The Secret Agent

Infobox Book
name = The Secret Agent
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = The Modern Library's 2004 reissue of Conrad's "The Secret Agent".
author = Joseph Conrad
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = United Kingdom
language = English
series =
subject =
genre = Spy
publisher = Methuen & Co
release_date = September 1907
english_release_date =
media_type = Print (Hardcover)
pages = 442 pp
isbn = NA
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale" is a novel by Joseph Conrad published in 1907. The story is set in London in 1886 and deals largely with the life of Mr. Verloc and his job as a spy.Joseph Conrad, "The Secret Agent", 1994, p. 5] "The Secret Agent" is also notable as it is one of Conrad's later political novels, which move away from his typical tales of seafaring. The novel deals broadly with the notions of anarchism, espionage, and terrorism. [Joseph Conrad, "The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale" 2004, p. xiv] It portrays anarchist or revolutionary groups before many of the social uprisings of the twentieth century. However, it also deals with exploitation, particularly with regards to Verloc's relationship with his brother-in-law Stevie. Due to its terrorist theme, "The Secret Agent" has been noted as "one of the three works of literature most cited in the American media" post September 11, 2001. Carola M. Caplan, "Conrad in the Twentieth Century: Contemporary Approaches and Perspectives", p. 155.]

Plot summary

The novel is set in London in 1886 and follows the life of Mr. Verloc, a secret agent. Verloc is also a businessman who owns a shop which sells pornographic material and bric-a-brac. He lives with his wife Winnie, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law, Stevie. Stevie has a mental disability which causes him to be very excitable; his sister, Verloc's wife, attends to him, treating him more as a son than as a brother. Verloc's friends are comprised of a group of anarchists of which Comrade Ossipon, Michaelis, and "The Professor" are the most prominent. Although largely ineffectual as terrorists, their actions are known to the police. The group produce anarchist literature in the form of pamphlets entitled "F.P.", an abbreviation for "The Future of the Proletariat".

The novel begins in Verloc's home, as he and his wife discuss the trivialities of everyday life, which introduces the reader to Verloc's family. Soon after, Verloc leaves to meet Mr. Vladimir, First Secretary in the embassy of a foreign country (implied to be Russia). Although a member of an anarchist cell, Verloc is also secretly employed by Vladimir as an agent provocateur. Vladimir informs Verloc that he is far from an exemplary model of a secret agent and, in order to redeem himself, must carry out an operation - the destruction of Greenwich Observatory by a bomb explosion. Verloc later meets with his friends, who discuss politics and law, and the notion of a communist revolution. Unbeknownst to the group, Stevie, Verloc's brother-in-law, overhears the conversation, which greatly disturbs him.

Comrade Ossipon later meets The Professor, who describes the nature of the bomb which he carries in his coat at all times: it allows him to press a button which will blow him up in twenty seconds, and those nearest to him. After The Professor leaves the meeting, he stumbles into Chief Inspector Heat. Heat is a policeman who is working on the case regarding a recent explosion at Greenwich, where one man was killed. Heat informs The Professor that he is not a suspect in the case, but that he is being monitored due to his terrorist inclinations and anarchist background. Knowing that Michaelis has recently moved to the countryside to write a book, the Chief Inspector informs the Assistant Commissioner that he has a contact, Verloc, who may be able to assist in the case. The Assistant Commissioner later speaks to his superior, Sir Ethelred, about his intentions to solve the case alone, rather than relying on the effort of Chief Inspector Heat.

The novel often moves between Verloc's work life, and his home life. At home, Mrs. Verloc's mother informs the family that she wishes to move out of the house. Mrs. Verloc's mother, Mrs. Verloc, and Stevie use a hansom which is driven by a man with a hook in the place of his hand. The journey greatly upsets Stevie, as the driver's tales of hardship coupled with his menacing hook scare him to the point where Mrs. Verloc must calm him down. On Verloc's return from a business trip to the continent, his wife tells him of the high regard that Stevie has for him and she implores her husband to spend more time with Stevie. Verloc eventually agrees to go for a walk with Stevie. After this walk, Mrs. Verloc notes that her husband's relationship with her brother has improved. Verloc then tells his wife that he has taken Stevie to go and visit Michaelis, and that Stevie would stay with him in the countryside for a few days.

As Verloc is talking to his wife about the possibility of emigrating to the continent, he is paid a visit by the Assistant Commissioner. Shortly thereafter, Chief Inspector Heat arrives in order to speak with Verloc, without knowing that the Assistant Commissioner had left with Verloc earlier that evening. The Chief Inspector tells Mrs. Verloc that he had recovered an overcoat at the scene of the bombing which had the shop's address written on a label. Mrs. Verloc confirms that it was Stevie's overcoat, and that she had written the address. On Verloc's return, he realises that his wife knows that he has lied about the whereabouts of her brother, who has been killed by Verloc's bomb, and confesses what truly happened. Mrs. Verloc then attacks her husband with a knife, stabbing him.

After the stabbing, Mrs. Verloc flees her home, where she meets Comrade Ossipon, and begs him to help her. Ossipon assists her, but also confesses his romantic feelings for her. Planning on running away with her, he aids her in taking a boat to the continent. However, her instability and the revelation of her murder increasingly worries him, and he abandons her. He later discovers she disappeared, leaving behind her wedding ring, presumably drowned.


*Mr. Adolf Verloc: a secret agent who owns a shop in a grimy area of London. He is tasked by his superiors with destroying Greenwich by means of a bomb. He is part of an anarchist organisation that creates pamphlets under the heading "The Future of the Proletariat". He is married to Winnie Verloc, and lives with his wife, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law, Stevie.

*Mrs. Winnie Verloc: Verloc's wife. She cares for her brother Stevie, who has an unknown mental disability. She is younger than her husband and thinks of what may have happened if she had married her original love, rather than choosing to marry the successful Verloc. A loyal wife, she becomes incensed upon learning of the death of her brother due to her husband's plotting, and kills him with a knife in the heart. She dies, presumably by drowning, after she disappears from a boat due to the guilt she feels for her actions.

*Stevie: Winnie Verloc's brother. Stevie is very sensitive and is disturbed by notions of violence or hardship. His sister cares for him, and Stevie passes most of his time drawing numerous circles on pieces of paper. He is implicated in Verloc's attempt to bomb Greenwich, although the degree of his complicity is not known.

*Chief Inspector Heat: a policeman who is dealing with the explosion at Greenwich. An astute man who uses a clue found at the scene of the crime to trace events back to Verloc's home. Although he informs his superior what he is planning to do with regards to the case, he is not aware that the Assistant Commissioner is acting without his knowledge.

*The Assistant Commissioner: of a higher rank than the Chief Inspector, he uses the knowledge gained from Heat to pursue matters personally. He informs his superior, Sir Ethelred, of his intentions, and tracks down Verloc before Heat can.

*Sir Ethelred: the Secretary of State (Home Secretary) to whom the Assistant Commissioner reports.

*Mr. Vladimir: An employee of an embassy from a foreign country, strongly implied to be Russia. Vladimir employs Verloc to carry out terrorist acts, hoping that the resulting public outrage will force the English government to repress emigre socialist and anarchist rebels.

*Comrade Alexander Ossipon: an ex-medical student and friend of Verloc, and another anarchist.

*Karl Yundt: a friend of Verloc, and another anarchist.

*Michaelis: a friend of Verloc, and another anarchist.

*The Professor: a friend of Verloc, and another anarchist.


Greenwich Bombing of 1894

Conrad's character, Stevie, is based on the French anarchist, Martial Bourdin, who died gruesomely in Greenwich Park when the explosives he carried prematurely detonated. [Mulry, David. "Popular Accounts of the Greenwich Bombing and Conrad's 'The Secret Agent.'" Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, 54.2 (2000), pp. 43-64 ] Bourdin's motives remain a mystery as does his intended target, which may have been the Greenwich Observatory. [cite web|url=|title=Propaganda by Deed - the Greenwich Observatory Bomb of 1894] In the 1920 Author's Note to the novel, Conrad recalls a discussion with Ford Madox Ford about the bombing: [Karl, Frederick R., ed. "Introduction." "The Secret Agent" (Signet, 1983), pp. 5-6]

[...] we recalled the already old story of the attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory; a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought. For perverse unreason has its own logical processes. But that outrage could not be laid hold of mentally in any sort of way, so that one remained faced by the fact of a man blown to bits for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other. As to the outer wall of the Observatory it did not show as much as the faintest crack. I pointed all this out to my friend who remained silent for a while and then remarked in his characteristically casual and omniscient manner: "Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards." These were absolutely the only words that passed between us [...] . [cite web|url=|title=Conrad, Joseph. Author's Note.]

Major themes

Terrorism and anarchism

Terrorism and anarchism are intrinsic aspects of the novel, and are central to the plot. Verloc is employed by an agency which requires him to orchestrate terrorist activities, and several of the characters deal with terrorism in some way: Verloc's friends are all interested in an anarchistic political revolution, and the police are investigating anarchist motives behind the bombing of Greenwich.

The novel was written at a time when terrorist activity was increasing. There had been numerous dynamite attacks in both Europe and the USA, as well as several assassinations of heads of state.Alex Houen, "Terrorism and Modern Literature: From Joseph Conrad to Ciaran Carson", p. 14.] Conrad also drew upon two persons specifically: Mikhail Bakunin and Prince Peter Kropotkin. Conrad used these two men in his "portrayal of the novel's anarchists".Joseph Conrad, "The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale", 2004, p. xix.] However, according to Conrad's Author's Note, only one character was a true anarchist: Winnie Verloc. In "The Secret Agent", she is "the only character who performs a serious act of violence against another", despite the "F.P."'s intentions of radical change, and The Professor's inclination to keep a bomb on his person.

Critics have analysed the role of terrorism in the novel. Patrick Reilly calls the novel "a terrorist text as well as a text about terrorism"Patrick Reilly, "The Dark Landscape of Modern Fiction", p. 53.] due to Conrad's manipulation of chronology in order to allow the reader to comprehend the outcome of the bombing before the characters, thereby corrupting the traditional conception of time. The morality which is implicit in these acts of terrorism have also been explored: is Verloc evil because his negligence leads to the death of his brother-in-law? Although Winnie evidently thinks so, the issue is not clear, as Verloc attempted to carry out the act with no fatalities, and as simply as possible in order to retain his job, and care for his family.Ronald Paulson, "Sin and Evil: Moral Values in Literature", p. 328.]


The role of Politics is paramount in the novel, as the main character, Verloc, works for a quasi-political organisation. The role of politics is seen in several places in the novel: in the revolutionary ideas of the "F.P."; in the characters' personal beliefs; and in Verloc's own private life. Conrad's depiction of anarchism has an "enduring political relevance", although the focus is now largely concerned with the terrorist aspects that this entails.David Mulry, "The Anarchist in the House: The Politics of Conrad's "The Secret Agent" in Allan H. Simmons and J.H. Stape, "The Secret Agent: Centennial Essays", p. 2.] The discussions of the "F.P." are expositions on the role of anarchism and its relation to contemporary life. The threat of these thoughts is evident, as Chief Inspector Heat knows "F.P." members because of their anarchist views. Moreover, Michaelis' actions are monitored by the police to such an extent that he must notify the police station that he is moving to the country.

The plot to destroy Greenwich is in itself anarchistic. Vladimir asserts that the bombing "must be purely destructive" and that the anarchists who will be implicated at the architects of the explosion "should make it clear that [they] are perfectly determined to make a clean sweep of the whole social creation."Joseph Conrad, "The Secret Agent" (London: Penguin, 1993), p. 35.] However, the political form of anarchism is ultimately controlled in the novel: the only supposed politically motivated act is orchestrated by a secret government agency.

Literary significance and reception

Initially, the novel fared poorly in both the United Kingdom and the United States, selling only 3,076 copies between 1907 and 1914. The book fared slightly better in Britain, yet no more than 6,500 copies were pressed before 1914. Although sales increased after 1914, the novel sold more than "modestly" throughout Conrad's lifetime. The novel was released to favourable reviews, with most agreeing with the view of "The Times Literary Supplement", that the novel "increase [d] Mr. Conrad's reputation, already of the highest."Leonard Orr, Ted Billy, and Theodore Billy, "A Joseph Conrad Companion", pp. 167-168.] However, there were detractors, who largely disagreed with the novel's "unpleasant characters and subject". "Country Life" magazine called the story "indecent", whilst also criticising Conrad's "often dense and elliptical style".

In modern times, "The Secret Agent" is considered to be one of Conrad's finest novels. "The Independent" calls it " [o] ne of Conrad's great city novels" [] Conrad, the literary outsider ignored by his adopted country - a piece documenting the 150th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Conrad. (accessed 4 May 2008)] whilst "The New York Times" insists that it is "the most brilliant novelistic study of terrorism". [] The True Classic of Terrorism - an article describing Conrad's works concerning terrorism. (accessed 4 May 2008)] It is considered to be a "prescient" view of the 20th century, foretelling the rise of terrorism, anarchism, and the augmentation of secret societies, such as MI5. The novel is on reading lists for both secondary school pupils and university undergraduates.cite web|url=| title=Q3019, 1919-PRESENT: READING LIST.| accessdate=2008-05-04| format=DOC] cite web|url=| title=Reading Lists| accessdate=2008-05-04| format=DOC] cite web|url=| title=Recommended Reading List for A-Level| accessdate=2008-05-04| format=DOC]


"The Secret Agent" is said to have influenced The Unabomber, real name Theodore Kaczynski. Kaczynski was a great fan of the text, and had a copy of the novel by his bedside as an adolescent.J. David Woodard, "The America that Reagan Built", p. 180.] He identified strongly with the character of "The Professor", and advised his family to read "The Secret Agent" in an effort to further understand the character, with whom he felt such a great bond. David Foster, the literary attributionist who assisted the FBI said that Kaczynski "seem [ed] to have felt that his family could not understand him without reading Conrad." David Foster, cited in Douglas Evander Oswell, "The Unabomber and the Zodiac", p. 140.]

Kaczynski's idolisation of the character was due to the traits that they both shared: disaffection, hostility towards the world, and being aspiring anarchists.Douglas Evander Oswell, The Unabomber and the Zodiac, p. 140.] However, it did not stop at mere idolisation. Kaczynski used "The Professor" as a source of inspiration, and "fabricated sixteen exploding packages that detonated in various locations".John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett, "The Myth of the American Superhero", p. 171.] After his capture, Kaczynski revealed to FBI agents that he had read the novel a dozen times, and had sometimes used "Conrad" as an alias.cite web|url=| title=English Grad Student Plays Detective in Unabomber Case| accessdate=2008-05-04| format=] It was discovered that Kaczynski had used various formulations of Conrad's name - Conrad, Konrad, and Korzeniowski, Conrad's original surname - in order to sign himself into several hotels in Sacramento. As in his youth, Kaczynski retained a copy of "The Secret Agent", and kept it with him whilst living as a recluse in a hut in Montana.Alex Houen, "Terrorism and Modern Literature: From Joseph Conrad to Ciaran Carson", p. 14.]


* Conrad adapted the novel as a three-act drama of the same title in 1923. After flopping in 1923, the play reportedly was not performed anywhere until January 2008, when it was staged in Italian by the Teatro Stabile of Genoa, under the direction of Marco Sciaccaluga.
* The novel formed the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's 1936 film, "Sabotage", although many changes to the plot and characters were made. (Another 1936 Hitchcock film, "Secret Agent", was based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham.)
* Another film version was produced in 1996, starring Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette and Gérard Depardieu.
* A play adaptation of the novel was produced in 2007 by Alexander Gelman, the Artistic Director of Organic Theater Company in Chicago, IL. The play's premiere took place on April 18, 2008.



*Caplan, Carola M, Mallios, Peter Lancelot, White, Andrea, eds. "Conrad in the Twentieth Century: Contemporary Approaches and Perspectives". Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge, 2004. ISBN 0415971640
*Conrad, Joseph. "The Secret Agent". London: Penguin, 1994. ISBN 0140620567
*Conrad, Joseph. "The Secret Agent". Ed. Martin Seymour-Smith. London: Penguin, 1990. ISBN 0140180966
*Conrad, Joseph. "The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale". Ed. John Lyon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004 ISBN 0192801694
*Houen, Alex. "Terrorism and Modern Literature: From Joseph Conrad to Ciaran Carson". Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 019818770X
*Lawrence, John Shelton and Jewett, Robert. "The Myth of the American Superhero". Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Eerdmans, 2002. ISBN 0802825737
*Orr, Leonard et al. "A Joseph Conrad Companion". New Haven, CT, USA: Greenwood, 1999. ISBN 0313292892
*Oswell, Douglas Evander. "The Unabomber and the Zodiac"., 2007. ISBN 0615145698
*Paulson, Ronald. "Sin and Evil: Moral Values in Literature". New Haven, USA: Yale University Press, 2007. ISBN
*Reilly, Patrick. "The Dark Landscape of Modern Fiction". London: Ashgate, 2003. ISBN 0754633705
*Simmons, Allan H. and Stape, J.H.. "The Secret Agent: Centennial Essays". Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. ISBN 9042021764
*Woodard, J. David. "The America that Reagan Built". New Haven, CT, USA: Greenwood, 2006. ISBN 0275986098

External links

* [ Public domain audio recording of The Secret Agent] from LibriVox

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