The Secret Agent

by

Joseph Conrad

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The Secret Agent: Chapter 11 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After Chief Inspector Heat leaves, Verloc paces around the house, feeling sympathy for his bereaved wife. As an upside, Inspector Heat broke the news to Winnie, so now Verloc doesn’t have to. He’d never even meant for Stevie to die—he hadn’t foreseen an accident like this. He’d expected that Stevie would get arrested, but he wasn’t afraid of that—he trusted in Stevie’s blind loyalty, and he’d spent their recent walks impressing on Stevie the importance of silence. Verloc had also spent a lot of time carefully changing Stevie’s view of the police.
Back at the Verlocs’, Verloc reflects on what happened to Stevie, but his thoughts about the matter are superficial. He didn’t want Stevie to die, but beyond that, it’s clear that he still viewed Stevie as just a tool for getting a job done. He manipulated Stevie’s trust and took his loyalty for granted.
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Why, Verloc wonders bitterly, did his wife sew Stevie’s address into his clothes? He decides not to reproach her about it. He goes up to the shop counter and offers, “I didn’t mean any harm to come to the boy.” Winnie shudders in response and says nothing. Verloc says that Inspector Heat shouldn’t have upset Winnie with his harsh words; Verloc had spent hours trying to think of a softer way to break the news. When Winnie keeps sitting there with her face in her hands, Verloc decides that he’d better leave her alone for now. He goes into the parlor and appreciatively sits down to the cold beef and bread that Winnie laid out for him earlier, but for which he’d had no appetite at the time.
Winnie’s gesture of care for Stevie—sewing his address into his coat—ends up hastening the Verlocs’ undoing. This suggests that Winnie’s utmost loyalty is to Stevie, and that when he is removed from the picture, her lesser loyalties—like her marriage—inevitably collapse. For the time being, Verloc remains oblivious to this fact. Having confessed, he feels that the worst is behind him.
Themes
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Verloc isn’t being callous; he’d been so nervous that he’d eaten nothing all day, from the time he arrived at Michaelis’s this morning to claim Stevie. Now that the bombing and its aftermath are behind him, Verloc’s appetite returns forcefully. After devouring his dinner, he again approaches Winnie, who hasn’t moved. He tells Winnie that it “can’t be helped” and encourages her to pull herself together, since he’ll be hauled off to prison soon. He’s not trying to be inhumane, but it isn’t within his nature to understand the depth of his wife’s feelings for Stevie.
As far as Verloc is concerned, life is mostly back to normal, even if it includes a prison sentence, and he doesn’t understand why Winnie doesn’t feel the same way. Because he didn’t view Stevie as a full human being whose loss is a tragedy, he finds his wife’s grief incomprehensible.
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Finally, Verloc tells Winnie to look at him and, in an unfeeling voice, Winnie says she never wants to look at him again. Verloc thinks she is simply being unreasonable. When he tries to pull her hands away from her face, Winnie suddenly runs from the room. Verloc sits down in the chair that she left and contemplates his inevitable imprisonment—perhaps he’ll move abroad after he’s released. If only Winnie hadn’t sewn Stevie’s address into his coat and gotten Verloc caught, then he would have had great success with the Embassy. Nevertheless, unfortunate though Stevie’s death might be, Verloc did succeed in producing a moral outrage—it just wasn’t the kind of outrage he intended. He accepts this with a fatalistic spirit.
From Verloc’s point of view, the biggest disaster in the bomb plot is that Winnie sewed identification into Stevie’s clothes. If it weren’t for that, he might have gotten off free, proving himself to the Embassy and reaping the rewards of a successful terror attack. Instead, the greatest “outrage” produced is not a shakeup of public opinion but a rift in his own marriage.
Themes
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Verloc worries about what will become of his shop while he’s in prison, if Winnie is too distraught to watch over it. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Winnie is sitting at the table in Stevie’s usual seat. Verloc wants to confide in his wife about the way that Vladimir has haunted him over the past weeks until he was forced to take action. Finally, fists clenched, he tells Winnie that she doesn’t know what he’s had to deal with—he’s been susceptible “to having a knife stuck into me any time.”
Self-pitying and oblivious to the depth of his wife’s grief, Verloc rants to Winnie about how he has been mistreated in all this. His comment about “having a knife stuck into” him foreshadows his imminent fate.
Themes
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Verloc continues his rant. He resents Vladimir toying with him—many high-profile people owe their lives to him. He’s risked his life disrupting revolutionary plots for the past 11 years; the old Baron he used to work for appreciated him, but now an “overbearing swine” has come along. He notices that Winnie is sitting up now. Verloc seethes over Vladimir’s disloyalty. He has been loyal to his cause over the years, and it’s only his loyalty to Winnie, he tells her, that kept him from grabbing Vladimir by the throat on the spot.
Verloc sees his situation in terms of loyalty and betrayal. Because he has faithfully informed on assassination plots, he feels entitled to the world’s gratitude; Vladimir’s disrespect and manipulation therefore enrages him. If he didn’t care about being around for Winnie, he would have killed Vladimir. Verloc fails to see that by getting Stevie killed, he has betrayed Winnie.
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The novelty of confiding in Winnie pushes Stevie from Verloc’s mind. Because of this, Verloc is startled when he looks up and sees Winnie’s strange expression. She seems to be staring at the wall beyond him, but when Verloc turns and looks, he “saw no writing on the wall.” He just feels frustrated that Winnie isn’t responding as he’d hoped to the collapse of his career as a secret agent. She isn’t taking things at all as he’d imagined. He tells her that she’d better go to bed and have a good cry.
The “writing on the wall” is a reference to the Old Testament Book of Daniel and is a proverb for an ominous warning. In this case, it hints that Verloc is soon to meet his end—but Verloc’s blindness to the “writing” shows how clueless he remains about what he’s done and how Winnie has been affected.
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But the nature of Stevie’s death stops Winnie’s tears. Her life has always revolved around Stevie. Images of her childhood care and protection of Stevie flash through her mind, most of them involving her father’s violence. She also thinks of a kind man she’d once loved but rejected because he didn’t accept Stevie; Verloc, on the other hand, quietly tolerated Stevie, though there was nothing otherwise special about him. Winnie’s visions conclude with the sight of Verloc and Stevie walking up Brett Street looking like father and son—a scene Winnie had enabled.
Stevie has always been at the center of Winnie’s life—in particular, protecting Stevie from harm and providing for him has been her lifelong goal. She has even put her own happiness aside in order to secure the best situation for Stevie. But because she didn’t believe Verloc capable of hurting Stevie, she has deceived herself all along, even pushing Stevie into Verloc’s grasp.
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Winnie keeps staring at the blank wall. Verloc, meanwhile, nourishes his revenge toward the Embassy. This is in keeping with his personality—he has long been in the habit of betraying others, after all; it doesn’t matter if they’re anarchists or diplomats. Verloc wishes for some word of comfort from his wife, but all she can think is that Verloc took Stevie away from her and murdered him. 
Winnie and Verloc each privately nurse their respective desires for revenge. For Verloc, betrayal is second nature. For Winnie, however, it’s something new, as she has always accepted her life and other people at face value and acted accordingly. Now, she is forced to look beneath Verloc’s exterior and figure out how to respond.
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Winnie finally looks at Verloc, but he’s looking at the ground. He gives Winnie instructions about running the store while he’s in jail. She’ll have to be prepared to sell the business before he gets out, so they can leave London; he doesn’t want the other revolutionaries to stab him in the back. “I am too fond of you for that,” he tells Winnie. Winnie’s face flushes slightly at these words. She doesn’t take in much of what he’s saying, and she continues obsessing over Verloc’s betrayal.
Verloc continues to think mainly of himself and his own future prospects, and to conflate Winnie’s well-being with his own. He assumes that his being killed is the worst that could happen for her too.
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When she hears Verloc mention escaping abroad, Winnie’s thoughts automatically turn to Stevie’s well-being, only to remember that there’s no longer any need to worry for him. She further realizes that she no longer has to stay with Verloc herself, and she begins to think of herself as a free woman. She walks out of the kitchen and disappears upstairs. Verloc feels disappointed by Winnie’s reserve, but he also feels hungry again, so he sits down and eats more roast beef.
As Winnie thinks of Stevie, she realizes that with him gone, her fundamental tie of loyalty to Verloc has been cut. This, in turn, frees her from her marital obligations and from her conventional domestic life altogether. Verloc has betrayed her trust, and she no longer owes him anything.
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Upstairs, Winnie opens the window, and Verloc hears her getting dressed to leave the house. Winnie had thought at first of either throwing herself out the window or screaming for help—she isn’t sure what to do with her newfound freedom—but she ends up doing neither. When she returns to the kitchen, Verloc assumes that she is going to see her mother, and he discourages her from going out at this hour of the night. Winnie realizes that Verloc will never let her go anywhere again. Nervous about his wife’s silence, Verloc pulls the black veil from her face. He had no other options, he tells Winnie. Anyway, she is at fault, too—she kept urging him to spend time with Stevie. In fact, she’s as much responsible as he is for Stevie’s death. Exhausted, he finally flings himself on the sofa. All of Winnie’s energies are exhausted.
Winnie realizes that, now that Verloc has confided in her, he’s not going to let her go free. What’s more, his ongoing, desperate self-justifications show that he takes no real responsibility for what has happened to Stevie—be even shifts the blame onto Winnie for bringing Stevie to his attention so much. Verloc is unable to comprehend anything deeper as to what the loss of Stevie means for Winnie.
Themes
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As Verloc makes himself comfortable, he mutters that he wishes he’d never seen Greenwich Park. Winnie pictures Stevie’s remains being gathered in the park, and her stony expression gives way to one more violent. But Verloc, finally at rest and confident in her love for him, doesn’t see this. He calls Winnie to his side, and she obeys. As she does so, she silently picks up the carving knife from the table. When she reaches the sofa, there is just enough time for Verloc to see the shadow of Winnie’s arm moving up and down with the knife in hand. There is enough time for him to realize that his wife has gone mad and to imagine trying to escape. But by the time he thinks of all this, the knife is planted in his breast. He starts to say, “Don’t,” as he dies.
Verloc is complacent about Winnie’s love for him until the very last moment of his life—hence his relaxing on the sofa. When Winnie kills Verloc, he rests in a vulnerable, trusting state, invoking the way Stevie trustingly submitted himself to Verloc’s guidance and instruction. For her part, Winnie’s act is an outburst similar to Stevie’s: a vulnerable person has been hurt, and she lashes out violent because there is nothing else she can do to fix the situation. She pays Verloc back for his betrayal of her trust.
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Winnie takes a deep breath, feeling free at last. She no longer has any responsibilities or obligations; she doesn’t even think. After a long time, she notices that the “tic” noise she’s been hearing, which she mistook for the clock, was actually her husband’s blood dripping to the floor. She is shocked into action and runs toward the door, knocking the table aside as she goes. Verloc’s hat drifts to the floor.
Verloc’s death frees Winnie from her ties to him, and indeed from her ties to domestic life—freed from these bonds, she has no clear place in conventional structures. She is a kind of rebel—in a way, an anarchist defying law and conventionality.
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