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Secret Agent, The

émigré

verloc novel stevie conrad

a novel by Joseph Conrad, published in 1907. The misleading subtitle—‘A Simple Tale’—signals the profoundly ironic tone with which Conrad treats the familial relations of Verloc, the secret agent who runs a seedy Soho shop as cover for his political activities, and his wife Winnie, who wilfully blinds herself to Verloc's shady dealings in a marriage she suffers for the sake of her simpleton younger brother Stevie. ‘Things’, she feels, ‘do not stand much looking into’, and the motifs of willed false perceptions, self-interested deception, and hollow rhetoric pervade the duplicitous atmosphere of the novel. As anarchist agitator but also paid informer to the Russian First Secretary Vladimir at the London embassy of an autocratic Central European state, Verloc is pressured by the latter into perpetrating an ‘anarchist outrage’ at Greenwich with the aim of provoking a reactive clamp-down on émigré anarchist revolutionaries by the all-too-tolerant British Government. As accomplice Verloc recruits Stevie, whose barely articulate sense of social injustice—‘Bad world for poor people’—has been excited by overhearing the fiery talk of Verloc's sham revolutionary friends Michaelis, Ossipon, and Yundt. When Winnie discovers from Chief Inspector Heat of Scotland Yard (another beneficiary of Verloc's confidences) that Stevie has been blown to pieces, tripping while carrying the bomb, she wreaks a furiously cool vengeance on the porcine Verloc, murdering him with a carving knife. Her attempted escape by Channel ferry is both encouraged then betrayed by Ossipon, who nevertheless accepts her misplaced affection and all her bank balance. Her suicide by drowning relieves her of the dread of the gallows. The novel is based on an actual (failed) anarchist attack on the Greenwich Observatory in 1894. The melodramatic plot is brilliantly rendered and rescued through Conrad's scorching black-humorous exploration of the cynical and self-interested parts that almost all his protagonists play. His ironic tone, along with the fractured chronological structure of the novel, forces the reader constantly to reassess the stability of judgements made and knowledge held. From the eloquent and ineffectual anarchists and their upper-class patrons, to the illustrious members of the British Establishment protected by Heat and his Whitehall superiors, to the agents of foreign governments—all, Conrad sceptically suggests, are in the same game of duplicity and self-duplicity. With the moral innocence of Stevie obliterated, only the Professor, the bomb-carrying nihilist, the seeker after the literal and metaphorical ‘perfect detonator’ which will ignite the world, chillingly walks out of the novel unscathed.

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