The Secret Agent

views updated

The Secret Agent

by Joseph Conrad


A novel set in London, England, in 1886; published in London in 1907.


A terrorist acting under orders from the Russian Embassy hatches a plot to blow up London’s Greenwich Observatory.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Berdichev, Poland, then part of the Russian empire. Conrad’s father (a translator of Shakespeare into Polish) exposed him to Western European literature at an early age, including English authors such as Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, among others. As a young man Conrad left Poland for a career as a sailor, and in 1886 he also became a British subject. He settled in Britain in 1894, anglicizing his name, devoting himself to writing, and in 1896 marrying an Englishwoman, Jessie George. The couple had two sons, Borys and John. Conrad began his first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895), while at sea, and his experiences as a sailor provided the basis for several of his best known tales, including the novels The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1898) and Lord Jim (1900), as well as the novella Heart of Darkness (1902; also in Literature and Its Times). With Nostromo (1904), a story of revolution in a South American city, Conrad began a new phase in his career; in his next two novels, The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes (1911), he retained the focus on political themes and urban settings begun with Nostromo. The third and less thematically unified phase of Conrad’s career includes the novels Chance (1913) and Victory (1915), as well as collections of short stories. Conrad is considered one of the finest stylists of English prose, a remarkable achievement for a man who did not learn the language until his twenties. In The Secret Agent he uses the literary technique of irony to explore some of the political tensions that gripped Europe near the turn of the twentieth century.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

An era of tense diplomacy

The four decades between the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1871) and the outbreak of World War I (1914) saw the last stage in the consolidation of Europe’s global empires. Of the six European states known as the Great Powers—Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Germany, and Austria-Hungary—each except for the last one ruled over a global empire that was often in direct competition with the others. While peace existed in Europe between 1871 and 1914, it was increasingly strained by a complex and often shifting network of treaties and alliances among the Great Powers. This tangled web of diplomacy forms the general background to The Secret Agent, in which Adolf Verloc, the secret agent of the title, ultimately takes his orders from a high-level diplomat in the Russian Embassy in London.

Just as it drives the novel’s plot, diplomatic intrigue (and for that matter, terrorism) would in real life spark the outbreak of World War I. While the war’s outbreak lay seven years after the novel’s publication, the period roughly between the novel’s setting (1886) and publication (1907) saw the final formation of the alliances that would make up the two sides in the war. Throughout this period, at the core of Great Powers diplomacy lay two unchanging factors: first, a bitter enmity between France and Germany, the two countries that had fought the Franco-Prussian War; and second, Germany’s equally strong alliance with Austria-Hungary. The wild cards in the diplomatic poker game of the era were Britain and Russia, the two countries that feature prominently in the novel.

In 1880, six years before the events in the novel occur, Russia formed a ten-year treaty alliance with Germany, so when the novel takes place, Russia is Germany’s ally. In 1890, however, Russia’s treaty with Germany expired, and four years later Russia concluded a military alliance with France, Germany’s enemy. Meanwhile, Britain—earlier striving to remain aloof from such alliances, but suspicious of Germany’s new and powerful navy—had been drifting towards an alliance with France that was formalized in 1904 (the so-called Entente Cordiale). Finally, in 1907 Russia and Britain also signed an agreement, completing the Triple Entente, thè three-way coalition that would face Germany and Austria-Hungary in war seven years later. Thus, during the period between the novel’s setting and its publication, European diplomatic maneuvering had a monumental effect, one that would lead to a standoff between two opposing alliances—France, Britain, and Russia against Germany and Austria-Hungary. The standoff emerged when the two wild cards, Russia and Britain, sided with France, with Russia switching allegiances to do so and Britain finally committing itself to one side. Diplomacy, as most British readers would have known in 1907, had been responsible for transforming Britain’s potential enemy—Russia—into its ostensible ally.

Terrorists and revolutionaries

The international scene was further complicated by the rise of revolutionary movements that often transcended the borders between countries. In Britain the greatest threat came from the Fenians, or Irish revolutionaries, part of the home-rule movement, which sought to end British rule in Ireland. Throughout the 1880s the Fenians attacked a number of well-known British institutions in London, including Parliament and the Tower of London, in a series of explosions commonly referred to in the British press as “dynamite outrages.” Dynamite is also used in The Secret Agent. While the incident that directly inspired it occurred in the following decade, the tense and fearful atmosphere of 1880s London may have contributed to Conrad’s decision to set the novel in 1886. Also Conrad had personal experience in the city that year. Having become an English subject in 1886, he spent much of the year in London. In the Author’s Note to The Secret Agent, he tells of long, lonely walks through the city’s gloomy streets as an unknown and friendless young man. On a more general level, the city suffered a severe depression from 1884 to 1887 and violent riots by dissatisfied London workers occurred in February 1886, causing panic in the city.

The most influential international revolutionary movements were anarchism and socialism, both of which had arisen earlier in the nineteenth century. While socialism called for collective control—usually by the government—of production and distribution, anarchism called for the elimination of government altogether. Labor unrest gave rise to these two movements in western European countries, including France, Germany, and Britain. But even more vigorous anarchist


The political philosophy of anarchism calls for the end of all forms of hierarchical authority, including governments, and the establishment of a society based on orderly relations between equals. The mix of men who founded the anarchist movement reflect its historically international character. The movement arose from ideas posed by the English philosopher William Godwin (1756–1836), though the first to call himself an anarchist was the French thinker Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809–65), whose ideas were taken up by two Russians, Mikhail Bakunin (1814–76) and Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921), both of whom lived parts of their lives as exiles in London. One scholar has described the period from 1880 to 1914 as “the heyday of the international anarchist movement” (Sonn, p. 11). In Paris, Rome, and other European cities a number of anarchist bombings occurred between 1890 and 1901, as anarchists adopted the radical terrorism they called “propaganda by the deed,” which was meant to destroy society so that a new and more equitable world could arise (Sonn, p. 36). Anarchists were also active in America. An anarchist named Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley in 1901, for example.

In another, earlier American incident, in May 1886, a labor riot at Haymarket Square in Chicago was the scene of a violent explosion, killing eleven and leading to the arrest of eight anarchist leaders. Despite the fact that authorities could not identify the bomber, four of the arrested men were executed. One committed suicide in prison, and the three survivors were later pardoned. Perhaps coincidentally the Haymarket Riot occurred at the same time as events in The Secret Agent, the spring of 1886. In the novel the most extreme anarchist beliefs are represented by a character known only as the Professor, who talks of using dynamite to make “a clean sweep and a clear start for a new conception of life” (Conrad, The Secret Agent, p. 71).

and socialist movements arose in Russia, becoming most threatening here, where autocratic rule had long stifled economic and social progress and thus engendered widespread poverty and political oppression. In 1881 a bomb-wielding anarchist assassinated the Russian tsar Alexander II, with the result that, on assuming power after his father’s death, the new tsar, Alexander III, mounted a severe crackdown on such groups. Many revolutionaries and reformers fled Russia for western European cities such as Paris and London, where the Russian and other governments employed embassy personnel, police informers, and spies to keep tabs on them.

Prince Peter Kropotkin, a Russian who despite his noble title was the leading anarchist thinker in the late nineteenth century, offers an example of an anarchist’s career. After a sensational escape from a Russian prison in 1876, Kropotkin had made his way to Switzerland, from which the Russian government, in its attack on anarchists, succeeded in getting him expelled after Alexander II’s assassination. Kropotkin then moved to Paris, but again found himself in trouble, this time with the French government, which arrested him and imprisoned him for three years. After his release, he arrived in England in 1886—the year in which the novel takes place—and lived in London for the next 30 years (until the Russian Revolution of 1917 made him a hero and he returned to his homeland).

As Kropotkin’s case illustrates, Russia was not the only government alarmed by anarchists and apt to persecute them. British newspaper reports in the mid-1890s claimed that a London jeweler named A. Coulon spied and informed on anarchists in London, quoting him as saying:

I am in the service of the International Secret Police, which is subsidised by the Russian, German, and French Governments, and there is no movement of any of the members of the Anarchist party in London that is not duly communicated to these governments.

(Coulon in Sherry, p. 318)

Whereas other governments actively persecuted anarchists, the British government and British police were generally content to monitor them without arresting or expelling them. Indeed, Coulon was reported to have informed on London’s anarchists to the British police, independently of his activities for the “International Secret Police.” Scholar Norman Sherry has suggested that newspaper reports about Coulon may have provided Conrad with inspiration for aspects of the novel’s portrait of the secret agent, Verloc. One major difference is that whereas Coulon spied for the Russian, German, and French governments, the novel’s Verloc spies just for the Russians. On the other hand, one of the major similarities is that, like Coulon, Verloc passes information to the British police without his other employers’ knowledge.


On February 15, 1894, a mysterious explosion rocked London’s Greenwich Park. A man was found kneeling on the ground, with one hand blown off and severe wounds to his body. Nearby were pieces of a shattered bottle. The man, thought to be a foreigner of about 30, died shortly afterward, and a card was found on his body with what newspaper accounts said was the word Bourbon on it.

Blown to Pieces!

Victim an Anarchist (?)
Was he a member of a gang
who had fell designs on
London’s safety?

(London Morning Leader, February 16, 1894, in Sherry, Conrad’s Western World, p. 231)

Later investigation identified the man as Martial Bourdin, a French anarchist living in London, and concluded that he had perished in an attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, a famous London landmark and scientific institution located in the park. Early reports suggested that Bourdin had stumbled over a root in the ground, prematurely detonating the bomb he was carrying, a theory investigators later discounted. This incident is the only known anarchist bombing to have occurred in London. Widely publicized as the Greenwich Bomb Outrage, it provided the direct inspiration for the central episode in The Secret Agent.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The novel opens as Adolf Verloc leaves for the morning from the little London shop where he sells anarchist journals and pornographic literature. The shop occupies the front room of a small, grimy brick house in London’s shabby Soho district, where Verloc lives with his family. Along with his wife, Winnie, the family includes her adoring brother Stevie, in a condition of mental retardation; and their unnamed mother, a stout working-class woman whose swollen ankles prevent her from getting around much. Despite Stevie’s slowness, Verloc leaves him in charge of the store. Winnie is nearby, and anyway Verloc doesn’t care much about the shop, which is actually just a front for what he tells Winnie is his “political” work (Secret Agent, p. 20). The stolid, plump Winnie—who married Verloc only because he is a good provider for herself, Stevie, and their mother—lacks any curiosity about Verloc’s activities. As Verloc journeys through London’s busy streets, the narrator ironically describes him as a protector of the city’s wealthy, propertied class against working-class agitation. In reality Verloc is a fat and lazy man with an “air of moral nihilism” about him (Secret Agent, p. 25). (A popular philosophy of the day, nihilism held that there was no meaning or value in life and consequently no need to abide by any ethical principles.)

Verloc arrives at his destination, an embassy that the narrator does not name but suggests is that of Russia. There he meets with Mr. Vladimir, a high embassy official who has recently arrived to take over the embassy’s “secret service” or spying operations in Britain (Secret Agent, p. 32). Verloc, Vladimir says, is supposed to be acting as an “agent provocateur”—that is, a double agent planted among a group of political activists to create incidents that will provoke hostility against them (Secret Agent, p. 34). For 11 years, first by the embassy in Paris and now by that in London, Verloc has been paid for undertaking such secret missions under the code name “agent Δ,” the Greek letter delta (Secret Agent, p. 35). Vladimir now contemptuously declares that Verloc has done nothing, and demands that Verloc begin to earn his pay or be fired. Calling science “the sacrosanct fetish” of Victorian Britain, Vladimir suggests “a series of outrages” against scientific targets beginning with a bomb attack on the Greenwich Observatory (Secret Agent, p. 38). His strategy is to influence general British public opinion in favor of repressive action against the anarchists who live freely in London, and who ultimately represent a threat to his government. “A dynamite outrage must be provoked,” Vladimir concludes: “I give you a month” (Secret Agent, p. 43).

Verloc’s anarchist group includes four other men, who bicker constantly among themselves:

  • Michaelis, a grossly obese ex-convict, paroled from a British prison after taking part in a holdup, now celebrated in London society for writing a memoir about his anarchistic activities
  • Karl Yundt, a malevolent and toothless self-proclaimed terrorist who talks of destroying society but has actually “never in his life raised personally as much as his little finger against the social edifice” (Secret Agent, p. 51)
  • Alexander Ossipon, a heavy-set former medical student who espouses socialistic doctrines and survives by sponging off naive young women
  • A fanatic known as the Professor, the only truly dangerous member of the group, a dynamite expert who always wears a bomb that he can detonate if threatened with arrest

It is from the Professor that Verloc obtains the dynamite needed to create the explosion at Greenwich Park.

The reader learns about the events around the explosion by piecing together information from the complex, sinuous narrative, which repeatedly switches perspectives and jumps forward and backward in time. In chronological order, the events occur as follows. After his conversation with Vladimir, Verloc meets with Michaelis, Yundt, and Ossipon at his house. About a week later Winnie’s mother moves into an old-age home in London, believing that by removing herself from the household she improves the chances that Verloc will be willing to continue supporting Stevie. Winnie, also hoping to secure Verloc’s affection for Stevie, keeps telling her husband how much her brother idolizes him and how Stevie would do anything for Verloc. Verloc realizes Stevie can be useful to him and begins taking Stevie out with him on his walks around London. After Stevie has been going around with Verloc for about a week, Verloc announces that he thinks it would be a good idea for Stevie to stay with Michaelis for a little while at Michaelis’s house in the country, outside London. Again about a week goes by, and Verloc picks Stevie up from Michaelis’s country house. At some unspecified time, he has also arranged for the Professor to give him the bomb. He takes Stevie to the park and passes the bomb over to him, along with detailed instructions, but Stevie stumbles over a root in the ground and the bomb explodes prematurely, blowing Stevie to pieces, killing him instantly.


Critics have praised The Secret Agent as a masterpiece of sustained irony, the literary method by which the author intends his words to be understood in a way that goes against their surface meaning. For example, anarchism was well known for opposing the accumulation of private properly (hence the famous dictum of the anarchist Pierre Joseph Poudhon,”property is theft”). Yet early in the novel Verloc is presented as a protector of society’s wealthy, propertied class. This is how he fondly imagines himself. However, rather than being truly motivated by such lofty principles, Verloc is simply lazy and self-indulgent. Conrad hints at the true state of affairs by drawing attention to Verloc’s approval of luxury and his aversion to physical effort:

He surveyed through the park railings the evidences of the town’s opulence and luxury with an approving eye. All these people had to be protected. Protection is the first necessity of opulence and luxury. They had to be protected; the whole social order favourable to their hygienic idleness had to be protected against the shallow enviousness of unhygienic labour. It had to—and Mr. Verloc would have rubbed his hands with satisfaction had he not been constitutionally averse from every superfluous exertion.

(Secret Agent, p. 24)

Among the scraps of Stevie’s clothing is a label that Winnie has sewn into his coat giving their address. This label leads to the solution of the crime by the forces of law and order, who are, like the anarchists themselves, divided by conflicting interests and loyalties:

  • Chief Inspector Heat of Scotland Yard’s Special Crimes Division, whose career has benefited greatly over the years from information that his secret source, Verloc, has funneled to him about London’s anarchist community; Inspector Heat regards his connection with Verloc as “private.”
  • The Assistant Commissioner of Police, Heat’s unnamed superior, who upsets Heat by taking over the investigation and uncovering Verloc as the secret source of Heat’s information (and his professional success).
  • Sir Ethelred, Britain’s Home Secretary, the Assistant Commissioner’s immediate superior, an aristocratic politician who wants the anarchists kept under control but wishes to know nothing of the “details” involved.

Heat desires not to solve the crime, but merely to make a plausible arrest. He is unaware of Verloc’s guilt, yet wants to protect Verloc to maintain him as a source of useful information. So Heat attempts to pin the crime on Michaelis, a known anarchist. The Assistant Commissioner, however, pressures Heat into revealing the address on the scrap of Stevie’s clothing and rapidly pursues his own investigation, donning a disguise and interviewing both Winnie and then Verloc himself that same day. By the end of the day, he has uncovered the investigator, Vladimir, who moves among the highest social circles in London and enjoys diplomatic immunity from prosecution.

Also that same day Inspector Heat meets with Verloc, at Verloc’s house. Overhearing their conversation, Winnie learns that Stevie has been killed and that her husband is responsible. After Heat leaves, she stabs Verloc with a carving knife, killing him, and in fleeing the house she meets Ossipon. Ossipon persuades her to give him all her cash (which Verloc had earlier withdrawn from the bank in preparation for fleeing). The plan, says Ossipon, is for her to escape with him to the Continent. They make reservations on a boat that will take them across the English Channel. However, Ossipon slips off the train as it pulls out of London to meet the boat, leaving Winnie destitute and alone.

The narrative then skips ahead ten days, to a meeting between Ossipon and the Professor at a London restaurant. Ossipon produces a newspaper article he has been carrying with the headline,”Suicide of Lady Passenger from a cross-Channel Boat” {Secret Agent, p. 249). He is haunted by the article’s last words: “An impenetrable mystery seems destined to hang for ever over this act of madness or despair” (Secret Agent, p. 249; emphasis original). The novel ends as the two anarchists part company, Ossipon walking off with the newspaper’s words ringing in his head, the Professor slipping into the city’s busy streets like a deadly, invisible virus.

Ideological contrasts between England and Russia

In his conversation with Verloc, the Russian spymaster Vladimir shows contempt for British society, with its bourgeois or middle-class emphasis on freedom and the rule of law:

This country is absurd with its sentimental regard for individual liberty… . The imbecile bourgeoisie of this country make themselves the accomplices of the very people whose aim is to drive them out of their houses to starve in ditches.

(Secret Agent, p. 37)

Vladimir, who represents Russia’s authoritarian political system, is not the only one to show disdain for Britain. The Professor too declares his enmity toward the British system, although he views it from the opposite end of the political spectrum, from the perspective of anarchism. But while the Professor also despises the ingrained respect for the rule of law in Britain, he at least recognizes such respect as a source of Britain’s strength:

To break up the superstition and worship of legality should be our aim. Nothing would please me more than to see Inspector Heat and his likes take to shooting us down in broad daylight with the approval of the public. Half our battle would be won then; the disintegration of the old morality would have set in its very temple.

(Secret Agent, p. 71)

In the novel, the two political extremes of anarchism and Russian authoritarianism serve as foils for the British system, which lies between them on the political spectrum. Britain’s open democracy ultimately comes across as strong and resilient, even with its many foibles (as humorously exemplified in the characters of Heat and Sir Ethelred).

As is well known, Conrad’s father was a Polish patriot who had been imprisoned for anti-Russian activities when Conrad was a boy (Russia then ruled Poland). Critics have seen a link between Conrad’s inherited hostility to Russian authoritarianism and his sincere though reserved embrace of British middle-class political values. Yet while certainly colored by his own background as a Pole, Conrad’s attitude to Russia also reflects a suspicion shared by many in his adopted country. As Britain moved towards a military alliance with Tsarist Russia (which would come in 1907, the year the novel was published), such suspicions would have had a topical relevance to the novel’s British readers. In the words of German novelist Thomas Mann, The Secret Agent“is an anti-Russian story, plainly enough, anti-Russian in a very British sense and spirit. Its background consists in politics on the large scale, in the whole conflict between the British and the Russian political ideology” (Mann in Watt, p. 102; see Mann’s Death in Venice , also in Literature and Its Times).

Sources and literary context

As a general rule, Conrad relied heavily on real-life sources for both characters and plots in his works. Scholar Norman Sherry, who has specialized in tracing these sources, argues that The Secret Agent marks a departure for Conrad in method. Previously, explains Sherry, the writer used mainly his own life experiences (especially his life as a sailor) to shape his material; beginning with Nostromo and The Secret Agent, he would instead gather his ideas and information primarily from wide reading.

Conrad himself offers important information in his 1920 Author’s Note to the novel. He relates how the idea for the book first came to him during a conversation about anarchists with a friend, whom he doesn’t name but who was later revealed to be the influential novelist and critic Ford Madox Ford. They discussed “the already old story of the attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory,” and the friend “remarked in his characteristically casual and omniscient manner, ‘Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards’” (The Secret Agent, p. 9). Conrad voices his conviction that his friend had little if any actual experience of real anarchists, and that he himself “had seen even less of their kind than the omniscient friend who gave me the first suggestion for the novel” (The Secret Agent, p. 12). In a memoir of his friendship with Conrad, however, Ford disputes Conrad’s account. Ford did indeed number anarchists among his friends and acquaintances, and he claims to have supplied Conrad with anarchist literature, including probably two publications from the 1890s that the novel mentions as journals sold in Verloc’s shop: The Gong and The Torch.

Conrad also mentions reading the memoirs of an Assistant Commissioner of Police, Robert Anderson, who served during the 1890s and was thus in office during the Greenwich Bomb Outrage. (Anderson’s book, Sidelights on the Home Rule Movement, was published in 1906, when Conrad had already written the first three chapters of the novel.) Sherry proposes Anderson as a partial model for the novel’s unnamed Assistant Commissioner, suggesting that one of Anderson’s predecessors, Howard Vincent, also provided some of the characteristics of the novel’s Assistant Commissioner. Sir Ethelred, the novel’s Home Secretary, is based largely on Sir William Harcourt, whom Conrad also mentions in the Author’s Note. Harcourt was Home Secretary during the tenures of both Anderson in the 1890s and Vincent in the early 1880s, when Irish terrorists set off several explosions in London (see above).


How common was suicide in late-nineteenth-century Britain? For females the rate dropped after 1870, then rose after 1886, the year in which The Secret Agent takes place. Statistics show that, like Winnie, the wife in the novel, a third of all female victims drowned themselves, the others generally resorting to poison, self-hanging, or cutting their own throats. In one sample city (Hull), the rate of female suicides climbed from 4.5 percent in the 1880s to 5.9 percent in the 1890s, a decade in which suicides for men peaked as well [Bailey, p. 129]. For women in the prime of life, like Winnie, the most significant cause ot suicide was the disintegration of personal relationships—the death of kin or neglect or abuse by a husband—along with a lack of viable alternatives for women in the society of the day. A plausible candidate for suicide, Winnie is unable to endure the loss of her brother; perhaps their relationship provided her with her only moral and emotional sustenance in a daily round of existence that likely included neglect by her husband.

Some Real-Life Models and Sources for The Secret Agent
Character Real-life Models Literary Source
Verloc H. B. Samuels, a supposed anarchist but in reality a police informer, and the architect of the Greenwich Outrage ; for that he, like the novel’s Verloc, hatched to provoke an anti-anarchist backlash); A. Coulon, a secret agent and police informer planted among London’s anarchists (Coulon was not connected with the Greenwich Outrage, but his activities were exposed by subsequent press investigations).Newspaper accounts of the Greenwich Bomb Outrage; for Samuels, journalist David Nicoll’s 1897 pamphlet The Greenwich Mystery; for Coulon, other writings by David Nicoll.
Stevie Martial Bourdin, who carried the bomb in the Greenwich Outrage, was Samuel’s brother-in-law; witnesses suggest that (like the novel’s Stevie) he was unintelligent and idolized his brother-in-law. Bourdin and Samuels thus provided a source for the family relationship central to the novel.Newspaper accounts of the Greenwich Bomb Outrage.
Chief Inspector Heat Inspector Melville of Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Division (the real-life counterpart of the novel’s Special Crimes Division). Melville relied on Coulon for secret information just as Heat relies on Verloc in the novel. Melville also investigated the Greenwich Outrage.Newspaper accounts of Melville’s relations hipcentralto the Greenwich Outrage).
Michaelis Michael Davitt, not an anarchist but a paroled Irish revolutionary who (like the novel’s Michaelis) wrote memoirs that made him into a celebrity in the late 1880s. Responsible for “bomb outrages” in the late 1880s.Davitt’s 1885 book Leaves from a Prison Diary. For Michaelis’s views, numerous works including Edward Bellamy’s Utopian novel Looking Backward (1888).
The Professor Luke Dillon, an Irish terrorist nicknamed “Dynamite Dillon,” who (like the novel’s Professor) wore a bomb that he intended to detonate if captured.Various articles and books about Dillon.

(Adapted from Sherry, Conrad’s Western World, pp. 205–324)

In addition to the literary sources outlined above, Conrad used the writings of anarchists such as Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, and others to develop the views he attributes to the novel’s anarchists. The major exception to Conrad’s reliance on literary research to inspire characters, views, and events in the novel appears to be the wife Winnie, whom Sherry suggests was partly based on Conrad’s own wife, Jessie.

Critics have noted that in their focus on urban squalor and grime, Conrad’s descriptions of London in The Secret Agent owe much to similar descriptions in novels (such as Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend) by the British novelist Charles Dickens, one of Conrad’s favorite writers. Dickens’s influence has likewise been seen in Conrad’s colorful, humorous, and idiosyncratic portraits of Mr. Vladimir, Inspector Heat, and Winnie’s mother.

Conrad was among the earliest novelists to choose espionage and international intrigue as subjects. His letters reveal that with The Secret Agent he hoped to appeal to a broader audience than with his earlier books. His choice of subject may have been influenced by Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903), a highly popular work about the chance discovery of a German fleet preparing to invade England that is now considered to be the first modern espionage novel. As a recent Conrad biographer notes, both novels share a “sense that menace underlies seemingly normal life, and that this menace can indicate the activity of an enemy agent” (Batch-elor, p. 157).


Though it did not in fact sell very well, The Secret Agent received generally favorable reviews in leading British journals, including The Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and The Nation, as well as some unfriendly (and uncomprehending) ones in lesser periodicals such as Country Life and the Edinburgh Review. An unsigned review in The Times Literary Supplement praised Conrad’s “friendly irony” in depicting his characters,”and above all his delicate and perfectly tactful art, to make them human and incidentally to demonstrate how monotonous a life theirs can be” (Sherry, Conrad: The Critical Heritage, p. 185). Conrad’s friend Edward Garnett, writing anonymously in The Nation, sounded two notes that would be picked up by many more recent critics. First, and more generally, Garnett celebrated Conrad’s “astonishing mastery of our tongue,” but he also singled out The Secret Agent as a major artistic departure for the author, emphasizing the novel’s “ironical insight into the natural facts of life, into those permanent animal instincts which underlie our spiritual necessities and aspirations” (Garnett in Sherry, Conrad: The Critical Heritage, pp. 191, 192). Examples of these instincts might include Winnie’s protectiveness toward Stevie, or Verloc’s desperation when faced with the loss of his income. Garnett stressed the contrast between the novel’s ironic depiction of basic human drives in a squalid urban setting, and the exotic tropical settings and mysterious, romantic atmospheres found in Conrad’s earlier works.

Like Conrad’s work in general, The Secret Agent was largely ignored by critics in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1948, however, in his book The Great Tradition, the influential critic F. R. Leavis restored both author and novel to a central place in scholarly criticism. Leavis named Conrad as one of the five greatest English novelists of all time, and declared The Secret Agent (along with Nostromo) to be “one of the two unquestionable classics of the first order that he added to the English novel” (Leavis in Page, p. 101).

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Bailey, Victor. “This Rash Act”: Suicide Across the Life Cycle in the Victorian City. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Batchelor, John. The Life of Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent. Garden City: Anchor, 1953.

Fleishman, Avrom. Conrad’s Politics: Community and Anarchy in the Fiction offoseph Conrad. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1967.

Page, Norman. A Conrad Companion. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.

Sherry, Norman. Conrad: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1973.

_____. Conrad’s Western World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Sonn, Richard D. Anarchism. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Stedman Jones, Gareth. Outcast London. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Watt, Ian, ed. The Secret Agent: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1973.

About this article

The Secret Agent

Updated About content Print Article Share Article