The Secret Agent

by

Joseph Conrad

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Secret Agent can help.

The Secret Agent: Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Sharply dressed and alert, Mr. Verloc heads out unusually early one morning at about half-past 10. The dull English sun covers the city with a rusty light. As Verloc watches well-to-do people enjoying themselves in Hyde Park, he feels protective of them, their opulence, and the social order—it must all be defended from the “enviousness of […] labour.” Verloc himself avoids all unnecessary labor. He also has the look of someone who makes his living upon the “vices” and “baser fears” of humanity.
Though the nature of Verloc’s work isn’t yet revealed, Verloc clearly feels a sense of obligation toward London’s people and the conventional social order. He sees the laboring classes as “envious” of the wealthy and therefore as a threat to the social order—and he sees himself as standing against that perceived threat. However, the narration suggests that Verloc isn’t above benefitting off of others’ “vices” and “baser fears,” which suggests that his line of work is somehow immoral and harmful to others.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Verloc is well-dressed because he has business at a foreign Embassy. When he arrives at there, he shows an envelope at the door and is soon admitted to a small private room. Here, he’s joined by Privy Councillor Wurmt, a melancholy, near-sighted man with bushy eyebrows.  Wurmt places a stack of papers on the table: they are Verloc’s reports. Wurmt says that they are dissatisfied with the scandalously lax attitude of the British police, so they want Verloc to do something to change that—to stir up unrest. Verloc, however, doubts that anything can be done.
Verloc is employed by an unnamed foreign embassy, apparently having reported to them for some time. This embassy’s officials believe that the British aren’t worried enough about certain unnamed threats, and that this laxity poses a threat to their country’s interests too. They want Verloc to do something to change British minds.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
Wurmt decides that Verloc had better see Mr. Vladimir. He steps out, leaving Verloc sweating. Soon Verloc is led by a servant into a thickly carpeted room where First Secretary Vladimir sits. Mr. Vladimir is a young, clean-shaven man with a witty reputation in society. He coolly questions Verloc about his youthful spying while serving in the French Army, and then he abruptly asks Verloc what he has to say for himself. Verloc has gotten out of shape, Vladimir accuses—nobody would believe he is a desperate anarchist. Vladimir suspects that Verloc is lazy.
The meeting with Vladimir seems calculated to intimidate Verloc; Verloc does not seem to be very familiar with the younger man. Verloc has a history of spying, and his current job is based on the pretense that Verloc is an anarchist—one of a number of revolutionary groups that reject hierarchy and sometimes even the state. However, Verloc has gotten soft: he looks too comfortable with his life to be a convincing anarchist.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
Sulkily, Verloc explains that he has worked for the Embassy for 11 years, first based in Paris and now in London. (He is a British-born subject, but his father was French.) Mr. Vladimir says that Verloc hasn’t made good use of his position; the Embassy isn’t a philanthropic institution. Now, the Embassy wants to see some activity. Verloc tries to defend himself, but Vladimir is offended by his raised voice. Verloc explains that his effortlessly loud voice has served him well at socialist meetings, but Vladimir angrily retorts that they have no use for his voice—they want facts.
Verloc has made a good salary by spying for the Embassy, but Vladimir doesn’t think he’s been earning his keep. Under Vladimir’s watch, that will now change. Verloc might be able to make a believable outward show of enthusiasm at political meetings, for example, but that’s not accomplishing anything for the Embassy—they want him to effect real change.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
Get the entire The Secret Agent LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Secret Agent PDF
Mr. Vladimir says that Verloc’s title is “agent provocateur,” but that he hasn’t done anything “provocative” for years. It’s not enough to prevent violence—the Embassy wants a cure. Then, Vladimir asks Verloc about some gray leaflets. Verloc identifies these as belonging to the F.P., or Future of the Proletariat, a revolutionary society of which he’s a vice president. Vladimir is unimpressed.
An agent provocateur’s job is to provoke others—in this case, socialists and anarchists—into doing something illegal. Verloc has been falling short, however, contenting himself with publishing anarchist pamphlets and sharing information about anarchist plots.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
England, Mr. Vladimir tells Verloc, is far too wedded to ideals of individual liberty. The middle classes must be scared in order to shake them loose from that. He tells Verloc his idea, though it’s clear to Verloc that Vladimir doesn’t really understand the views of revolutionaries—he lumps them all together and thinks that they’re mostly “bomb throwers.” But Vladimir won’t hear any protests as he lays out his plan for “a series of outrages” that will push public opinion in favor of repressive laws. The outrages, he tells Verloc, don’t have to be especially bloody; they only have to frighten people.
Vladimir believes that the English masses care more about individual rights than about the threat of anarchism, and he’s adamant that Verloc needs to pressure anarchists to commit an act of terror (whether violent or merely startling) to turn British society against anarchism. Vladimir’s apparent ignorance of anarchism’s complexity—he seems to think that all anarchists are “bomb throwers” who believe the same things and all follow violent tactics—suggests that anti-revolutionary fears weren’t always grounded in reality. But accuracy doesn’t matter to Vladimir; he just wants England to crack down on anarchism, which he perceives as a threat to the social order.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Mr. Vladimir says they must attack today’s middle class “fetish,” which is neither the monarchy nor religion—it is science. Attacks on heads of state have become rather commonplace, and an attack on a church or a theater wouldn’t seem sufficiently political; all these would merely seem like outbursts of frustration, which the press would readily dismiss. In Mr. Vladimir’s view, “bomb throwing” must go beyond vengeance; in order to have an impact, it must be destructive. That’s why the attack should target something beyond ordinary human passions. Every fool believes in science, even if he doesn’t understand it, and the upper classes believe that science is the foundation of their prosperity. Attacking it would seem like madness, which is more terrifying than simple murder.
Darwin’s theory of evolution, rapid technological progress, and other 19th-century advancements made science an important facet of everyday people’s lives, even displacing political and religious loyalties for some. Vladimir believes that attacking science would therefore be a symbolic attack on the heart of modern society. More than a merely political or religious target, a random attack on science would seem “mad,” or irrational, undermining the seemingly untouchable authority and lofty rationality of science. 
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Mr. Vladimir proposes attacking astronomy, because this would not be mistaken as a mere class grievance. Besides, everyone has heard of Greenwich, no matter their class. Vladimir thinks that “the blowing up of the first meridian” will cause widespread anger and panic.
The district of Greenwich contains both the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian, 0° longitude, which had just been established in 1884. As such, “the blowing up of the first meridian” seems to be mean that Vladimir wants to bomb the Royal Observatory. Most people in England (and in other parts of the world) would be familiar with these landmarks, which is why Vladimir believes that blowing up the Observatory would be an effective terrorist attack.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Verloc points out that such an attack will cost money, but Mr. Vladimir is adamant that Verloc will only be paid his usual fee until he’s able to execute an attack. He’s appalled to learn that Verloc not only keeps a shop, but that he’s married too. He can’t believe that Verloc maintains any credibility in the anarchist world. In any case, Verloc must provoke an “outrage” within one month, or else the Embassy will fire him. Vladimir dismisses Verloc. Ignoring his surroundings, Verloc hurries home from the Embassy and spends the rest of the day sitting immobile behind the shop counter.
Verloc is far from being an anarchist stereotype: his shop represents capitalism, which many anarchists oppose, and his marriage seems to fly in the face of anarchism’s emphasis on personal freedom over traditional social structures or institutions. To Vladimir, these are further marks against Verloc; it’s time for him to prove himself, or else he loses his job. Verloc is a lazy person and has coasted along in his position for a decade, so this encounter with Vladimir rattles him.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Winnie leaves Verloc alone. As she prepares supper, she tells Stevie, who’s been sweeping and dusting the house, to wash up for the meal. Stevie always takes care to be clean for mealtimes, not wanting to offend Verloc. Verloc, however, never gets angry at Stevie, unlike Stevie’s and Winnie’s father. Winnie used to be “maddened” by her father’s rages toward Stevie. Nowadays, nobody would guess that Winnie is capable of any sort of passion.
Stevie has a history of abuse, having been mistreated by his father, and this abuse was a terror to Winnie as well. Because of this history, Verloc’s toleration of Stevie—simply letting him be—is grounds for both Winnie’s and Stevie’s trust in Verloc and their loyalty to him. Stevie seems to look up to Verloc and want to please him. Meanwhile, in contrast to her “maddened” state in the past, Winnie is a peaceful person who never gets angry, especially without provocation.
Themes
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Related Quotes
At dinner, Mr. Verloc is so thoughtfully silent that Winnie and her mother watch Stevie anxiously, not wanting him to disturb the master of the house. Winnie’s father was ashamed of having a “peculiar” son and treated him brutally as a result. Verloc, by contrast, pays little attention to Stevie. Winnie always tells her mother that if Verloc tires of Stevie, he’d better tire of her first. Though Winnie’s mother doesn’t understand what Winnie sees in Verloc—she could have married a younger man—she decides that their match is lucky, since Verloc is a good provider for them all.
The history of abuse lingers even in the Verlocs’ house; though Verloc doesn’t lash out at Stevie, Winnie and her mother are frightened to this day of what will happen if Stevie offends the man of the house. Ultimately, Winnie’s loyalty to Stevie is greater than her loyalty to Verloc—a fact that will take on greater meaning later in the novel.
Themes
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon