Places: The Secret Agent

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1907

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1880’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*London

*London. Secret Agent, TheCenter of the British Empire and home to exiled revolutionaries and refugees from throughout Europe. During the time of the novel, the great latitude and freedom extended by the British government to these exiles was a perpetual source of irritation and concern for more repressive governments on the continent of Europe, especially the unnamed country represented by Mr. Vladimir.

Verloc’s shop

Verloc’s shop. Shabby establishment at 32 Brett Street in the Soho section of London. As a cover to his activities as a secret agent for a foreign government (probably Russian), Adolf Verloc operates a small shop where he sells stationery, inks, and questionable publications, most of them of a vaguely revolutionary or quasi-pornographic nature. During business hours, the shop’s door is left open and the coming and going of customers is signaled by a small, loud bell. Faded magazines, obscure newspapers, a few shabby bottles of ink, and other writing materials are displayed in the glass front of the shop and ranged along the shelves behind the counter. During much of the time, Verloc sits on a stool at the counter, hardly moving.

Verloc’s home

Verloc’s home. Behind the shop live Verloc and his wife, Winnie, along with Winnie’s aged mother and mentally deficient brother, Stevie. The home is furnished with what furniture remains with Winnie’s mother from earlier, more prosperous days of her own marriage. Together, the shop and home present a thoroughly unremarkable appearance; the business is adequate but hardly prosperous. In a similar fashion, Verloc’s secret life is only marginally successful. The parlor of the Verloc home is the meeting place of anarchists, socialists, and revolutionaries from throughout Europe, but these conspirators are merely ineffectual talkers, incapable of true action. Verloc’s establishment is an appropriate physical setting for his secret but sordid activities.

Assistant commissioner’s office

Assistant commissioner’s office. Office in the headquarters of the London police charged with investigating crimes such as Verloc’s and the site of a lengthy discussion between the assistant commissioner and the chief inspector on the Verloc case. The assistant commissioner’s office, barely described by Conrad, is a lean, functional place, much like the assistant commissioner himself. Its function defines its appearance: It is a place where solid, honest work is performed.

London embassy

London embassy. Typical diplomatic establishment of an unnamed European government. From the hints given by the narrative, the unnamed government is most probably the Russian Empire, although it might possibly be the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, both of which were highly fearful of international revolutionaries and employed secret agents such as Verloc against them. It is in these highly polished surroundings that Mr. Vladimir gives Verloc his instructions that lead to the bombing incident at the Greenwich Observatory.

Sir Ethelred’s chambers

Sir Ethelred’s chambers. Official chambers located near the Houses of Parliament in London. As the office of the secretary of state, a high-ranking ministry in the British government, Sir Ethelred’s dignified, solemn chambers represent the stability and solidity of Britain and its society. When the assistant commissioner reports to Sir Ethelred about the progress of the Verloc case, he does so in this setting.

Drawing room of a “great lady.”

Drawing room of a “great lady.” Highly decorated site of social events which draw together characters from all ranks of society, including the assistant commissioner, revolutionary friends of Verloc, and foreign diplomats such as Mr. Vladimir. In a sense, the drawing room is a microcosm of London society.

BibliographyFleishman, Avrom. Conrad’s Politics: Community and Anarchy in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. The chapter on The Secret Agent discusses Conrad’s portrayal of the modern world in fragmentation and his advocacy of social order and human community.Guerard, Albert J. “Two Versions of Anarchy.” In Conrad the Novelist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966. Discusses Conrad’s use of an elevated, ironic style, his narrative stance, and his aesthetic plan in The Secret Agent.Hay, Eloise Knapp. The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad: A Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. Discusses how Conrad caricatures the aristocracy and mocks revolutionaries. Points out that Winnie Verloc suffers and faces despair alone, her condition made worse by anarchists.Karl, Frederick R. A Reader’s Guide to Joseph Conrad. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Examines the novel’s moral purpose, its characters, and its style. Argues that the book’s concern is the moral corruption of all people. A good starting place.Tillyard, E. M. W. “The Secret Agent Reconsidered.” In Conrad: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Marvin Mudrick. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. Discusses Conrad’s use of irony to create a necessary distance between the reader and the horrible lives of the characters.
Categories: Places