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The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent (1907) is a novel by Polish-British author Joseph Conrad. It follows a double agent working for a foreign country who wishes to disrupt English internal affairs.

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The Secret Agent

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The Secret Agent (1907) is a novel by Polish-British author Joseph Conrad. It follows a double agent working for a foreign country who wishes to disrupt English internal affairs.

Below is a summary of the novel and an explanation of its themes. You will also find tables with key characters and quotes from The Secret Agent and a brief biography of Joseph Conrad.

The Secret Agent: book summary

The Secret Agent revolves around Adolf Verloc, a middle-aged shopkeeper in London in 1886. Verloc lives with his wife, Winnie, and Stevie, Winnie's brother. Verloc has a complicated secret life that his family does not know about. He is involved with a group of Anarchists who call themselves 'The Future of the Proletariat'. These include 'the Professor', a destructive and dangerous man who wants to bring down society, Comrade Ossipon, a former medical student who believes deeply in the Anarchist cause, and Michaelis, a romantic revolutionary with high-society ties.

Anarchism is a political philosophy that believes in the abolition of all governments and state institutions. Anarchists think people should voluntarily participate in society and not be required to. Anarchism's main belief is that positions of power over others are inherently negative and dangerous.

As per the title of Conrad's text, Verloc is a secret agent and has been for over a decade. He works for a foreign country that wishes to destabilise Britain. The country itself is never specified, but it is strongly inferred to be Russia. Verloc meets with an important man called Mr Vladimir at an embassy. Vladimir dislikes how Verloc has been operating lately, believing he has become complacent. Vladimir wants Verloc to carry out a bombing. He thinks it should be on the Greenwich Observatory, dubbing it an attack on science. Vladimir also wishes for the bombing to be blamed on the Anarchists, which will turn people against them. Verloc agrees to these conditions.

The Secret Agent then moves forward chronologically. By this time, the explosion in Greenwich Observatory has taken place. Ossipon and the Professor are meeting for drinks. The Professor admits he recently supplied Verloc with a bomb, and Ossipon becomes convinced that Verloc carried out the bombing that is said to have also killed the bomber. The Professor has easy access to explosives and creates many himself. He always carries one in his coat, which means the police are afraid to apprehend him.

Meanwhile, two important members of the police force, Inspector Heat and the Assistant Commissioner are investigating the bombing. Inspector Heat despises Anarchists and wishes to pin the bombing on one of them. After he discovers the bombers arrived from the direction of Michaelis's house, the Inspector sets his sights on him. He has also recovered a piece of cloth from the scene that was part of the bomber's coat. The Assistant Commissioner and Inspector Heat do not see eye to eye. The Assistant Commissioner has high-society links to Michaelis and wishes to absolve him of blame to avoid embarrassment for their mutual friends. Upon closer investigation, he finds Verloc's address sewn into the cloth that the Inspector found.

Conrad's novel then moves back in time again to before the bombing took place. Verloc is grappling with Vladimir's instructions. At the same time, Winnie asks him if he can spend more time with Stevie, as Stevie greatly admires him. Stevie has an intellectual disability, and Winnie spends her time caring for him. He is very dependent on her. At first, Verloc is slightly irritated by the idea of minding Stevie, but the two soon become close. It is agreed that it would be in the interest of Stevie's health to spend some time in Michaelis's country home.

The Secret Agent reaches the day of the bombing again. Verloc arrives home visibly agitated. He tells Winnie they should move to mainland Europe with little explanation as to why. The Assistant Commissioner then arrives, and he and Verloc go on a walk together. While they are gone, Inspector Heat arrives looking for Verloc. He shows Winnie the cloth he has found, and she identifies it as Stevie's coat. Verloc returns and has a discussion with Heat. He admits that he sent Stevie to carry out the bombing. Verloc also tells Heat that he will confess all and turn his back on the foreign country he works for. Heat believes this will not work but cannot convince Verloc of this.

Winnie overhears all this and is totally devastated by the loss of Stevie. When Heat leaves, she confronts Verloc. He attempts to comfort and reason with her but to no avail. Winnie is overcome with grief and rage, murdering Verloc by stabbing him in the chest. She then flees their home, terrified of being arrested for murder. She meets Ossipon and tells him everything. Ossipon agrees to help her escape to France as he has feelings for Winnie and also wants her money. However, he becomes fearful of her ability to murder someone and the fact that everything is linked to a dangerous foreign state. Ossipon helps Winnie on a train and then runs away with her money.

The Secret Agent closes with the remaining members of The Future of the Proletariat conversing. Michaelis and the Professor still have belief in the Anarchist cause. However, Ossipon has discovered that Winnie committed suicide and is permanently haunted by this.

The Secret Agent: themes

Read on for key themes in Conrad's novel.

The Secret Agent: deception

Deception is everywhere in The Secret Agent. There are few characters who consistently tell the truth. Verloc is perhaps the biggest offender. His own wife has no idea what he does for a living or how much danger he is in. His Anarchist group are also led to believe that he fully supports their cause and will not betray them. This is also not the case.

Even the law enforcement in The Secret Agent engage in deception. Inspector Heat wants to blame the Anarchists for the Greenwich bombing. He is willing to pin it on Michaelis without having much real evidence. On the other hand, the Assistant Commissioner shares mutual friends with Michaelis and wants to absolve him of any blame, once again, regardless of evidence.

Joseph Conrad creates a world of lies and deceit in his novel. There are little to no real trustworthy people. Even those who are trusted with upholding the law do not do it truthfully. Conrad paints a picture of a bleak world where everyone is lying to each other. Stevie is one of the few characters who does not do this. He takes everything at face value and is honest with people.

The Secret Agent: injustice

Injustice is also important in The Secret Agent. Bad deeds tend to go unpunished, and the few good characters in the text face tragic endings. Verloc sends his intellectually disabled brother-in-law to carry out a bombing. He takes complete advantage of Stevie's trusting nature. The aim of the bombing is to turn the British public against the Anarchist movement, but this does not seem to have been successful. All members of the group continue to walk free after the bombing. Vladimir's plan was unsuccessful, but he does not face any consequences for setting it into action. Stevie, however, faces the most fatal of consequences, despite his innocence.

Verloc does suffer for his actions in a way as the vengeful Winnie murders him. However, Winnie then commits suicide not long after this. She murdered Verloc because of her fury at him causing her brother's death. Winnie was put in this difficult and complex situation by Verloc but ends up losing her life anyway.

The Secret Agent: characters

Below is a table of central characters in The Secret Agent.

CharacterExplanationTraits
Adolf VerlocVerloc is the secret agent in the title of the novel. He is married to Winnie and is Stevie's brother-in-law. On the surface, he is a middle-aged shopkeeper, but, in reality, Verloc is an agent for a disruptive foreign state who has infiltrated a group of Anarchists. He convinces Stevie to carry out a bombing that results in his death. Verloc is murdered by Winnie because of this.Deceptive. Selfish. Untrustworthy.
Winnie VerlocWinnie is Verloc's wife and Stevie's sister. However, as a carer, she acts much more like Stevie's mother. Winnie married Verloc largely because he would financially take care of her and her family. Winnie is extremely protective of Stevie, and this is why she flies into a violent rage and murders Verloc after Stevie's death.Unassuming. Quiet. Protective.
StevieStevie is Winnie's brother. He is intellectually disabled and heavily reliant on his sister. Stevie is honest and open, but he is also very trusting of those he admires, like Verloc. Stevie despises injustice and wants to do what he can to fight it. Verloc uses these traits against him to convince Stevie to carry out the bombing that leads to his death.Naive. Trusting. Passionate.
The Professor The Professor is a member of the Anarchist group, The Future of the Proletariat. He is devoted to the Anarchist cause and believes the only way to achieve the world he wants is through violence. The Professor always carries a bomb with him that he will detonate if the police ever try to arrest him. This ensures his safety at all times. He ends The Secret Agent much as he began it.Violent. Dangerous. Unpredictable.
Inspector HeatHeat is a Chief Inspector who investigates special crimes, including Anarchism. He despises Anarchists and will do anything to pin the bombing on them, regardless of available evidence. Heat also has a personal relationship with Verloc, who sometimes passes information about the Anarchists onto him.Dedicated. Driven. Dishonest.

The Secret Agent: Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad was born on 3rd December 1857 in what is now Ukraine. His father was a Polish revolutionary who believed in an independent Poland. Conrad was orphaned at the age of eleven when he lost both his parents to tuberculosis. He grew up in the care of his uncle, getting an education and financial support from him.

Conrad achieved his dream of becoming a sailor when still a teenager. He travelled extensively, seeing much of the world, and this would go on to have a significant impact on the fiction he wrote. For example, his time in the Congo inspired his renowned novel, Heart of Darkness (1899). Conrad also received British citizenship in 1886 because he had settled in the country and spent much time as part of the British Merchant Navy. This meant he did not have to return to Ukraine, where he would face persecution for his father's revolutionary activities.

Other key novels by Joseph Conrad include Lord Jim (1900) and Under Western Eyes (1911). Interestingly, Conrad only learned English in his twenties, but this was the language in which he primarily wrote. Many critics believe his background gave Conrad a unique take on the English language. He also often wrote about colonialism and the unstable nature of the world. Many of Conrad's works have very pessimistic views.

Conrad died on 3rd August 1924 in Kent from a heart attack. Today, he is remembered as one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century.

The Secret Agent: quotes

Below are important quotes from The Secret Agent.

QuoteChapterExplanation
'England lags...England must be brought into line.'Chp. 2This is Vladimir's argument for the bombing of Greenwich on behalf of his foreign state. He believes that England must be taught a lesson, and this will give his nation more control over it.
'At that moment [Verloc] was within a hairs breadth of making a clean breast of it to his wife. The moment seemed propitious.'Chp. 8Verloc comes close to telling Winnie about his double life, but he eventually decides against it. There is a total lack of communication between the couple. Verloc continually lies to Winnie, which leads to the disastrous ending of The Secret Agent.
'Like a peripatetic philosopher, Mr Verloc, strolling along the streets of London, had modified Stevie's view of the police by conversations full of subtle reasonings. Never had a sage a more attentive and admiring disciple.'Chp. 11Verloc manipulates Stevie to get him to carry the bomb to Greenwich. He takes advantage of Stevie's trusting nature and feeds him ideas about the police being untrustworthy and cruel. This appeals to Stevie's anti-injustice beliefs.

The Secret Agent - Key takeaways

  • The Secret Agent is a 1907 novel by Joseph Conrad.
  • Conrad was a Polish-British writer renowned for his unique use of the English language.
  • The Secret Agent follows Adolf Verloc, who lives a secret life, infiltrating an Anarchist group on behalf of a foreign nation.
  • Two key themes in the novel are deception and injustice.
  • Conrad's novel has a tragic ending, with many of the main characters losing their lives.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Secret Agent

The novel itself is not a true story but it is inspired by a bombing that took place in Greenwich Park in 1894.

Winnie dies by suicide.

The Secret Agent is a modernist spy novel.

In this novel, a series of tragic events are set into motion by a double agent who has infiltrated an Anarchist group on behalf of a dangerous foreign nation.

The themes of the novel are deception and injustice.

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