The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale by Joseph Conrad

This is only the second book by Joseph Conrad that I have read. The other was the novella Heart of Darkness and that was close to twenty years ago in university. I only have a vague recollection of my reaction to Heart of Darkness and, I am quite certain, my reaction now would be entirely different. As a practical matter, Conrad was a new author to me.

The Secret Agent is a deceptively simple tale. I kept expecting a bigger twist than ever occurred. The key events of the book are well set up, nicely foreshadowed, and brought off with a sure hand. The simplicity of the tale provides stark relief to the complexity and the horror of Conrad’s subject. With a little research, I discovered (after reading it) that it has been reported as being the most widely cited novel in the period just following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was a huge fan and identified strongly with one of the characters. The events of the novel revolve around the planning and aftermath of the bombing of an English landmark, the Greenwich Observatory.

There was an actual attempt to bomb the Greenwich Observatory in 1894, only a little over a decade before this book was published. Conrad explained in his author’s note that the genesis of this novel was a conversation he had with a friend (apparently Ford Madox Ford) regarding that bombing.

[W]e recalled the…story of the attempt to blow up 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…..[My friend] then remarked in his characteristically casual and omniscient manner: “Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards.”

From that simple remark by his friend, Conrad developed a story that explained the bombing as the inane result of defectively logical processes on the part of a cast of characters, from high-ranking officials to a backwards boy. His story has definite and bold political facets. He portrays politicians as morally vapid, the police as either ineffectual or corrupt, upper class socialites as powerful but dangerously naïve, and organized anarchists as inert speechmakers. It is hard to think of anyone who is portrayed in a positive light. Stevie, the dull-witted boy, has the best heart of the lot, but that gets him no farther than you would expect it to get a compassionate but slow young man.

The book is connected with 9/11 and likely gained the attention of Kaczynski for speeches like this one, by the anarchist, Karl Yundt:

”I have always dreamed,” he mouthed fiercely, “of a band of men absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of means, strong enough to give themselves frankly the name of destroyers, and free from the taint of that resigned pessimism which rots the world. No pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity – that’s what I would have liked to see.”

The character that steals the show, at least with respect to terrorism, is the Professor. He is a small, intelligent, unsightly man. He grew up in a strictly religious home with a strong belief in morality and in the right of the talented to succeed. Life has proven the world otherwise. A lesser or perhaps better man would have reacted differently, perhaps.

The Professor had genius, but lacked the great social virtue of resignation.

He is the most ominous of the players in this drama. Conrad plays this character masterfully. It may be true that:

[I]n their own way the most ardent of revolutionaries are perhaps doing no more but seeking for peace in common with the rest of mankind – the peace of soothed vanity, of satisfied appetites, or perhaps of appeased conscience.

According to this line of thought, most “revolutionaries” are simply misfits. They never made it into the enviable cliques, so they rebelled. Undoubtedly, this explains the appeal of radicalism for some. Maybe even all. But even if that is the motivation, the individual can still be dangerous. Most are not. Most talk the game, but do not play it.

The Professor is different. His bruised ego has made him truly reactionary. He walks about fingering the trigger of a bomb he wears. He is dangerous. This keeps him safe, as he explains:

”In the last instance, it is character alone that makes for one’s safety. There are very few people in the world whose character is as well established as mine…..I have the means to make myself deadly, but that by itself, you understand, is absolutely nothing in the way of protection. What is effective is the belief those people have in my will to use the means. That’s their impression. It is absolute. Therefore, I am deadly.”

His role in events is both more powerful and less obvious than the reader initially expects. Conrad is rightly renowned as a storyteller and as a writer.

Another aspect, which goes to craft more than anything, is Conrad’s subtle play with time. He does not tell the story in a strictly chronological fashion. Instead, he alternates timelines. The story begins at the beginning, more or less, and proceeds. Soon, however, Conrad begins switching between events before the bombing and events after. The shifts are not abrupt, nor signalled by any especially obvious markers. However, this braiding together of before and after allows the climax to be the revelation of the identity of the bomber. It is a softly understated detail that elevates the novel above a simple mystery or thriller. I find it hard to express exactly how and why this timeshifting is so critical, but it is. In some ways, it feels like two storylines racing to the climax from opposite directions. The reader can see the crash coming well before the crescendo, but it is all the more powerful as a result.

9 Responses to The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale by Joseph Conrad

  1. Kevin Neilson says:

    Hi Kerry, wonderful, thank you. I haven’t read The Secret Agent. Does Conrad suggest that nation-states are like the Professor, in the sense that power is wielded, among other reasons, for its demonstration effect. I vaguely recall a comment made by a Kissinger-type policy wonk (maybe even G. Kennan) who argued that it’s important to appear dangerous and erratic so that your enemies are suitably terrified of your trigger finger. Are you aiming to read any more Conrad? Best, Kevin

  2. Kerry says:

    Hi Kevin,

    I cannot speak to Conrad’s intentions, but certainly the book could be read as an allegory for the interplay of nation-states. In other words, I can imagine that someone would compare the Professor with Kim Jong-Il. If that nut ever gets weapons, he certainly may use them. Of course, from a practical standpoint, this may or may not be an effective way of maintaining one’s safety. Kim Jong-Il’s dangerousness places him pretty high on the list of world leaders the U.S. would love to see gone.

    But, my guess is that Conrad did not intend the story as an allegory for nation-states, but as an examination of individual character.


    The political statement is more an indictment of realpolitik than a defense of it. The terrorist bombing is not, after all, perpetrated by either the Professor or any other actual anarchists. Instead, Mr. Verloc, a secret agent working both for a foreign government and passing intel to the British, attempts the bombing in order to please his paymasters and keep his job secure. In other words, the true threat is not those like the Professor (who are dangerous but primarily only if provoked or cornered) or those like the anarchists (who are more interesting in speechmaking than action), but are the politicians and diplomats trying to outfox one another by stirring up domestic troubles in foreign lands or otherwise scheming to wreak mischief.

    The police allow Mr. Verloc to play his part because they get information from him on anarchists, those the public fears. The police commissioner chooses not to hunt down the perpetrator because his powerful friends would be embarrassed if, as it first appears, the nastiness could be traced to one of the anarchists. In other words, government officials act in their own selfish interests and, as a result, may cause more damage and may be a greater threat to their country’s citizenry than radical out-groups.

    I am not saying that is accurate, but I think that is more the tenor of Conrad’s thinking. There is some deep truth in that line of thinking, but whether the comparative actually holds for all circumstances is highly doubtful. Sometimes, Professor-types lash out without being goaded into it, or aided, or abetted. (Kaczynski; McVeigh; al-Qaeda). I realize some would debate these examples too. The point is, I think The Secret Agent is an excellent examination of both the type of person who engages in terrorist activities and the difficulties of dealing with them given the very flawed people and policies that are often pursued in an effort to stop terrorism.

    I do plan to read more Conrad, but not right away. I have not chosen my next one. Maybe Nostromo, but I am not sure.

    Thank you very much for the comment.

  3. Kevin Neilson says:

    Ah, a deep, satisfying reply! Cheers, Kevin

  4. Marvellous Kerry. I own this one, but haven’t read it. You definitely tempt me to do so.

    Refreshing too to be hooked but not to have to buy anything.

    I skipped your spoilers so thanks for marking those. Interesting thoughts on the time braiding, I’ll think about that when I get round to it.

  5. Kerry says:

    Thanks, Max. I will be delighted to read your always interesting take. I am not a proselytizer for this one, but it is very good and, oddly given its 1907 publishing date, timely.

  6. Dwight says:

    I bought this at about the same time as I picked up Baroja’s “Struggle for Life” trilogy. At the used bookstore where I bought the Conrad, the clerk noted it had a lot of humor that can easily be overlooked.

    After finishing Baroja I decided to take a break from anarchist characters for a while, but this reminds me of why I wanted to read the book in the first place. Thanks for the post and the reminder.

  7. Kerry says:


    There is quite a bit of humor in the book. A number of targets are hit.

    In describing the mindset of a wealthy and socially powerful old woman, he writes:

    The disappearance of the last piece of money could not affect people of position. She could not conceive how it could affect her position, for instance. She had developed these discoveries to the Assistant Commissioner with all the serene fearlessness of an old woman who had escaped the blight of indifference.

    or the police:

    that satisfactory sense of superiority the members of the police force get from the unofficial but intimate side of their intercourse with the criminal classes, by which the vanity of power is soothed, and the vulgar love of domination over our fellow-creatures is flattered as worthily as it deserves.

    And others both more subtle and less so. The novel has a variety of facets worthy of admiration. I hope you do read it and post about it. Conrad can write.

  8. On the humour side, check out Cynthia Ozick’s short story, “dictation”, (it is in a number of collections, I haven’t checked to see if it is online). The framing device is the “friendship” between Henry James and Conrad, but the point of view is the relationship between their two assistants who take dictation. That gives Ozick plenty of room for some pretty acerbic humour (she does that well) and snide observations about both James and Conrad. An excellent short story with a great O Henry-like surprise at the end.

  9. Kerry says:

    I actually was planning to read Ozick’s Heir to the Glimmering World, so a short story might be a nice appetite-whetter. Your description makes it sound quite enticing. Plus, I already know from your push to read The Shawl (intentional or not) that Ozick is an outstanding writer. I will look it up/check it out when I get a chance.

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