The Secret Agent

by

Joseph Conrad

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The Secret Agent: Chapter 13 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Comrade Ossipon has come to visit The Professor in the ugly, spartan room in East London that The Professor has rented. The Professor tells Ossipon about his recent visit to Michaelis. Michaelis hadn’t heard anything about Verloc’s death. He only focuses on his autobiography, which lacks logical reasoning and talks about planning a world with lots of gardens and flowers, in which the strong care for the weak. The Professor believes that Michaelis’s ideas are sheer folly—the weak, he thinks, are the source of all evil. They have all the power and they oppress the strong, so they must be exterminated.
More than a week has passed since the previous chapter, and some of London’s remaining revolutionaries are now discussing recent events. Characteristically, the idealistic Michaelis remains oblivious to what’s happened. The contrast between him and The Professor once again shows the broad range of perspectives among revolutionaries. Whereas Michaelis wants to protect the weak, The Professor sees them as a harmful drag on society.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Ossipon suggests that they go get a beer. As they ride the omnibus, Ossipon admits that Michaelis’s plan is silly. However, he might not be completely wrong: 200 years from now, doctors will rule the world, and science will triumph, extending the lives of the strong. The Professor rejects this idea. At the pub, he raises a toast “to the destruction of what is.”
Ossipon, too, remains loyal to his earlier beliefs, namely his devotion to science. Like The Professor, he believes that the strong will triumph, but he thinks that this is because science will favor them—essentially, he believes in eugenics. The Professor sees the elimination of the weak as a step toward “the destruction of what is”—that is, the destruction of all existing social structures and institutions.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
As Ossipon and The Professor drink, Ossipon pulls an old newspaper from his pocket and rereads a line he has memorized: “An impenetrable mystery seems destined to hang for ever over this act of madness or despair.” These words fall under a headline about the suicide of a female passenger aboard a cross-channel boat 10 days ago. Ossipon has been obsessed with these words and unable to date any other women since. He imagines Winnie on the boat in her veil, sickly and silent. When Winnie disappeared from the boat, she only left behind her wedding ring.
Ossipon and The Professor’s meeting echoes their conversation in Chapter IV, on the day of the bombing. In the aftermath, Ossipon is a changed man. The newspaper account reveals that Winnie, only identified as a maddened female passenger, jumped overboard. Though Ossipon had once drifted happily between women, he can’t get Winnie out of his mind; only he understands her fate.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
When The Professor is about to leave, Ossipon asks him what he knows of “madness and despair.” The Professor says there are no such things. The world doesn’t have enough passion to sustain them; it is mediocre. So was Verloc; so is everyone. He gets up to leave and tells Ossipon that the small fortune Ossipon acquired hasn’t done him any good. Ossipon offers him the money, but The Professor just smiles and says he’ll send Ossipon a bill for some chemicals he needs.
The Professor doesn’t believe that anyone in the modern world is strong enough to muster up real madness or despair, so he just goes back to working on his perfect detonator. Ossipon doesn’t care about keeping Verloc’s money; The Professor probably wanted it for his own purposes all along, hence encouraging Ossipon to attach himself to Winnie.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
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Ossipon continues to sit there, repeating the words “An impenetrable mystery […] this act of madness or despair.” Eventually, he wanders out of the beerhall and aimlessly along the streets. He hasn’t been able to think, eat, or sleep; his revolutionary career is at an end. Meanwhile, The Professor wanders too, avoiding the detestable crowds of people. He doesn’t think about his future, instead thinking of himself as a “force.” He cherishes thoughts of destruction, since it’s the only thing that will bring “regeneration” to the world. The frail man passes through the crowds, “unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.”
The novel’s anarchists go their different ways, with Ossipon fading into insignificance in the anarchist scene in his distraction and obsession over Winnie’s death. Only The Professor remains active in his plotting. He is dangerous precisely because of his ability to fade inconspicuously into the multitude and his willingness to become a destructive force—as he sees it, for the sake of humanity’s betterment. The story thus ends on an ambiguous note. On one hand, anarchism has failed to be the terrifying threat it purported to be when Vladimir set Verloc to work on his bomb plot. On the other hand, the rare Professor-like figure could always be at large, “unsuspected and deadly,” undetectable and unstoppable.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon