Winnie Verloc: Caged Bird or Free? An Exploration of Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent
In Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, we are introduced to the character of Winnie Verloc, who is the wife of the main character. As the story progresses we come to see great insight as to how she has come to the life she currently lives as the wife of Adolf Verloc and de facto caretaker of her younger brother Stevie. There comes a time in the story when Winnie declares herself to be a free woman. Within the story, Conrad demonstrates instances that are for and against the line of thinking in regards to Mrs. Verloc. The viability of Winnie Verloc freedom, either against or for, can be determined by three criteria: mental, physical, and legal.
Winnie suffers traumatic grief at the loss of her brother Stevie, and the realization at her husband’s participation in Stevie’s untimely demise, causing her to fixate and repeat thoughts in excess. The callousness of her husband’s actions causes a mental possession by a single notion in her own thought process. Winnie herself is aware of it her own psychological imprisonment, describing it as “paralyzing atrocity of the thought which occupied her” (192). The use of the verb “paralyzing” gives the reader in impression of being unable to move, and that Winnie is trapped within her own mind, lacking the freedom to process any other notions. That the thought “occupied her” reinforces her lack of mental mobility and that her thoughts have taken control of her, even essentially being held hostage by the culpability of her husband in her brother’s destruction. She is unable to withstand the invasion, or “occupation” of her mental stability in her devastation.
There is a mental contrast a little later on for Winnie shortly before she quits her husband’s company to go to their bedroom. She mentally asserts that “she began to look upon herself as released from all earthly ties. She had her freedom. Her contract with existence, as represented by that man standing over there, was at an end” (195). Winnie has been “released” from “earthly ties” would be the people that she had been connected and taken care of over the years. She has been freed from her obligation to look after her brother, her mother has moved out, and she has already begun a mental divorce from her husband, who was “that man.” Her unwillingness to abandon her family is what led her to make a “contract” of the marriage kind with Mr. Verloc. Now the two greatest stipulations of said contract have been voided in one fashion or another by Mr. Verloc, either directly in the case of Stevie, or indirectly in the case of Winnie’s mother.
Winnie’s physical freedom would be greatly limited should she actually make good on her flight from justice, as counterintuitive as it might seem. She inevitably gets the notion to flee the country, and she immediately becomes aware of how limited she is. Winnie “did not know which way to turn. Murderers had friends, relations, helpers-they had knowledge. She had nothing” (209). She has forgotten about her connection to her mother that she still carries, a “relation” that still exists. She is somewhat disproven that she has no helpers in the appearance of Comrade Ossipon, one of her husband’s associates and known womanizer/conman. Should Winnie succeed in her escape and go abroad, she would be unlikely able to return to the only home she had ever known, and unable to see the one relationship that she had still intact, which was her mother.
There is a physical freedom that Winnie keeps seeking out and keeps getting deterred from in one fashion or another, until she ultimately succeeds: Suicide. This physical release from her mortal existence is an impulse that she contemplates multiple times. She first thinks of it after she retires temporarily to her bedroom after the revelation of her husband’s involvement in her brother’s death and contemplates throwing herself out the window. After she leaved the house following her husband’s stabbing, she “formed the resolution to go at once and throw herself into the river off one of the bridges” (208). The “resolution” of taking her own life was one intention that she gave more credence to than her eventual attempt to flee the country. An alternate interpretation for “resolution” is the completion or end of something, or solving a problem. In this, the river will be the catalyst for the resolution of her life. The strong currents of the river, and the weight of her soaked clothing would have easily dragged her down to the river’s hidden depths, until it regurgitated her on the banks of its shore as a bloated corpse. The two-fold use of resolution in regards to the life of Winnie Verloc is exemplified in her suicide near the end of the book, a permanent solution to her physical prison.
The arrest and conviction of Winnie for the murder of her husband would impede her legal freedom. And yet it isn’t her imprisonment that drives her to evade possible capture, but the legal punishment that she would be inevitably faced with: the gallows. It is a morbid fascination that becomes a terrifying reality for her should she be apprehended. She fixates on the idea as she had on others since the loss of her brother, but this one in particular fills her with dread. For her “the words ‘The drop given was fourteen feet’ had been scratched on her brain with a hot needle” (207). Winnie’s occupation with “the words”, that particular phrase in regards to the gallows further undercuts just how petrified with the notion she is faced with that she might endure. Such is her fear, that the phrase was “scratched on her brain.” The use of the words “scratched” would on the surface make the wound of the words look superficial, but may go deeper than can be seen, deeper than even Winnie knows herself. The “hot needle”, the instrument inflicting the wound would allow for deeper penetration, cauterizing as it went and making wholly sure that the she scars that result never truly fade. The most interesting part of Winnie’s terror is not a fear of death, as we see her commit to and succeed in her suicide. Winnie’s fear is not of death, but of the choice being taken out of her hands.
There is a brief time that can be taken as Winnie’s legal freedom, and that is after she kills Mr. Verloc. She had already precipitated a mental divorce from him, and in a fit of rage, severs their connection in a fit of rage and grief. After she has done the deed, she is identified by the narrator as “the widow of Mr. Verloc” (206). The label of “widow” is correct, even if unnaturally induced, as she is the surviving wife of Adolf Verloc, legally putting her in charge of all his worldly possessions, which she immediately partakes in. Despite the illegal induction of her new marital status, until it is voided by her incarceration or death, she is briefly, legally free of her husband.
The paradoxical dichotomy of Winnie Verloc’s freedom is played with by Conrad, with permutations that list from one side to the other and sometimes hit everything in between. There are multiple other avenues by which Winnie’s unencumbered state could be argued, other criteria for use other than the ones listed herein. Conrad gives us no definitive proof in one direction or the opposite, as sometimes the use of the notion of freedom is the ironical inverse, and that there is a blissful ignorance on the part of the character to which the shackles are attached. One might argue on either side, ready to contest that one form of liberty is greater than another. However, evidence to the contrary is also available and waiting to be discovered. To define freedom depends on the individual, and also its absence. In the end, Winnie partakes in the freedom of the deceased, the liberty of the departed, and is troubled no more.
Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. New York: New American Library, 1983. Print.