The Secret Agent

by

Joseph Conrad

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The Secret Agent: Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Winnie does not step beyond the front door. After the initial exhilaration, she now feels afraid. For Verloc, she only feels contempt—but she realizes that she is the only living murderer in the room. Though stabbing Verloc had momentarily relieved her rage, Winnie is now compelled to look more deeply into the matter, and all she can see is the gallows. She pictures being hung in some obscure jailyard and feels afraid. Newspaper accounts of hangings always say something like, “The drop given was fourteen feet.” She starts feeling choked and panicky, and she resolves to jump off a bridge.
Though Winnie felt liberated moments earlier, she realizes that she has trapped herself in new difficulties—hanging is the only way a murder charge is likely to end. She is freed from most of her earthly ties, but she is still accountable to the law. She decides that the only escape is to commit suicide.
Themes
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Only a few minutes have passed since the stabbing. Winnie drags herself outside, where the damp air feels suffocating, and the atmosphere of the dark, misty city envelops her. She feels friendless and tries to forget about her mother. Winnie keeps dragging herself one step at a time, her fear of death dogging her. She thinks for a moment about fleeing abroad, but she can’t do this without help and connections. London is “a black abyss from which no unaided woman” can escape.
Throughout the novel, London has always had an unfriendly air—now, in the aftermath of the stabbing, its atmosphere feels deadly and devoid of help or comfort. Unlike Verloc, who had the freedom and connections to flee abroad, Winnie doesn’t know anyone who can help her, an “unaided woman,” avoid being engulfed by the overwhelming “abyss” of the city.
Themes
Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Moments later, Winnie finds unexpected help: Comrade Ossipon is peering at her through her black veil, believing she looks drunk. To Ossipon’s surprise, Winnie leans against him, surprised that he recognizes her. He tells her he has been thinking of her lately, and indeed has always thought about her. Ossipon has been hovering near Brett Street for the past two hours, trying to decide if he dared approach the widow, though he doesn’t tell her that part. Winnie tucks her hand under his arm and begins directing him down the street.
Just when Winnie is desperate, one of Verloc’s revolutionary associates shows up out of nowhere. The novel has hinted at his crush on her before, though Winnie has always rejected him out of loyalty to Verloc. Now, there’s nothing to stop Winnie from attaching herself to him.
Themes
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Ossipon tells Winnie that he read about the bombing in the paper, and he decided to come and find Winnie, whom he’s always loved. Inwardly, he wonders about the shop’s business value, but he tries to focus on the romantic side of things. He is surprised that Winnie is being so receptive.
Earlier that day, believing that Verloc was dead, The Professor urged Ossipon to attach himself to Winnie. Ossipon’s interest in women is always mercenary—though he genuinely likes her, he also has an interest in whatever money has been left to her.
Themes
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
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Winnie says she always ignored Ossipon because she was a respectable wife, “till he made me what I am.” But as far as she’s concerned, Verloc stole the last seven years of her life. When they married, Winnie was a tired young woman with others dependent on her; Verloc was willing to support her mother and Stevie, so what else could she do? But he turned out to be “a devil.”
Winnie blames Verloc for making her what she is—that is, turning her into a killer. She now believes that she married him on false pretenses, having believed him to be a much better person than he later revealed himself to be. She was a helpless woman with others who were dependent on her, susceptible to being taken advantage of.
Themes
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Ossipon feels stunned by this ferocious statement; he doesn’t know what Verloc could have done, but he tries to comfort Winnie, assuring her that Verloc is dead now. Winnie, relieved and triumphant, grabs his arm and says, “You guessed what I had to do.” Ossipon, however, is confused by Winnie’s words and her frenzied state. He starts to wonder if the Verlocs’ marriage was so unhappy that Verloc bombed Greenwich Park as a way of committing suicide, making fools of the police, the press, The Professor, and the revolutionary world over a domestic dispute. He wonders if Winnie is the real “devil.”
In her ranting against Verloc, Winnie mistakenly believes it’s clear to Ossipon that she killed her husband. Ossipon, sure that Verloc is dead, assumes no such thing. Instead, he wonders if the bombing was Verloc’s reaction to a private marital dispute—and if, perhaps, Winnie is the “devil” in this situation.
Themes
Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Comrade Ossipon wonders how Winnie came to know about the bombing (he doesn’t believe that Verloc would have told her his plans). She explains that Chief Inspector Heat came, and that she overheard that they had to “gather him up with a shovel.” She adds that the police were on “that man’s side” and did nothing. After that, an Embassy foreigner came. Ossipon is shocked by this detail— the matter is becoming much deeper than he thought it was. He tries to stop speculating and focus on Winnie.
Previously, Winnie thought the Assistant Commissioner looked like a foreigner. Because she’d overheard Verloc muttering about the Embassy in his sleep, Winnie makes the incorrect assumption that the Assistant Commissioner must have been from the Embassy. Despite the mistake, Ossipon learns from this detail that the conspiracy is bigger than he’d imagined.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
Winnie begs Ossipon to flee with her to the Continent (mainland Europe). Ossipon, who feels that the whole affair is becoming too murky for him, is happy to oblige. But what about Verloc’s money? He tells Winnie there won’t be a train until this, and he doesn’t have the money anyway. At that, Winnie remembers the cash tucked into her bodice. The pair embrace in mutual relief, but Ossipon is still baffled by Winnie’s evident fear. “Haven’t you guessed what I was driven to do!” she exclaims. In her terrified state, she thinks that she’s revealed more to Ossipon than she really has.
Winnie now has someone to help her escape, and Ossipon has access to the money he wants—but Ossipon still doesn’t understand the full situation that Winnie is drawing him into.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Ossipon is used to excitable women and asks no further questions. He suddenly remembers that a boat leaves Southampton for France at midnight; they can catch a train at 10:30. He starts making plans. Suddenly, Winnie remembers that she left the shop door open. When they approach the shop, she notices that she also left the parlor light on. She pushes Ossipon toward the shop, begging him to take care of it for her. Ossipon doesn’t want to argue with her over trifles, so he obliges. When he looks into the parlor, however, he stifles a yell when he sees Verloc resting on the sofa. It suddenly occurs to him that the Verlocs are plotting together to kill him, or perhaps to trap him for the police.
Ossipon finally sees Verloc’s remains and realizes that there’s more to this situation than he’d believed. At first, though, he doesn’t realize that Verloc is dead and believes that he’s been pulled into some sort of trap.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
In the middle of his terror, Ossipon notices the hat upended on the floor. From there, his eyes gradually move toward Verloc’s partially closed eyes and then to his chest, from which a knife handle protrudes. Ossipon begins to retch. Just then Winnie rushes into the shop and clutches him, afraid that a passing constable has spotted her. The police have been instructed not to meddle with Verloc’s shop unless something is obviously wrong. Having spotted Winnie on the street, the constable tries the door and briefly shines his lantern at the window. Winnie tells Ossipon to kill her if the constable gets in, but the constable walks away, assuming that all is well.
Ossipon finally understands the full horror of the situation. Ironically, Verloc’s past criminal activities probably prevent Winnie from getting caught on the spot—as an informant for the police, Verloc the authorities aren’t suspicious of him, so they don’t see any reason to meddle in his private affairs.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Ossipon finally gets the parlor light shut off, trying to accept what’s happened. He doesn’t believe that Winnie is capable of committing a crime like this alone, and so he still isn’t convinced that there isn’t someone else lurking in the house to kill him—who knows where this might end? Winnie begs Ossipon not to let her be caught and hanged. She’ll do anything for him, love him or be a slave. From her ravings, Ossipon figures out that it was in fact Stevie, the “degenerate,” who was killed in the bombing. As Winnie clings to his legs snakelike, Ossipon feels terrified of her; she seems like “death itself.” She tells him he can’t get rid of her now, “not unless you crush my head under your heel.”
Winnie, terrified of death, abases herself before Ossipon, looking for any escape. Winnie’s words, “unless you crush my head under your heel,” are a reference to the biblical Book of Genesis, when God places a curse on the serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. Here, Winnie is the snake, tempting Ossipon and threatening to bring him down with her into death.
Themes
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Ossipon imagines Winnie running into the street and sending the police after him as the murderer. He also imagines fleeing to an obscure part of Europe and living in fear of her for the rest of his life. Finally, he pulls himself together, and they leave the shop and catch a cab for the train. He gives Winnie instructions about buying the tickets and boarding the train separately, in case they are recognized. Winnie gives him Verloc’s money and tells him that Verloc banked under the name of Prozor.
Ossipon fears that Winnie will force him to take the fall for Verloc’s death, so he starts plotting escape. Trusting him, Winnie willingly hands over Verloc’s bundle of cash.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
At the station, they follow their plan and are soon concealed in a train compartment. Ossipon speaks to the guard to make sure they won’t be disturbed during the trip. Winnie softens, moved by Ossipon’s care for her. Ossipon, for his part, is “free from the trammels of conventional morality,” yet still beholden to “the rule of science.” He gazes back at Winnie and sees her as a degenerate in her own way—a murderer. He studies her features for confirmation and concludes that Lombroso would agree.
Though Ossipon doesn’t care to abide by most social conventions, he still adheres to certain rules, though their legitimacy is questionable—earlier in the book, Ossipon had expressed belief in the pseudo-scientific theories of Lombroso, who held that certain types of “degeneracy” could be detected from physical features. Though Winnie doesn’t share her late brother’s disability, she appears morally corrupt to Ossipon as well.
Themes
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
When Ossipon mentions the resemblance between Winnie and Stevie, Winnie finally breaks into helpless sobs. Ossipon encourages her to step farther away from the platform, then, at the last moment before the train pulls away from the platform, he opens the carriage door and leaps out. He gets up, bruised and shaken, at the very end of the platform and tells the crowd of concerned railway workers that he has just sent his wife off to her dying mother’s house and didn’t notice that the train was moving until the last second, leaping out on impulse. Ossipon then walks out of the station, the banknotes in his pocket. He walks all the way home through the misty, sleeping city until he reaches his flat, where he lies awake until dawn.
While Winnie is distracted, Ossipon jumps off the train at the last possible moment, extricating himself from Winnie’s downward spiral. With Winnie bound for the Continent (mainland Europe), Ossipon is presumably safe. If Winnie tries to return to London, she runs the risk that Ossipon will have told the police about her crime. And since Ossipon has made off with Verloc’s money, Winnie is both helpless and friendless.
Themes
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon