The Secret Agent

by

Joseph Conrad

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The Secret Agent Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad was an English novelist of Polish ancestry and British citizenship. He was born into what was then the Russian Empire; his Polish parents were exiled for nationalist activities while he was a child and both died by the time he was 11. Conrad always harbored guilt about the fact that he didn’t follow in his parents’ political footsteps and instead opted for a life of exile. Conrad was educated in L’viv and Krakow; English was his third language, and he didn’t master it until his twenties. As a young man, he embarked on a navy career. He joined the British Merchant Service in 1878, sailing as far as Australia. In 1886, he became a British subject. After concluding his naval career in 1894, Conrad got married and had two sons. He began writing in the 1880s, and his major works, including Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, and The Secret Agent, were produced between 1897 and 1911.
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Historical Context of The Secret Agent

Anarchism is an umbrella term for political philosophies and movements that reject hierarchical authority and typically seek to abolish the state; it is also associated with anti-capitalist and libertarian socialist thought. A range of anarchist perspectives is reflected in The Secret Agent: some, like The Professor, favor violent revolutionary tactics. Others, like Michaelis (who may have been based on the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin) reject violent measures, instead focusing on helping society evolve to adopt an economic system based on mutual cooperation and aid. In 1894, a revolutionary French anarchist named Martial Bourdin attempted to carry out a bombing in London, but his explosives went off prematurely, killing him. Bourdin’s motives and target were unclear, but it appears that he intended to bomb the Greenwich Observatory. After discussing this incident—which he called “a blood-stained inanity”—with the writer Ford Madox Ford, Conrad based the character of Stevie on Bourdin. The Greenwich Observatory incident, along with the high-profile assassinations of figures like United States President William McKinley, had already brought anarchism into the popular consciousness. In England, anarchism was associated with the immigrant neighborhoods of London’s Soho district and was a subject of debate in mainstream periodicals like Blackwood’s Magazine, which also serialized a number of Conrad’s writings.

Other Books Related to The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent is an early predecessor of the spy thriller genre that boomed in popularity throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Other early espionage novels include Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) and Conrad’s own Under Western Eyes (1911). Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, about a British Secret Intelligence officer, are perhaps the most famous spy novels of all time. The spy plot at the heart of The Secret Agent is specifically rooted in anarchism, a political movement that’s also explored in Henry James’s 1886 novel The Princess Casamassima and G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). Furthermore, Dickens’s Bleak House (1852) influenced Conrad’s portrayal of London in the novel.
Key Facts about The Secret Agent
  • Full Title: The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale
  • When Written: 1906
  • Where Written: France and London
  • When Published: 1907
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Spy Thriller
  • Setting: London, England
  • Climax: Winnie Verloc stabs Adolf Verloc to death
  • Antagonist: Anarchist terrorism; Mr. Vladimir; Mr. Adolf Verloc
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Secret Agent

The Unabomber and the Professor. The Secret Agent was a favorite book of Ted Kaczynski, the American anarchist and terrorist known as the Unabomber. Kaczynski identified strongly with the character of The Professor, and he sometimes used variations on the name “Conrad” as aliases.

Tragic Associations. Terrorism is a major theme in The Secret Agent, and a Slate article in late September 2001 identified the novel as one of the American media’s three most cited works of literature in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.