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The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Plot of 'The Secret Agent'
  • 3:50 Critical Analysis
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: James Fleming
Joseph Conrad's 'The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale' is considered by many literary critics and scholars to be among Conrad's finest novels and one of the first works of English literature to seriously explore the subject of terrorism. The novel is also regarded by many scholars to be one of the first espionage novels of the 20th century.

Plot of The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent was written by Joseph Conrad, takes places in London in 1886, and tells the story of Adolf Verloc, a businessman and secret agent. Verloc is part of a group of anarchists who believe in overthrowing the government and who also function as somewhat ineffective terrorists. The group mainly produces anarchist pamphlets called 'F.P.' (The Future of the Proletariat) and hold private meetings among themselves.

The Secret Agent Original Cover

The novel begins by introducing us to Verloc's family: his wife Winnie, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law Stevie, who appears to be disturbed. We quickly learn that Verloc is not only a member of a terrorist cell, but also an agent provocateur (an undercover agent who works, usually, to provoke someone else to commit a crime) for a foreign country that is implied to be Russia. Verloc meets with Mr. Vladimir, the new First Secretary of the foreign country's London embassy. Vladimir explains that Verloc has been a poor secret agent lately but can redeem himself by blowing up the Greenwich Observatory. Vladimir justifies this action to Verloc by explaining that England does not take anarchism seriously enough and that attacking the Greenwich Observatory will push the government to take action against anarchists. After the meeting, Verloc struggles with the question of whether the bombing is right or wrong and the nature of his own lack of any real political belief and position as a secret agent.

A month later, two members of the anarchist group, Ossipon and the Professor, meet. The two men discuss the recent bombing of the Greenwich Observatory in which a man was killed. The Professor admits to having built Verloc a bomb recently, and the men suspect that Verloc was behind the bombing. Soon after, the Professor encounters Chief Inspector Heat, a police officer investigating the Greenwich explosion. Although Heat does not suspect that The Professor was involved directly in the bombing, he informs him that he is being watched due to his anarchist political background.

Soon after, the Chief Inspector meets with his superior, the Assistant Commissioner, and tells his boss that he has a contact, Verloc, who might be of assistance with the case of the Greenwich bombing. Soon after, the Assistant Commissioner meets with his own superior, Sir Ethelred, and expresses his intention to solve the case of the Greenwich bombing on his own.

While Verloc is at home expressing a desire to Winnie for them move to continental Europe, the Assistant Commissioner arrives and the two men leave together. Chief Inspector Heat comes by shortly after and tells Winnie that he found a coat at the bomb site with Verloc's shop's address written on its label. Verloc's wife identifies the coat as belonging to her brother Stevie. We then learn that Stevie was involved in the bombing plot and was accidentally killed in the explosion. Verloc returns home and finds out that Winnie knows that her brother had been killed by the bomb Verloc set. Verloc confesses his actions to Winnie and she stabs him to death.

After killing Verloc, Winnie runs away and encounters Comrade Ossipon who she begs for assistance in helping her escape from England. Ossipon assists her and confesses that he is in love with her. As they prepare to flee to continental Europe, Ossipon becomes concerned by Winnie's emotional instability and confession to having murdered her husband. Ossipon quickly abandons her.

Sometime later, Ossipon reads a newspaper article describing how Winnie drowned herself in the English Channel and left behind only her wedding ring.

Critical Analysis

When the novel originally appeared in 1907, critics were divided as to its quality. While some critics praised the novel's depth of characterization and attention to detail, other critics found it to be dense, difficult to read and populated with too many unlikable characters. The novel does not offer a clear political stance or viewpoint on the subject of terrorism or anarchistic political beliefs. Conrad does not 'side' with any of the characters or their ideas. Instead, he presents these characters simply as they are, without passing judgment upon them.

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