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Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent. World Defined by Profit.

Updated on October 23, 2016

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (1907) is a versatile creation. It can be read as a psychological thriller or a political intrigue. Nevertheless, the British writer's (1857-1924) novel has hard-hearted undertones. In this simple tale, Conrad identifies that "agency" in its business meaning triumphs. It succeeds in subordinating the term in its sociological meaning (the capacity to act). That is, agency as the relationship between two characters in which one is under the authority of the other, prevails.

In the present there is not much novelty in this idea. By 2015 what this book is saying in relation to politics and psychology is standard. Many know that society is a ball of interests connecting everything. However there were times when the norm was the need to compose a camouflaged exterior image. When the need to present an appearance to the outside world, even to the self, triumphed over foundation.

His instinct of a successful man had taught him long ago that, as a general rule, a reputation is built on manner as much as on achievement.
His instinct of a successful man had taught him long ago that, as a general rule, a reputation is built on manner as much as on achievement.

Yet behind veils that gave the appearance of respectability, horrors occasionally existed. Joseph Conrad witnessed first-hand the genocide of Congolese people in 1890’s. That is the subject of another novel – Heart of Darkness (1902). Still, such an experience gave him a forever irremovable viewpoint. Conrad though, is not preaching or dispensing advice as concerns what is right or wrong. Awareness towards what is occurring, that is what he is advocating. His writing touches on seeing the world in its complexity of choices and relationships.

To an inexperienced outsider, correlations between cause and effect might appear a mystery story. Society might seem a scene for proper, defined associations. As long as the resorts behind actions and choices remain hidden, situations, life itself, construct a mystery. People might even fantasize solutions, as people need narrative in order to understand life.

To be innocent in such a world, by nature or by choice, is a dangerous position. Those unaware perish, they have a victim status. A trophic chain, that is what society turns out to be, and it is as instinctual as a wild place, although less sincere or natural.

This book also speaks in connection with interior motivations. The story is likewise referring to the impulses behind social endeavors. Why does a young woman marry?; why does an aged woman abandon home?

“Curiosity being one of the forms of self-revelation, a systematically incurious person remains always partly mysterious. ”
“Curiosity being one of the forms of self-revelation, a systematically incurious person remains always partly mysterious. ”

Mr. Verloc, a British citizen of foreign origins living in London, chose to be a political agent for alien interests. The agitator though, appreciates comfort. Deposing little effort as a secret agent, he can savor a reasonably peaceful life. He lives in this status quo for a number of years. The sudden awareness of situations changing, unsettles his internal structure. Turns out that his principal disconsiders his secret agent skills, actually disconsiders his being. These come to pass as the makings of a victim.

Still and all, Mr. Verloc is not the lowest on the food chain. People depend on him, he sustains a wife, her mother and her younger brother. Fate spares the mother in law. Or perhaps her own decisions spare her. Assuming independence and sacrificing her comfort for the prosperity of her children, the mother in law retires to a nursing home. However the wife and the younger brother fall into the vortex of erratic actions a debased man feels obliged to perform.

The novel builds slowly, still it is ultimately an engaging reading. On another level of the story, Conrad inserts Mr. Verloc’s companions, a bizarre mixture of outsiders and racketeers. These are agents for no one, nor principals, yet an equivalent for the scavengers found in wilderness.

Is there anyone protecting society? Is there anyone on guard, if not for the wellbeing of bystanders, at least for their peace? The police is just another actor, with its own interested cause. Moreover, in its midst exists a struggle for power and influence that tromps everything else.

That this book has a structure is too perceivable, it isn’t braid seamlessly with the story. Conrad alters the storytelling timeline: out of the 13 chapters, the first three come consecutive. From chapter 4, the story line travels to an immediate future. The reader spends four chapters there then comes back to resume the plot from the 3rd chapter.

The Secret Agent has a British atmosphere, the Dickensian sort. Quite bleak, yet this bleakness fits the subject. Nevertheless the novel is engaging and smart. This is a dry psychological thriller, without being pulp or noir.

Sabotage, 1936, directed by Hitchcock, adapted after the Secret Agent

“The panes streamed with rain, and the short street he looked down into lay wet and empty, as if swept clear suddenly by a great flood. It was a very trying day, choked in raw fog to begin with, and now drowned in cold rain."
“The panes streamed with rain, and the short street he looked down into lay wet and empty, as if swept clear suddenly by a great flood. It was a very trying day, choked in raw fog to begin with, and now drowned in cold rain."

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