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The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale by Joseph Conrad Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 21st, 2021


Joseph Conrad presents an unusual personification of the spy in Mr. Verloc, protagonist of The Secret Agent. Mr. Verloc is a secret agent who associates with anarchists in London where he lives with his wife, mother-in-law, and mentally handicapped brother-in-law.

Through violence, immorality, and betrayal, Mr. Verloc fights to achieve success as a secret agent, only to fail and bring his family down with him. Conrad’s depiction of Mr. Verloc is a particularly unique spy character because he fails where the traditional spy succeeds, and lacks the strength and wit of the spy we are familiar with. Thus we are presented with an anti-spy, whose story is not about the adventurous and daring missions which he completes on behalf of his agency, but on the personal drama and failures of his own life. The power of Conrad’s work extends beyond his own pages, laying the groundwork for many espionage authors to come, specifically John Le Carre. As author of works such as The Tailor of Panama and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Le Carre employs Conrad’s conceptualization of the wayward spy in his dark and exciting tales.

Main text

Mr. Verloc is an anti-spy: immoral, incapable, and largely unlikeable. Unlike the typical spy who is capable, brave, and wise, Mr. Verloc is considered incompetent.

When he meets early on in the story with Mr. Vladimir from the secret agency, it is clear that Vladimir does not like him and thinks he is not a good spy. In fact, it seems that Vladimir, and by extension the agency, is determined to sabotage Verloc because they give him a dangerous and major task of planting a bomb in the Greenwich observatory. Another way Verloc is dissimilar to the traditional spy character is his sense of morality. This is an important element in the book. The Professor is an American terrorist who walks the streets with a bomb strapped to his chest—he is a menace to society and is happy to be a thorn in the city’s side. He, more than any other character, embodies the image of an anarchic terrorist. “His struggles, his privations, his hard work to raise himself in the social scale, had filled him with such an exalted conviction of his merits that it was extremely difficult for the world to treat him with justice—the standard of that notion depending so much upon the patience of the individual” (Conrad 98). The Professor is resentful against the state partly because his desires for success have been unfulfilled, and partly because it seems more appealing to the Professor to revolt than to obey. Ossipon makes money from scamming women who fall in love with him.

Ultimately, Verloc uses his own wife’s “slow” brother to commit a crime that kills a man. Obviously Conrad is manipulating the traditional spy figure with his characters, especially Verloc, who all lack an innate sense of morality. Verloc is not heroic; he wants to commit violent acts without regard to the consequences, even when they include human life. He takes the Greenwich job reluctantly, but his manipulation of Stevie shows that his morals are skewed. While we often associate the spy with heroism and bravery, a man working undercover for his country with the desire to do what’s best for the majority, Mr. Verloc is motivated by pride, greed, and excitement. Another reason The Secret Agent is an anti-spy novel is that instead of focusing on Mr. Verloc’s missions and work with the agency, this book seems to focus on Verloc’s family, his home life, and the life of his wife, especially in the end when the plot seems to wrap up with the destruction of Verloc’s family and the loss of his life at the hands of his wife.

While the traditional spy thriller is concerned more with the mystery and adventure of the spy’s missions, this story emphasizes the emotion and betrayal between Mr. and Mrs. Verloc, and the almost sociopathic decision that Mr. Verloc makes to sacrifice his brother-in-law, providing us with what reads as more of a Kafka novel than a Dick Tracey plotline.

Conrad’s use of political background contributes to the uniqueness of the story—Mr. Verloc and his associates are anarchists working to commit political crimes against the government. Conrad states that, “…obviously one does not revolt against the advantages and opportunities of that state, but against the price which must be paid for the same in the coin of accepted morality, self-restraint, and toil.

The majority of revolutionists are the enemies of discipline and fatigue mostly” (Conrad 82). Mr. Verloc and friends seem to dismiss the benefits they reap from their country because of the restricting social rules that one must abide by to gain these benefits. In this way, Conrad turns this spy novel into a political critique in a sense.

He shows us through these anarchist characters the pitfalls that both government and anarchy ultimately face. We see by the end of the story that anarchy and any hopes for its success among the members of the agency are pretty much non-existent—the Greenwich bombing is blamed on relatively innocent Stevie, Mrs. Verloc kills her husband and then herself; the aspirations of the anarchic group have obviously not come to fruition. However, the fact that Conrad uses the anarchists as his main cast tells us that he may also be critiquing the government at the time, because he focuses on the lives of men who want to create chaos. In this way Conrad is telling us that the government is creating unrest amongst its people and that otherwise normal citizens like Mr. Verloc (who masquerades as a simple shopkeeper) are working against the government.

The atmosphere of the book is another way The Secret Agent’s Mr. Verloc sets himself apart from the traditional spy. Unlike the typical spy novel, this world is gothic in a sense, full of sorrow, cynicism and tragedy. Readers are used to a spy story with excitement and romance, whereas The Secret Agent gives us a spy novel of tragedy, violence and betrayal.

The Secret Agent can be considered an early prototype for spy novels to come, specifically the work of John Le Carre who authored such stories as The Tailor of Panama and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. Conrad’s work laid foundations for Le Carre’s work, an influence that can be seen in the characters and atmosphere in his stories. In The Tailor of Panama Andy Osnard is living in exile from the MI-6 agency of England because he has had an affair with the mistress of an ambassador.

This early characterization of Osnard is similar to Mr. Verloc because he portrays rather un-spy-like traits and feels the need to prove himself to his agency. The heroic spy character may be a philanderer (consider the playboy figure of James Bond) but he certainly has the intelligence and slyness to hide a simple affair from the powers that be; after all, the objective of a spy is never to get caught.

The fact that Andy Osnard is caught and exiled as punishment makes readers consider him a failure. This idea of building a story on a spy who lacks many successful spy qualities who must take measures to prove his worth is directly influenced by Conrad and specifically his The Secret Agent.

Like Osnard, Mr. Verloc is deemed incompetent by his superiors and becomes consumed with the idea of proving himself to be a successful secret spy. Osnard believes that if he discovers where the power of the canal is that the MI-6 organization will deem him capable and want to give him back his job. Another similarity between the work of Conrad and that of Le Carre can be found in the character of Harry Pendel. Pendel is an informant working for Osnard whose civilian profession is that of a tailor. This character is reminiscent of those in The Secret Agent, especially Mr. Verloc who masquerades as a simple shop owner. This technique, successfully employed by both authors, brings the narrative down to the level of the average readership, which is to say, that these stories make it so that we imagine a spy who is not clad in tux and bow tie with cutting edge espionage weaponry, but one who may be our neighbor or even ourselves. However, unlike Verloc and associates, Pendel seems to have more faith in humanity. At one point Le Carre points out that, “Panama boasts as many varieties of human beings as birds, a thing that daily gladdens the hybrid Pendel’s heart” (Le Carre 8). While the description of Pendel as “hybrid” draws the attention to the connection between himself and Verloc, Pendel possesses a love and appreciation for life that is pretty much non-existent in Conrad’s work.

An additional link between Conrad and Le Carre, although less obvious, is the innocent victim. In The Secret Agent it is Verloc’s brother-in-law Stevie who is mentally handicapped and ends up being sacrificed during Verloc’s mission to blow up Greenwich observatory.

Stevie is generally described as sad or consumed by thought. At one point Conrad says of Stevie: “The boy, whenever he was not doing anything, moped in the house. It made her uneasy; it made her nervous, she confessed. And that from the calm Winnie sounded like exaggeration. But in truth, Stevie moped in the striking fashion of an unhappy domestic animal” (Conrad 178). The portrayal of Stevie seems integrated with foreshadowing—Stevie’s sense of sadness and moping seems to denote his future, that he will become an innocent and unknowing victim. A parallel can be seen in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy when Jim Prideaux is used by the Circus to help them figure out who the spy is; Prideaux is not only unsuccessful in discovering the mole’s identity, but he gets shot by the Soviets and eventually disappears until the end in which he returns, vowing revenge.

A reader can imagine that if Stevie had had his opportunity to return he would have embarked on a similar mission of vengeance against Verloc. Another similarity between Conrad and Le Carre can be seen in Le Carre’s work Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This is another story that emphasizes the depiction of the spy who, in effect, stumbles over his own feet. This novel features a group of spies being investigated to uncover a mole in the “Circus”, the British Secret Service, who is working for the Soviet agency “Karla”.

The book sees several operations with varying levels of failure, and seemingly accomplished spies who fail to find the real target because of their own incompetence. For example, Bill Haydon, the Russian mole, is not discovered because they make the mistake of assuming that because he is trusted and friendly with many of their colleagues, he must not be guilty. As a result, Haydon is able to hold positions of leadership and even has an affair with Smiley’s wife, all the while flying under the radar of their suspicion.


Ultimately, The Secret Agent’s Mr. Verloc is a prime example of the anti-spy. Joseph Conrad provides us perhaps the first evidence of this archetype in Mr. Verloc, a character we relate to more as a human and tragic hero than a gallant and sophisticated spy. The violent and deceptive nature that Mr. Verloc displays and the tragedy that it leads to gives us a sense that this is not a story of a smartly crafted mission of espionage but of one man’s downfall. We benefit from Conrad’s work because he has made way for humor, wit, and even sarcasm and tragedy in a genre that is often purposely devoid of a truly human element.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. (1990) Penguin Classics: London. 268 pages.

Le Carre, John. The Tailor of Panama. (1996) Alfred A Knopf: New York. 331 pages.

Le Carre, John. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. (1975) Bantam Books: London. 369 pages.

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