness, and Labor

The characters in the novel are either working or not working. Mr. Verloc has his shop selling pornography and contraceptives, and moreover works as a secret agent for the Embassy; Chief Inspector Heat, the Assistant Commissioner, and Mr. Vladimir are employed by either the police department or the Embassy. On the contrary, Michaelis, Karl Yundt, and Ossipon are all supported by different women, since their work as anarchists precludes their having a job; Stevie, too, is unable to hold a job due to his extremely excitable nature, and therefore relies upon the motherly support of his sister, Winnie. There is the sense that those who make their own living earn at the same time a sense of stable identity and pride, but the very opening of the novel, when Mr. Verloc meets with Mr. Vladimir, shows how this somewhat bourgeois self-satisfaction can be disrupted. Mr. Vladimir tells Mr. Verloc that however the latter might have been respected for his espionage work, he, Mr. Vladimir, sees his as unproductive and ineffective due to his inability to actually change the status quo of the anarchists. Labor, thus, becomes reconfigured not as the maintenance of things as they are but rather as the power to change them.