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Group Activity Vs. the Individual in Conrad's The Secret Agent

Updated on August 28, 2014

A Cautionary Tale

The concept of foolish or idiotic behavior generates more attention than most ideas.

Ignorance, stupidity and hate all translate into the bizarre set of circumstances in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Teasing and insulting behavior exists throughout the text and is an example of humans failing to keep their primitive instincts and emotions in check.

The inexcusable behavior displayed by everyone but Stevie and his mother is a sad reflection of how vengeful and deceptive people can be.

A Face in the Crowd

By extension, the novel serves as a platform into the absurd nature of some social groups; each group is made is to look idiotic because of the group concepts they try to convey.

Conrad is making a satirical statement of the domination of groups and the failure of the individual.

The bizarre nature of the herd mentality versus the individual struggling to maintain an identity is one of the focal points of this novel.

Author Joseph Conrad stated in a letter that writing this book was a reflection on the confusion of what humanity truly wants.
Author Joseph Conrad stated in a letter that writing this book was a reflection on the confusion of what humanity truly wants. | Source


The protagonist of the novel- Mr. Verloc, is described an apathetic man. The text reveals that, “he required a more perfect form of ease” (Conrad 10).

Having come to the realization that the nature of his work— being the owner of a smut shop, and his lazy and stoic view of life, Mr. Verloc leaves plenty to be desired.

The author’s view of the protagonist suggests that the book is filled with satire. Conrad describes the protagonist as “undemonstrative and burly in a fat-pig style” (Conrad 10).

The caustic nature of the narrative, coupled with the protagonist’s description of his bad habits, paint a troubling image of substandard and shady business practices.

According to Matthew Oliver’s article, “Conrad’s grotesque public: pornography and politics of reading in The Secret Agent”, Conrad had a serious concern for people living “homogenous” (Oliver 1) lives, so the perverse nature of Mr. Verloc‘s shop is a reflection on corrupt ideas such as complacency and apathy.

The bizarre nature of the herd mentality is the focus of this novel.
The bizarre nature of the herd mentality is the focus of this novel. | Source

The Effects of a Herd Mentality

The homogenization of society leads people to become “grotesque monsters” (Oliver 1), who seemingly believe everything that they are taught.

Writing The Secret Agent was a challenge for Conrad because the novel is supposed to reflect “all humanity” (Oliver 1).

According to a letter Conrad had written, the “fragmenting rather than unifying” “(Oliver 2) of the groups involved in the story is a reflection of the beliefs the general public are resigned to, as a result of being easily influenced by certain groups or organizations.

Oliver states that the “narratives of group’s identity is to do violence to the individual identity” (Oliver 2). The underlying theme in the letter Conrad had written is that “No artist can give it (humanity) what it wants because humanity doesn’t know what it wants” (Oliver 2).

The groups involved in the novel exploit this notion and use fear and violence to control the general public. The forces of the groups feed off what is human to experience, such as fear or being in control, which allows them to continue their actions.

The power held by groups is threatening to the importance of the individual so the fragmenting is a social critique of power and status among groups. In every case, each character is the aggressor or the victim, mainly because of the influence of groups.

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A Bizarre Crew

The perverse nature of Verloc’s existence pales in comparison to those he associates with.

Michaelis—a freed criminal who has “had the time to think things out a little” (Conrad 31), embodies the same indulgent intellectual criminality that consumes Verloc, claiming the “objective forces of history” (Lutz 10) are the cause of his grotesque political views.

Like Verloc, Conrad is effective in explaining how physically repulsive Michaelis is, having come out of a “highly hygienic prison, round like a tub” (Conrad 31).

According to Michaelis, “the current state of Capitalism has made Socialism, and the laws made by Capitalism for the protection of property are responsible for Anarchism” (Conrad 31).

Michaelis prefers to address crowds because “he was no good in discussion” (Conrad 33) and “any amount of argument would shake his faith” (Conrad 33).

This may be why Conrad was so skeptical about group functions and activities.

After being incarcerated, it appears that being institutionalized has created a new outlook on life for Michaelis.

He uses sweeping language, classifying individual people for a greater group purpose and his rhetoric is highly dangerous. He has gone from “solitary reclusion” (Conrad 33) in prison to being a person “no one interrupted now” (Conrad 33).

In Michaelis’ case, he uses faith as a backdrop to persuade those that listen to him into believing his radical political points.

A Complete Unknown

The Embassy and the Anarchists have similar thoughts about control and social unrest and Verloc has managed to have a function on both sides.

According to John Lutz’s article, “A Rage for Order: Fetishism, Self-Betrayal and Exploitation in The Secret Agent”, there is an “irrational desire for domination” (Lutz 3) held by these two main social groups.

There is a duality between wanting control and being morally responsible both these groups are guilty of falling into. Verloc’s existence, coupled with the condescending nature of Embassy chief Vladimir’s demands leaves for a “haunting presence in the text” (Lutz 4).

When Vladimir realizes that Verloc is involved with the Proletariat movement, he trivializes his thoughts as foolish. One would think that a member of the Embassy would reprimand Verloc for his political activity, but Vladimir takes greater joy in ridiculing him, calling him “vulgar” and “heavy” (Conrad 20).

The notion of group violence resurfaces with the Embassy, even though Vladimir is a respected member of this legalistic entity. Like Michaelis, Vladimir talks about people as a whole claiming that those he would use violence against have flexible emotions, either of “pity or fear”, and the emotions don’t last very long.

Vladimir is portrayed as a sophisticated man and believes that middle classes’ “sensibilities” (Conrad 27) are jaded despite having a job to protect all walks of life. The gross generalization of people and the struggle for power between the Anarchists and the Embassy suggest that there is certainly a level of ignorance in defining how people behave.

It is completely out of keeping with how a society is perceived.

In Conrad’s view this can be dangerous or idiotic.

Oliver states in his article that the nature of Verloc’s shop “parallels political ineffectiveness or the moral repugnance of revolutionary politics” (Oliver 2), which can be related to both the Embassy and the plight of the Anarchists. In summation of Verloc’s living situation, the narrator concludes that Verloc is:

“the air common to men who live on the vices, the follies,

or the baser fears of mankind; the air of moral nihilism

common to keepers of gambling hells and disorderly houses”

(Conrad 10)

The narrative is condescending and dry which adds to the jaded perspective of the fighting political groups. Verloc doesn’t seem to value anyone, including Winnie and her son Stevie. Verloc has nothing to uphold because he is excluded from being a true anarchist because of his family.

He is referred to as being “too fat” (Conrad 16), which suggests complacency and lacking the discipline to perform his tasks.

Verloc has been reprimanded in the past for a botched espionage case with the French while employed for the Embassy. When speaking to Verloc, Vladimir says, “You (Verloc) don’t seem to be very smart” (Conrad 16).

Verloc has managed to become a burden to both the Embassy and the plight of the Anarchists.

Both Sides Are Wrong

Those at the Embassy and the Anarchists are wholly convinced of their own justification, even though nothing is truly resolved at the end of the novel.

The extreme actions of the Anarchists, as well as those in the Embassy Vladimir works at are ultimately ineffective. The underlying theme of the novel is that both opposing groups are equivalent in their ineffectiveness. Other characteristics of the groups are a reminder of the ineffectiveness of group activity.

In the case of the Anarchists, people such as the Professor are all talk. His power comes from not being afraid to die. This is troubling because if one’s life has no authentic purpose to it, it is just as dangerous as trying to conduct violence.

Another Anarchist, Ossipan, has terrible character defects such as exploiting women—specifically wealthy old women and lives off their money. The irony is that their plight is to prevent exploitation, yet demonstrate selfish and self-destructive tendencies.

In Ellen Burton Harrington’s article, “That ‘Blood-Stained Inanity’: Detection, Repression and Conrad’s the Secret Agent”, the Anarchist group demonstrates all the “confusion that the term ‘anarchy’ should imply” (Harrington 2). At the same time, the behavior of the opposed fighting group is as equally absurd.

What separates this type of crime novel from others is that everyone is a victim here.
What separates this type of crime novel from others is that everyone is a victim here. | Source

The Emergence of Stevie

The only individual in the novel that is able to maintain a sense of decency is Stevie. Everywhere he goes, he is in a group and becomes marginalized.

Stevie is portrayed as the idiot in the play, but he is the only character that remains human throughout it. Of all the diametrically opposed forces in society that the novel notes, Stevie is the only one who has a clear sense of right and wrong.

Stevie wants what the Anarchists initially want; an end to exploitation. Yet the ways in which the Anarchists and Stevie view how to change this are in sharp contrast. What separates Stevie from the Anarchists is that the Anarchists use violence, something Stevie no has tolerance for.

He believes the horse that is killed in the story shouldn’t be starved or beaten, but soon realizes that the Cabman’s family relies on it. When looking at the horse’s pitiful condition, it made Stevie “afraid to look about him at the badness of the world" (Conrad 123).

Stevie usually has a hard time articulating what he is feeling but soon realizes the sobering reality of life: “at the poor cabman beating the poor horse in the name, as it were, of his poor kids at home” (Conrad 126).

Again, this is an example of something bad having to happen for the sake of a greater good. Conrad is attempting to “eliminate all vestiges of the ideal “ (Harrington 3) in dehumanizing every character in the story besides Stevie.

No Clear Goals

The hypocrisy of the Anarchists, coupled with the “meaningless deaths” (Harrington 3) of those involved in the story is a reflection that to what end is the greater good of the groups?

The only character “who remains true something greater than himself” (Harrington 4) is the Professor, yet this is a “false morality” (Harrington 4) to him, because all he simply wants to do is cause trouble. Everyone else is a relegated to a specific group,and it could be argued that they truly do not a clue regarding social or moral order.

Mr. Verloc appears to be clueless to the fact that all groups in the story are manipulating him. The theme of the story is the domination of groups and the failure of the individual.
Mr. Verloc appears to be clueless to the fact that all groups in the story are manipulating him. The theme of the story is the domination of groups and the failure of the individual. | Source


The irony in The Secret Agent is that on the surface it is a crime fiction novel.

Typically, in crime novels, the perpetrator is carefully examined, arrested, prosecuted and brought to justice. What separates The Secret Agent from this mold of fiction is that every group could be perceived as guilty besides Stevie.

Every group involved uses or discusses violence, anarchy and having a cold, calculating perspective on the human condition. Even those involved with the Law have a dispassionate and objective procedure to follow, as absurd as that may be.

When Stevie is killed, what is left of Stevie’s body becomes “stuff” the Law can work with to discover what happened. Stevie simply becomes material for a police investigation that is never ultimately resolved.

Consequently, every group in the story is made to look foolish and lack any human connection with anyone. The novel is, in the end, a harsh critique of the herd mentality and the demise of the individual, even though the groups collectively fail in their efforts and goals as well.

Works Cited

1.) "Conrad's Grotesque Public: Pornography and the Politics of Reading in "The Secret Agent". Oliver, Matthew. June 2009 Twentieth Century Literature; Summer 2009, Vol. 55 Issue 2, p209.

2.) "A Rage for Order: Fetishism, Self- Betrayal, and Exploitation in The Secret Agent". Lutz, John. March 2008. Conradiana; Spring 2008, Vol. 40 Issue 1, p1.

3.) "That 'Blood-Stained Inanity': Detection, Repression, and Conrad's The Secret Agent." Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 31:2 (1999): 114-19.

4.) The Secret Agent. Joseph Conrad, 1908.


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