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The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale is a novel by Joseph Conrad published in 1907. The story is set in Londonmarker in 1886 and deals largely with the life of Mr. Verloc and his job as a spy. 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. It portrays anarchist or revolutionary groups before many of the social uprisings of the twentieth century. However, it also deals with exploitation, particularly with regard to Verloc's relationship with his brother-in-law Stevie. Because of its terrorist theme, The Secret Agent has been noted as "one of the three works of literature most cited in the American media" since September 11, 2001. The Secret Agent was ranked the 46th best novel of the 20th century by Modern Library.

Plot summary

The novel is set in Londonmarker 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, contraceptives, 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, possibly autism, 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 Observatorymarker 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 her brother has been killed by Verloc's bomb, and confesses what truly happened. A stunned Mrs. Verloc gradually goes mad, ultimately attacking her husband with a knife, stabbing him to death.

After the murder, Mrs. Verloc flees her home, where she chances upon 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 Greenwichmarker by means of a bomb. He is part of an anarchist organization 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 herself to avoid the gallows.

  • 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 Greenwichmarker, although the degree of his complicity is not known.

  • Chief Inspector Heat: a policeman who is dealing with the explosion at Greenwichmarker. 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

275 px
Conrad's character, Stevie, is based on the French anarchist, Martial Bourdin, who died gruesomely in Greenwich Parkmarker when the explosives he carried prematurely detonated. Bourdin's motives remain a mystery as does his intended target, which may have been the Greenwich Observatorymarker. In the 1920 Author's Note to the novel, Conrad recalls a discussion with Ford Madox Ford about the bombing:
[...] 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 [...].

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 USAmarker, as well as several assassinations of heads of state. 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". 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" 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.


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. 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." 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.

Some critics, such as Fredrick R. Karl, think that the main political phenomenon in this novel is the modern age, as symbolized by the teeming, pullulating foggy streets of London (most notably in the cab ride taken by Winnie and Stevie Verloc). This modern age distorts everything, including politics (Verloc is motivated by the need to keep his remunerative position, the Professor to some extent by pride), the family (symbolized by the Verloc household, in which all roles are distorted, with the husband being like a father to the wife, who is like a mother to her brother), even the human body (Michaelis and Verloc are hugely obese, while the Professor and Yundt are preternaturally thin). This extended metaphor, using London as a center of darkness much like Kurtz's headquarters in Heart of Darkness, presents "a dark vision of moral and spiritual inertia" and a condemnation of those who, like Mrs Verloc, think it a mistake to think too deeply.

Literary significance and reception

Initially, the novel fared poorly in both the United Kingdommarker and the United Statesmarker, 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." 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" whilst The New York Times insists that it is "the most brilliant novelistic study of terrorism". 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 MI5marker. The novel is on reading lists for both secondary school pupils and university undergraduates.


The Secret Agent is said to have influenced the Unabomber—Theodore Kaczynski. Kaczynski was a great fan of the novel and as an adolescent kept a copy at his bedside. He identified strongly with the character of "the Professor" and advised his family to read The Secret Agent in order to understand the character with whom he felt such an affinity. David Foster, the literary attributionist who assisted the FBImarker, said that Kaczynski "seem[ed] to have felt that his family could not understand him without reading Conrad."

Kaczynski's idolization of the character was due to the traits that they shared: disaffection, hostility toward the world, and being an aspiring anarchist. 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". 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. 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 Montanamarker.



  • 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


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