Martial Bourdin's failed bombing attempt and the
international anarchist movement in London set the stage
for Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel The Secret Agent.
At the time period of this work, anarchism was in its
early stages of development. Anarchists saw many problems
in society, but rarely offered practical solutions to
improve anyone's living conditions. This discrepancy
lends itself naturally to irony, and did not go unnoticed
by contemporary intellectuals. As most critics observe,
Conrad's extremely ironic tone throughout The Secret
Agent emphasizes a pessimistic attitude towards
society and individuals. Norman Holland notes that Conrad
uses a "heavily ironic and dry verbal style" to
reveal the chaos present in each character's
relationships (54). According to John Palmer, this "dark"
irony is essential for the novel's structure. He states,
"The Secret Agent is built [...] on the
characteristic esthetic tensions of satirical fiction -
misunderstandings, dramatic ironies, revealing symbolic
parallels and contrasts, and the like" (104). Claire
Rosenfield says that Conrad uses an ironic type of "gallows
humor" to effectively communicate the darkness of
the world portrayed in the novel. Life is so appalling
that this humor arrives "in the midst of horror, the
point at which despair becomes humorous" (121). E. M.
W. Tillyard's perspective differs from that of Rosenfield
and Palmer; from his perspective, Conrad keeps "his
dreadful story within the bounds of comedy" by means
of his ironic method (103). His comments imply that the
ironic tone does not effectively convey the sinister
darkness present in the story.
Many critics note that Conrad's irony reflects a
pessimistic perspective of the British society in The
Secret Agent. Conrad's perspective is reflective of
a society still reeling from the traumatizing social
effects of industrialization. Walter Wright observes that
London's drab streets and barren ugliness reveal the
futility of life (189-190), and impersonal fate's
destruction of individuals further reveals life's
emptiness (197). From Wright's perspective, the life
without control or choice in The Secret Agent is
a life without meaning. Rosenfield believes the city of
London represents the archetype of death, "a modern
underworld" where the personal self is annihilated (99-100).
In such a city, neither life commitment nor its opposite,
despair, have any purpose (114). Holland considers Conrad's
dark city of London "inner madness rendered as outer
setting" (55), while Jeffery Berman aptly summarizes
Conrad's cynical approach towards the society of The
Secret Agent by stating, "nothing seems worth
Conrad's pessimistic view of society envelops each
character's personal relationships. Throughout The
Secret Agent, the usage of geometric imagery shows
the ripple effects of evil within society on the micro
level. Wright observes the "weblike involvement of
the forces of lawlessness and those of the law" (179)
and Rosenfield notes major similarities between both
conservatism and anarchism in their cyclical worlds (80).
Holland claims that each major character throughout the
book has doubleness and tripleness in relationships with
others (54), and in expressing the "chaos and maze
of human relations," Conrad uses circle after circle
and packs the novel with "geometric images," as
if he "were trying to squeeze some order out of
chaos" (55). Steven Land focuses on the societal
structures that balance hostile forces throughout the
novel. The dualistic framework within The Secret
Agent gives each major character, including the
police, a similar opposite (150-153), and implies that
everyone, even the models of justice, has a double life.
Critics essentially agree that the novel's ironic tone
conveys pessimism towards society and relationships, but
they differ over Winnie Verloc's morality. The central
character of the novel, many critics consider her a
tragic heroine due to her sacrificial role. Conrad
himself seems to support this interpretation: in his
preface to the 1920 edition of the novel, he states that
this is "Winnie Verloc's story" (13), which
could imply that she is a heroine. John Palmer writes,
"morally, however, Conrad's deepest interest lies
with Winnie and Stevie, the norms of male and female
innocence, and Verloc's essential victims" (118),
implying that Winnie is a victim of circumstances,
undeserving of her suffering. In Tillyard's essay, "The
Secret Agent Reconsidered," he calls Winnie
Verloc pathetic and noble (104), someone who should cause
sympathetic feelings in readers. Richard Curle claims
that Conrad's "women portraits are the most finished,
delicate, and poignant of all his portraits." Winnie,
is a "tragedy," and indeed, "[Conrad's]
finest women are good women" (145, original
Other critics see Winnie as a darker character. For
example, Jacques Berthoud states that Winnie is as
impenetrable as her mysterious husband because of her
utter lack of curiosity (150). Wright observes that after
Stevie dies, "her studied efforts of deception have
been defeated by the more sinister deceit of Verloc
himself" (195). George Panichas goes farther,
considering her as evil as her husband, commenting,
"Both husband and wife have been dishonest with each
other, masking their motives [for each other] in the most
insidious ways" (Modern Age). Rosenfield
even considers Winnie an archetypal "femme
Though Winnie has some positive characteristics, such as
a maternal love towards her helpless brother, she is an
essentially negative character. Her passive obedience to
social conventions makes her mostly responsible for the
death of her brother, her murder of her husband, and her
subsequent suicide. The complex morality of Winnie Verloc
is the central question of the novel. Despite a surface
appearance of nicety, Winnie is the most chilling
character in what Berman calls Conrad's "most
chilling novel" (111). Winnie is a stereotypical
Victorian wife, and Conrad uses her magnetic attraction
towards destruction to criticize women who obey
unreasonable social expectations. Conrad's use of a
biblical allusion to Satan warns readers that the
Victorian wifely ideal dehumanizes women and that women
passively following Victorian social conventions by
sacrificing all of their dreams and relationships for
others, not communicating with their husbands, and
marrying primarily due to economic concerns will never
reach their full potential.
Winnie's greatest character flaw is her passivity. Her
passive philosophy of life causes her to conform to
Victorian social expectations of self-sacrifice, silence,
and a marriage made in the courtroom, and this passivity
stunts any moral development. Indeed, The Secret
Agent is "a study in sloth" (Bloom 57),
and passivity explains most of Winnie's activities within
the novel. Conrad's excessively harsh judgment upon her,
a death sentence because of her passivity, suits the
darkly ironic tone of The Secret Agent. As
Andrew Roberts states, the Verloc's marriage and family
life "is clearly a parody of the secrecy and
restraint of the corrupt and suffocating bourgeois
society of which Verloc is a servant" (139). Winnie's
obedience to her suffocating societal expectations leads
to her dehumanization.
Victorian society expected wives to completely sacrifice
themselves for the benefit of their husbands and families.
For example, Sarah Stickney Ellis, a popular Victorian
moralist, admonished wives to always "make
sacrifices, in order that his enjoyment may be enhanced"
(68). Within a poor marriage, wives should "suffer
and be still," rather than seek better treatment;
the worst sin a wife could commit was defying her husband
(Hammerton 76-77). Dorothy Mermin and Herbert Tucker,
Victorian scholars, note that in the typical British home,
"women remained safe at home in the private sphere
of tenderness, sympathy, piety, self-sacrifice, and love,
providing nurture and uplift for men and children" (81).
Social mores allowed women little else.
Winnie makes an enormous sacrifice to provide for her
brother who is retarded and her mother who is infirm when
she gives herself in marriage to Mr. Verloc who is
repulsive. Famous for his sea stories, Conrad uses
boating allusions to make Winnie's sacrifice more vivid
to the reader. Although she dearly loved an impoverished
butcher's son, he had "no accommodation for
passengers [Winnie's brother and mother]" in his
boat of life. Mr. Verloc, however, always had "some
money in his pockets" and accepted "as a matter
of course the presence of passengers" in his life's
"barque" (201). When Winnie meets Comrade
Ossipon on her way to commit suicide, she cries about her
sacrificial marriage, "Seven years - seven years a
good wife to him, the kind, the good, the generous, the -
And he loved me. Oh, yes. He loved me till I sometimes
wished myself - Seven years" (226). Her sacrifice is,
pathetically, ironically, unnoticed by her family: Stevie
is mentally incapable of grasping her love for him, and
her nave mother "never really understood why
Winnie had married Mr. Verloc", deciding, "it
was clearly providential" (45-46).
Winnie also sacrifices any supportive relationships
outside of her immediate family by marrying Mr. Verloc.
His true work as a double agent is secretive and he runs
a pornography shop for his cover business. Thus, the only
visitors to the house and attached shop are grotesque
anarchists and nervous young men. After Winnie murders Mr.
Verloc, she tries to think of someone who can help her,
but "she had no acquaintances of her own. No one
would miss her in a social way" (221). She is "friendless"
in this dark city of "five millions of lives" (221,
11). Drowning imagery shows her helpless despair as she
recognizes her overwhelming isolation in London. "She
floundered over the doorstep [....] This entrance into
the open air had a foretaste of drowning [....] Another
wave of faintness overtook her like a great sea, washing
away her heart clean out of her breast" (220-221).
Winnie's sacrifice of any relationships beyond her family
leaves her alone when she most needs help.
Though Winnie's sacrifice gives Susan Jones ample reason
to state that Conrad presents Winnie in the Polish
tradition of "idolized motherhood and female heroism"
(50), she does not acknowledge the knotty problem of
Winnie's passivity. In the same manner, Holland's
perception of females as the models of self-sacrifice (57)
is somewhat accurate, but flawed, because Winnie's
apparently noble sacrifice is mainly motivated by her
passivity. Ironically, she is still a moral failure even
as she gives up everything for her family. She sacrifices
a life spent with the boy she loves not because she needs
to, but because for her, the easiest psychological route
is obeying Victorian social expectations. She assumes
that she is solely responsible for keeping her family
intact, and her mental passivity finds a sacrificial
solution by marriage to Mr. Verloc. Winnie could have
married the butcher's son, whom she loved, and sent
Stevie and her mother to charity while working to
eventually earn money for their care. In the center of
the novel, for example, Winnie's mother retreats to a
charity-house, despite the financial prosperity of the
Verloc household. If she could fall into the arms of
charity when the Verlocs were well-off, she could have
received care while Winnie and the butcher's son were
fighting their way out of poverty. Stevie, who is
mentally retarded, presents a more complex problem, but
some sort of charity likely could have taken care of him
as well. However, Winnie never looks for aid for either
family member. Searching for help would be more work -
and less conventional - than accepting an unloving
Besides the subordinating sacrifices of females, a
hallmark of Victorian society was poor communication
between husbands and wives. A Victorian historian, Ginger
Frost, notes that men "could not express their
emotions openly" and had to keep their pains private
and sorrows secret (55). According to Mrs. Ellis, the
husband "knows not half the foolish fears that
agitate her breast. He could not be made to know, still
less to understand, the intensity of her capability of
suffering from slight" (68). Neither the husband nor
the wife are truly honest with each other in a
relationship without communication, and neither will
realize genuine emotional growth. Mrs. Ellis also reveals
that much of Victorian society believed that women, who
lacked worth, should not talk about themselves to their
husbands. Men may seem dull discussing politics, but
women are "infinitely worse - they have themselves [to
talk about]" (39-40). Although a companionate ideal
of marriage developed in the late-Victorian era, it saw
little actual influence in the lives of the lower-middle
classes (Frost 155) or, for that matter, most of England.
There is no loving companionship in the Verloc's socially-defined
relationship largely due to an utter lack of
communication. Mr. Verloc and Winnie never explain
themselves to the other, and throughout the novel, their
ambiguous relationship lumbers towards disaster. They
each have married with hidden pasts, for both have had
previous relationships that utterly failed - a female spy
betrayed Mr. Verloc and Winnie walked away from the
person she truly loved. Neither shares significant events
in their life with the other. Mr. Verloc's "work was
in a way political, he told Winnie once. She would have,
he warned her, to be very nice to his political friends."
She, on the other hand, agrees, and looks at him with a
"straight, unfathomable" face (20), and
throughout the novel, her face never betrays emotions to
her husband, until the few moments before she kills him.
Winnie has been married to Mr. Verloc for seven years,
yet she never knows his true occupation until the end of
the novel, never questions why he stays out until three
or four in the morning on a regular basis, and never asks
why the only visitors to their house are anarchists
ranting about the "cannibalistic" nature of
capitalism (53). Winnie is completely incurious, her
"force" and "safeguard" in life being
a "distant and uninquiring acceptance of facts"
(132). Later, Conrad states that "she felt
profoundly that things did not stand much looking into"
(151). Her passive acceptance of life as it appears
destroys those around her.
Two critical bedroom scenes highlight the Verloc's lack
of communication. In the first, Mr. Verloc feels that his
stilted, awkward conversation with Winnie "was as if
her voice was talking on the other side of a very thick
wall" (59-60). About to share his upsetting
occupational problems with her, he restrains himself,
afraid of leaving his well-defined social sphere and
becoming vulnerable to an unfathomable woman. Meanwhile,
Winnie ignores his disquiet, and talks to him about
Stevie, though to all of her remarks, "Mr. Verloc
made no comment" (60-61). His silence does not
disturb Winnie because it is typical of their
relationship. In the second bedroom scene, Mr. Verloc,
about to comment on his mother-in-law's escape from their
house, "very nearly said so" (151). He feels
that her exit might be of ill portent. He is "within
a hair's breadth of making a clean breast of it all to
his wife" and explaining his true career, but "he
forebode" (152). Mr. Verloc instead "bore his
sufferings silently" (153). Winnie, unapproachable
by her husband, has followed the pattern of life for many
Victorian wives. Immediately before their relationship
catastrophically ends with Winnie's murder of Mr. Verloc,
Conrad explains why they cannot understand each other:
"they refrained from going to the bottom of facts
and motives" (203).
Winnie's lack of communication with her husband is due to
her passivity. She bases her relationship with him on the
simplest route, living like the typical Victorian wife.
Rosenfield notes the centrality of the Verlocs' lack of
communication in their relationship as she states, "this
novel is a domestic drama, a story of personal
relationships and lack of communication" (108). Mr.
Verloc is naturally secretive, and Winnie "felt
profoundly that things do not stand much looking into"
(Conrad 150-151). Their relationship never consists of
genuine communication not only because of societal
expectations, but because communication takes effort. For
example, Winnie realizes that it takes less work to allow
Mr. Verloc to stay out "as early as three or four in
the morning" than questioning him about his
whereabouts and activities (20). When Mr. Verloc arrives
back from the embassy, he is clearly in emotional shock
because of his idiotic orders to bomb Greenwich
Observatory, but Winnie never takes the effort to ask him
about his upsetting problems.
Victorian society expected sacrifices of women, and a
lack of openness between husbands and wives. In light of
this, it is unsurprising that their culture frequently
viewed courtship and marriage from a legal, unromantic,
perspective. Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers
is a humorous novel about an engagement gone awry,
resulting in a lawsuit, but Pickwick's troubles were not
uncommon in Britain. If an engagement was broken, women
frequently sought retribution in a public court of law (Hammerton
51). Frost claims that men "had to keep their
promises with great strictness. Even if it meant
alienating family or enduring an unhappy union, a man was
expected to fulfill his contracts" (55). Because men
could generally marry based on affection while women had
to look for the best bargains, the court system was a
rare opportunity for females to gain some advantage (59).
Before Winnie discovers that her brother Stevie is dead
because of Mr. Verloc, she tells her husband, "if I
hadn't trusted you I wouldn't have married you" (162).
Trust is the sole basis for their relationship; only a
legal contract binds them together. Conrad never uses the
word "love" to describe Winnie's feelings for
her husband. Instead, he chooses economic and legal
terminology such as "contract", "free
woman", and "bargain" (207, 209, 215).
After Stevie's death Winnie feels freed in a legal sense.
His protection was her implicit reason for marriage, and
his death makes her "dishonoured contract null and
void" (Berthoud 151). Mark Wollaeger notes that
"Winnie's mind has always been dominated by a single
concern [of Stevie's well-being]," and when Mr.
Verloc admits his role in Stevie's death, she has a
paradigm shift (151-152). Conrad states, "she had
her freedom. Her contract with existence, as represented
by that man standing over there, was at an end".
Winnie realizes that she has "no need to stay there,
in that kitchen, in that house, with that man - now that
Stevie was dead" (207). Conrad's diction highlights
the Verloc's lack of a loving relationship: to Winnie, Mr.
Verloc is not Adolf, but only "that man". In
fact, Winnie's catalyst to kill him and flee is a sudden,
frantic, belief that "he would never let her go"
to her freedom (211).
Jones argues that The Secret Agent, along with
other works by Conrad, offer "sympathetic portraits
of female frustrations and domestic entrapment in [their]
marriage plots" (69). She fails to account for
Winnie's responsibility in ignoring the companionate
ideal of marriage that was developing at the time of the
novel. Conrad does have some sympathy for Winnie, but he
is also furious at her passive attitude towards marriage.
Winnie chooses a marriage based like a legal contract,
which was typical in Victorian society. This approach
requires much less emotional investment and work than the
companionate ideal (which is entirely impossible for the
Verlocs). Winnie's contractual marriage due to her
passivity leads to her family's destruction, but requires
less immediate effort than a marriage based on any
From a historical perspective, Winnie is a standard
Victorian woman, and Winnie's own words further reveal
her belief that she was the ideal wife. She believes she
is responsible to hold the home together, and proudly
tells herself that she has made Mr. Verloc and Stevie
"like father and son" (157). When Winnie thinks
that Mr. Verloc is about to leave her, which would
deprive Stevie of financial support, she attempts to
convince him to stay by reminding him, "You've a
comfortable home" (163), and sending him a seductive
glance, telling him he cannot leave because, "you
would miss me too much" (165). Ironically, though
Winnie has given her husband all that her society expects
her to, she has withheld the loving relationship that he
truly needs. After she murders Mr. Verloc, Winnie tells
Comrade Ossipon that throughout their marriage, "I
was a respectable woman", bitterly claiming, "I
was a good wife to him". She scorns Ossipon's
misconstrued idea that their marriage was based on love (225).
Conrad uses Winnie to show readers that women who follow
Victorian societal norms are eventually stripped of their
humanity. Winnie's punishment, becoming a suicidal devil,
seems excessively harsh, but this hyperbole perfectly
suits the ironic tone of the novel. Because of Winnie's
self-compromising sacrifices, lack of communication, and
contractual conception of marriage, her ending is a
terrible caricature of what really happened to many
Victorian wives. Conrad wildly exaggerates conformity's
results to shock his readers into a realization of the
dangers of compliance with foolish social norms.
After Conrad characterizes Winnie as a passively typical
Victorian woman, his use of a biblical allusion to the
devil makes it clear that Winnie Verloc is a warning for
women (and men) to avoid. Critics have never fully
explained this biblical allusion for two reasons. Though
it clearly refers to God's curse on Satan, it comes from
a somewhat obscure section of the story of the Fall. The
reference is also difficult to reconcile with the
presupposition, fostered by Conrad's preface, that Winnie
is the heroically tragic heroine of The Secret Agent.
(Although, as Berman observes, Winnie does not appear in
the novel as she does in the preface (126).)
Conrad, though he was an atheist, knew the Bible well. As
Rosenfield notes, "Conrad's allusions to common
Hebraic-Christian motifs were consciously employed - the
Bible being a part of his cultural heritage" (4).
Conrad scatters biblical references throughout The
Secret Agent. Mr. Verloc "saw no writing on the
wall" foretelling his doom (198), as described in
Daniel 5. Winnie assumes "the biblical attitude of
mourning" after hearing of Stevie's death (203). The
powerful and impersonal world of politics contrasts with
weak "men whose flesh is grass" (206),
paralleling Isaiah 40:6, "All flesh is grass" (206).
Winnie is freed from her contract to her husband after
seven long years of marriage, like the Jews who were
commanded to set their servants free every seven years (Deuteronomy
The allusion equating Winnie Verloc with the devil
appears after she murders Mr. Verloc, as she begs Comrade
Ossipon to care for her. She trips as she rushes to
Ossipon, who "positively saw snakes now. He saw the
woman twisted around him like a snake, not to be shaken
off. She was not deadly. She was death itself - the
companion of life" (237). Eileen Sypher assumes that
this reference makes Winnie a Medusa (42), but the rest
of the text poorly supports this interpretation.
Rosenfield utilizes this quote to observe that, "she
represent[s] the creature who tempted Eve" (85).
Rosenfield, correct in her observation that Winnie
represents the serpent, fails to recognize Conrad's
implications by not accounting for Winnie's next words:
"'Tom, you can't throw me off now,' she murmured
from the floor. 'Not unless you crush my head under your
heel'" (237). This quote closely parallels Genesis 3:15.
God promises future judgment on Satan because of his
deception to Adam and Eve, stating, "And I will put
enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed
and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt
bruise his heel." The reference to Genesis 3:15
implies that Winnie, clearly a typical Victorian woman,
deserves punishment for her conformity to unrealistic
societal norms (which is her only "sin"
throughout the novel).
Winnie is not merely an archetypal temptress such as
Delilah, Eve, or Circe, because of the implications of
her serpentness. The serpent is equated throughout the
Bible as not only a tempter, but Satan. For example,
Revelation 20:2 states that an angel from heaven "laid
hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil,
and Satan, and bound him a thousand years" (c.f. 12:9,
14). As Satan is judged for his sin of deception, Winnie
is judged for obeying social constructs of femininity.
Conrad further supports the interpretation of Winnie
becoming Satan by stating, in a characteristically ironic
tone, "it struck [Comrade Ossipon] as very possible
that in that household of two it wasn't precisely the man
who was the devil" (227).
Further evidence that The Secret Agent equates
Winnie with Satan is found in Conrad's description of
Comrade Ossipon after Winnie murders Mr. Verloc. He is
repeatedly described as Winnie's "saviour" (238,
241, 243). The biblical Savior (in most Christian circles)
crushes the serpent's head at Calvary. Likewise, Ossipon
is responsible for Winnie's death. After he deserts her,
she ends her life by drowning in the Atlantic Ocean.
Conrad's hyperbole in equating a standard Victorian woman
with the devil suits the ironic tone of the novel. He
exaggerates Winnie's punishment because her tragedy -
which is, in fact, an indictment of Victorian society -
is too complex to directly confront. By his darkly ironic
tone throughout the work, Conrad's outrage becomes more
subtle - and more sharp. Blasting The Secret Agent
as a "misogynistic text" (Sypher 42) fails to
account for its complexity.
Conrad's social irony succeeds as he turns Winnie Verloc
into a devil, the exact opposite of the Victorian "angel
of the hearth." This pessimistic view towards
British society superbly matches his description of the
"utter desolation, madness and despair"
describing Winnie's life story (13) - and the lives of
many British women in the late-Victorian era. Conrad uses
The Secret Agent to warn women against passively
accepting dehumanizing British social roles. Winnie
Verloc takes the passive route and needlessly sacrifices
for others and stays silent in her contractual marriage.
Her tacit acceptance of Victorian societal pressures
turns her into a devil. The Secret Agent is not
an attack upon women in general but upon Victorian
society and the women who follow its norms without
recognizing the negative side effects.
Through his irony, Conrad also criticizes the
relationships within a society focused on outside
appearances rather than inward realities. Each of the
main characters is a secret agent of sorts, with a double
or triple life. Every character, and especially Winnie,
is involved in the same manipulative game. Each character
in the novel loses part of his person through this game.
But because Winnie specifically represents the typical
Victorian wife, Conrad harshly punishes her in order to
dramatically warn readers against their dehumanizing
The growth of anarchist groups in Britain appears
diametrically opposed to the Victorian ideal of an
externally proper lifestyle. Yet the Victorians' fears of
anarchist destruction ironically, allowed many of them to
gloss over the traumatizing psychological effects that
their social norms, appearing prim and proper, had within
their own lives. Victorian society and its relationships,
often based on a false consciousness, stifled many
individuals. The numerous Victorian lives who never
reached their full human potential were as unfortunate
and wasted as Martial Bourdin's fatal explosion. Conrad's
moral, missed by his contemporary readers, still rings
true today. Passively accepting inhuman expectations will
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© Brandon Colas, May 2004