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Literature / The Secret Agent

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"Presently, passing to particular instances, 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 unreasonable process of thought. For perverse unreason has its own logical process. 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."
— Author's Forward

The Secret Agent was written by Joseph Conrad and published in 1907. The book is set in London in 1886 and follows Mr. Adolf Verloc and his work as a spy for an unnamed country.

Verloc runs a pornography shop and hangs out with anarchists. He also works as a foreign secret agent. His new boss, Mr. Vladimir, wants Verloc to plant a bomb at the Greenwich Observatory to provoke a crackdown on the anarchists, who he believes are using Great Britain as a refuge. Verloc doesn't want to do it, but the paycheck is the only thing keeping him and his family - his wife, Winnie, her mother, and her mentally disabled brother Stevie - off the streets.

A bomb goes off in Greenwich Park. The police, lead by Chief Inspector Heat and the Assistant Commissioner attempt to puzzle out what happened while Winnie must deal with the fallout of her husband's desperation.

The novel has been used as the source for Alfred Hitchcock's film Sabotage (1936) though it took liberties with some of the plot elements.note  A more faithful adaptation was released in 1996 and starred Bob Hoskins as Adolf Verloc, Patricia Arquette as Winnie and Christian Bale as Stevie. In 2016, it was made into a miniseries by The BBC, starring Toby Jones as Verloc. A previous BBC miniseries had been released in 1992, starring Peter Capaldi.

"The Secret Agent" provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: The 2016 mini-series changes the main character's name from "Adolf" to "Anton". While it's not uncommon to do this - Adolf being an uncommon name these days that might arguably distract audiences from the story - what's interesting is the 1996 film chose not to do so.
  • Agent Provocateur: Verloc's mission is to provoke the anarchists he spies on to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. Unfortunately for him, they're too lazy and unmotivated to be provoked into doing anything.
  • Based on a True Story: The story is based the 1894 “Greenwich Mystery,” in which French anarchist Martial Bourdin accidentally blew himself up outside of the Royal Observatory.
  • Bomb-Throwing Anarchists:
    • Largely subverted. The only actual bombing is carried out by a foreign government agent trying to provoke a crackdown on anarchists. The actual anarchists are mostly harmless and don't do much more than sit in Verloc's parlor and make speeches, and are unwilling to risk disturbing their privileged lifestyles by actually starting a revolt.
    • Verloc converts his brother-in-law, a mentally disabled teenager, to violent anarchism to get him to carry out the bombing for him, but it's unlikely he would have done this on his own.
    • Michaelis is a retired bomb-throwing anarchist who has become convinced that anarcho-syndicalism will succeed without violence. He is portrayed as very well-intentioned but not very bright.
    • The Professor, who's the most violent, is not really an anarchist but a Nietzsche Wannabe who gives Verloc a bomb. He despises Michaelis's idealism and wants to create a world where the strong have free reign to crush the weak. But despite talking a big game he won't actually carry out anything himself.
    • The story also includes the grotesque figure of Karl Yundt, who is expresses himself thus: "I have always dreamed 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." He has long since forgotten what he hoped to build in place of the old order.
  • Break the Haughty: Comrade Ossipon's run in with Winnie after she snaps leaves him severely traumatized.
  • The Casanova: Comrade Ossipon has many "conquests" and Winnie subtly lusts after him. Averted at the end of the book where he's begun to sink into despair and no longer keeps his appointments with them.
  • Covers Always Lie: In the first miniseries, DVD releases gave Peter Capaldi considerable prominence on the cover despite him only having a few scenes. This was presumably used to notice fans of The Thick of It and Doctor Who.
  • The Klutz: Stevie trips over a root in the park and blows himself up with his own bomb.
  • Darker and Edgier: The book was considered extremely dark and depressing when it came out. The 1920 reprint had an author foreword in which Conrad insisted the book was not written for the sake of shocking people.
    "The twelve years that have elapsed since the publication of the book have not changed my attitude. I do not regret having written it... I will submit that telling Winnie Verloc's story to its anarchistic end of utter desolation, madness and despair, and telling it as I have told it here, I have not intended to commit a gratuitous outrage on the feelings of mankind."
  • Decoy Protagonist: The titular secret agent is present for much of the first act and then mostly disappears until the ending chapters. Conrad has stated that it's actually Winnie Verloc's story.
  • Despair Event Horizon: This, and the extents that people will go to after it's been crossed, is more or less the focus of the book.
  • Driven to Suicide: Winnie throws herself off a steam ship.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Assistant Commissioner is only ever referred to as such. The Professor is a subversion in that he was never actually a professor, he simply called himself that after a brief stint as a lab assistant in a secondary school.
  • Handsome Lech: After he believes Verloc is dead Ossipon skulks around his residence for two full hours (he's "not exactly a bold conqueror") hoping to take advantage of the situation to bang his widow. When he finds her she appears to be drunk, which he takes full advantage of. She turns out to have been driven Axe-Crazy from earlier events, and the experience drives him mad.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Winnie's mother moves away from her family into a charity home so that Verloc won't ever feel excessively burdened (which would possibly make him less inclined to support Stevie). It ends up being a catalyst for Stevie's radicalization.
  • Hope Spot: Winnie decides not to jump off a bridge when she runs into Comrade Ossipon, an attractive Casanova who she's been subtly lusting over for much of the book; he plays along because he wants to sleep with her. He ends up abandoning her after realizing that she's murdered her husband and is Axe-Crazy, and she kills herself anyways.
  • Mad Bomber: The Professor is a sociopath and keeps a bomb on him that could kill anyone near him.
  • Madness Mantra:
    • "The drop was 14 feet."
    • "This act of madness and despair."
  • Never My Fault: Verloc blames "fate" for Stevie's death. He even has the audacity to blame Winnie for it to her face.
  • Out of Focus: Karl Yundt is a fairly major figure in the first act. After the bomb goes off he disappears completely and is only mentioned in passing as a sort of running gag.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog:
    • The bombing fails to provoke the reaction Mr. Vladimir expects, and while the Chief Inspector figures out the plot he is unable to bring it forward once the Verlocs die. Ultimately the bombing, and the Verloc’s deaths, are simply swept under the rug and life continues on as though nothing happened.
    • Invoked with the couple Verloc's marriage. Winnie married Verloc not because she loved him but because he was financially secure enough to support Stevie. When Stevie dies, she realizes the marriage was a sham and her entire life has been in vain, which drives her over the Despair Event Horizon.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Verloc regards himself as a massively important figure in British history, a prominent anarchist figure, and a man loved by everyone. His employers consider him a waste of money, his fellow anarchists consider him "more useful than important," and his wife is only with him for the financial security. His rant to Winnie about Mr. Vladimer suggests that it's actually the latter's dismissal of Verloc's accomplishments, and not the money, that was his primary motivation for going through with the bombing.
  • Stupid Evil: Invoked. Mr. Vladimer wants the Observatory bombed because he believes that the "ferocious imbecility" of it (the proletariat can hardly claim to be oppressed by astronomy) will convince the public that the anarchists don't have any genuine motives beyond For the Evulz.
    • The entire book is a sort of Take That! at a real life anarchist who blew himself up outside the actual Greenwich Observatory, an act that (in Conrad's opinion) was so inane that the only rational explanation could be the one presented in the novel.
  • The Social Darwinist: The Professor is a sociopathic bomb maker who dreams of a world where the strong slaughter the weak. The irony being that he's a runtish fuckup who's only free because the chief inspector worships the status quo.
  • Time Skip: A brief one. The last chapter of the first act has Verloc anguishing over how he's supposed to get the unmotivated anarchists he watches over to blow up the observatory. The next chapter takes place after the bomb's gone off.
  • Three-Act Structure: The first act sets up the characters and the general plot (Verloc must come up with a way to blow up the Greenwich Observatory). The second act takes place after the bomb has gone off with everyone trying to piece together what happened, and the third after everybody’s figured it out.
  • Victorian London: The story takes us deep into the streets of late 1880s London, some of them the same streets that Sherlock Holmes and Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde might've frequented, among others, and is generally quite accurate with its geography—one study identified that the current Russian Embassy still occupies the same block it did in the novel, or is at least very close by.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: While the characters are fictional, the author's preface in the 1920 reprint says that it was based on a discussion he had with a friend about the real life Greenwich Park bombing in 1894. While the motives of the bomber were not truly known, many believe the person was trying to bomb the Greenwich Observatory and accidentally blew himself up prematurely. According to said friend the bomber was "half an idiot" and his sister committed suicide shortly after.
  • Women Are Delicate: Played with. One of the reasons Winnie escalates so much is because Verloc has the (widely accepted at the time) belief that all of her emotions are fleeting and she'll get over her brother's death after "a good cry."
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: Wow, it's so nice to see Mr. Verloc and Stevie getting along so well...! Ka-boom!

Alternative Title(s): The Secret Agent 1996