The Secret Agent is a jolly good book by Joseph Conrad, author of, among others, Nostromo and Heart of Darkness. Initially it seems like a superficial espionage thriller thing, but soon you realise that it's much more interesting and character based than that. Thoroughly readable and deeply disturbing and thought-provoking, I'd recommend it without hesitation.
Here is some shamelessly noded homework (careful - spoilers! Eek!):
Conrad has the power of persuading man to peep out now and then to see the whole of which he is so small a part.’ John Galsworthy – Conrad: A Disquisition. (1908). Do you agree? Explain your answer.
V S Pritchett, in an essay about Conrad, once said that ‘the daily evil of the émigré is his isolation.’ This isolation, this sense of being outside of society, is perhaps what gives Conrad his almost unique ability amongst authors of his time to create a sense of man as an insignificant cog in a predestined universe, as a small part of the whole. In The Secret Agent he achieves this by use of three major devices: his themes, his characterisation, and the structure of the work in its entirety.
The last of these, the structure of the novel, is perhaps the most important and obvious evidence in favour of Galsworthy’s assertion. If one were to read The Secret Agent expecting a traditionally conceived thriller about espionage and anarchy, one would be sorely disappointed: this is in large part due to where Conrad places the bombing of the observatory. By having it take place after about a third of the novel and then examining the events surrounding it Conrad challenges our expectations of the book and makes us consider what the essential aspects of it really are. We move away from seeing one individual event – the bombing - as the focus of the work and instead see a much wider spectrum of events and characters as equally important: we move from the part to the whole. As Conrad said himself (referring to The Nigger Of the Narcissus) ‘my task is… before all, to make you see’ – to see, above all, the breadth of human existence.
But Conrad was not an author whose work was confined to humanity: indeed, as Galsworthy also wrote, ‘what Conrad sees... is not merely this man’s aspiration or that woman’s destiny, but the overwhelming sweep and flow of universal forces.’ We are made repeatedly aware of how insignificant human life is, of how fleeting and inconsequential the existences of characters like Winnie Verloc are. Her death, like the death of her brother Stevie before her, is related to the reader through newspapers, a device which emphasises the ephemerality of their lives whilst accentuating the indifference of society as a whole to them both: newspapers are an inherently short-lived method of communication, and we see that the vast majority of those who read of ‘this act of madness or despair’ will have no idea of its link to the earlier tragedy. This suggests at least part of the life of man in the early 20th century city which Ian Watt in his critical survey of The Secret Agent calls ‘an unimaginably dark chaos whose most evident features are blind cruelty, senseless violence, mutual unawareness and overpowering apathy’. The emphasis on the individual, so common to the novel form, is lost: instead we are left with a view of the whole of contemporary humanity as an anonymous mass, unthinking and uncaring.
Conrad’s method of having his omniscient narrator shift from character to character, looking in on many different individuals’ thoughts and emotions, is also a structural conceit which is fairly uncommon in other novels of the era. We begin the book thinking of Verloc as the main character: we end it thinking that, if the book belongs to anyone – for we can question even if there is a main character at all - it belongs to Winnie. Conrad’s sympathies are never particularly obviously in one direction, and his characterisation always appears even-handed and restrained. Even the ‘good’ characters like Winnie remain fairly unsympathetic: her mothering attitude towards Stevie seems more instinctive that out of any great love.
This unquestionably makes us think about humanity as a whole to a much greater extent than if the novel had been a first person account from the point of view of a single character. We are forced as readers to look further than just Verloc and see that, in Conrad’s world, events have massive and far-reaching consequences: by showing what these consequences are for many different people, Conrad makes us think more carefully about our roles in our little societies, and the impact of our actions on others. It is worth noting that every character who has any kind of unselfish instinct meets a terrible death. By showing the miserable ends of the few compassionate figures in the book Conrad underlines that this concept of the whole and the part is not just relevant in terms of the insignificance of humanity in relation to the whole of the universe, but also, and almost paradoxically, in terms of the importance of paying attention to the fates of other members of our society.
This brings us to the way theme shapes our impression of the book. The two most important and relevant themes Conrad had in mind when he wrote The Secret Agent are probably lack of communication and alienation. Both of these ideas are closely linked to the concept of the whole and the part – for the whole cannot exist without communication, and alienation arrives in its place. Conrad’s description of the city comes to mind when we consider the latter of these two themes: just a few pages into the novel, as Verloc walks to the embassy, he tells us that
‘in its breadth, emptiness and extent (the street) had the majesty of inorganic nature, of matter that never dies.’
A further obvious example of this comes during the Assistant Commissioner’s walk:
‘His descent into the street was like the descent into a slimy aquarium from which the water had been run off. A murky, gloomy dampness enveloped him. The walls of the houses were wet, the mud of the roadway glistened with an effect of phosphorescence ... In this immoral atmosphere the Assistant Commissioner, reflecting upon his enterprise, seemed to lose some of his identity.’
Conrad thus succeeds in putting forward a view of society and mankind in general as insular and disassociated, and puts forward a contrasting view of ‘majestic, inorganic nature’ as unified and cohesive. Similarly, in, many exchanges and interactions between the charcacters - for example, his ironic presentation of the conversation leading up to Verloc’s murder, or the professor’s misinterpretation of Heat’s intentions – he presents to us a view of human beings so self-centred and egotistical that they cannot possibly consider any greater purpose or unselfish way of life.
It is a mistake to consider, as many contemporaries did, Conrad’s contempt for much of humanity as necessarily an advocation of anarchy as a viable alternative to the social milieu in which he lived. His characterisation of the anarchists is no more sympathetic than the way he treated anyone else, and, whilst he said that he intended to insult these ‘sham’ anarchists rather than their theories, his political views had, by the time he wrote The Secret Agent, mellowed somewhat from his youthful reactionary stance which was probably inspired by his father’s revolutionary instincts.
With incitement of revolution removed from the equation, then, we can see that Conrad’s motives for writing The Secret Agent were in large part to suggest this idea of the whole rather than the part, of the insignificance of humanity and yet also the necessity of the individual playing his role in society. It seems clear that Conrad, the perennial outsider, and one of the few who could see society of the time for what it really was, was entirely successful in achieving these goals. The daily evil of the émigré may be his isolation – but, in Conrad’s case, it was also the catalyst for his success.