The Secret Agent

by

Joseph Conrad

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The Secret Agent: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Michaelis, a pale, fat man on parole from prison, is in Verloc’s parlor. He argues that ideals are worthless and that economic conditions are what really move history. Karl Yundt, an elderly, decrepit, self-described terrorist, also sits with Michaelis and Verloc. He says that he has always dreamed of a band of pitiless destroyers who’d be willing to cause death for humanity’s sake, but he has never been able to find them. Mr. Verloc, seated in another corner, gives assenting grunts. Michaelis says that he’s more optimistic than Yundt: he believes that the property-owning class is beginning to self-destruct, which will lead inevitably to the collapse of private ownership.
In this passage, Verloc meets with the anarchists whose group he’s infiltrated as an undercover agent. They are a diverse bunch, reflecting the range of anarchist beliefs that Mr. Vladimir failed to acknowledge in the previous chapter. Michaelis is most interested in ideas and economic theories, whereas Yundt yearns for the merciless, destructive action that fits with Vladimir’s stereotype of anarchists as senseless “bomb throwers.”
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Comrade Ossipon, the primary author of the F.P. pamphlets, sits in front of the fire. He has curly yellow hair and high cheekbones and smokes a cigarette. Michaelis, used to talking to himself without any feedback or response in prison, keeps monologuing about the economic forces inexorably shaping history; he’s interrupted only by a harsh laugh from Ossipon. Verloc takes this opportunity to open the kitchen door for some air, revealing Stevie sitting at the table, drawing circle after circle. Ossipon admires the “degenerate’s” drawings.
The use of the term “degeneracy” comes from the popularity of evolutionary theory in the late 19th century, when it was commonly believed that some individuals (or races) displayed marks of the regress of humanity rather than its progress. Here, Ossipon believes that Stevie is “degenerate” or inferior because of his mental disability. His observation about Stevie will become significant toward the end of the novel.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Ossipon is a medical school dropout who has since worked as a wandering lecturer on various socialist topics. Citing a writer named Lombroso, he confidently tells Verloc that the shape of Stevie’s ears is a clear marker of “degeneracy.” Verloc blushes faintly at the mention of science; it reminds him of Mr. Vladimir. Meanwhile, Yundt picks a fight with Ossipon, arguing about the status of criminals in society and the nature of so-called crime.
During this period (the late 19th century), a pseudo-science called criminal anthropology, popularized by an Italian physician named Lombroso, claimed to be able to identify so-called “degenerates,” criminals, and other groups of people on the basis of certain physical traits. Meanwhile, Verloc is uncomfortably reminded of Vladimir’s demand that he provoke this anarchist group into committing an act of terror.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
As Stevie heads off to bed, he overhears Yundt talking about the branding of criminals, and he freezes in horror. Even the thought of physical pain fills Stevie with distress and indignation.
Because of Stevie’s background of abuse, he is especially sensitive to others’ suffering.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
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Michaelis continues to argue that because history operates according to unchangeable economic laws, propaganda—the education of the masses—must be carefully carried out. In response, Ossipon argues that the laws aren’t written in stone, and that the emotional manipulation of the masses matters greatly. Yundt describes current economic conditions as “cannibalistic,” causing Stevie, out of sight, to gulp and sink to the floor. Soon after, Verloc’s guests say goodnight.
The men’s discussion continues to reveal the anarchists’ divergent views: Michaelis continues to favor heady theories, whereas Ossipon emphasizes the role of the masses (and hence the importance of manipulating them) in moving society. Stevie understands only the anarchists’ most literal expressions, and their references to violence and cannibalism distress him.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
As Verloc locks the door behind his friends, he feels dissatisfied. Compared to Mr. Vladimir, they all seem hopelessly useless and lazy, like himself. He knows that Yundt is cared for by an elderly woman, and Michaelis, too, is supported by a wealthy old lady in the countryside. Ossipon, for his part, depends on naïve young women with savings accounts. Verloc, more inclined to conventional respectability, is offended by his friends’ morality, yet he shares in their dislike of discipline and effort. Verloc thinks again of Mr. Vladimir, who seems so much more dangerous than his friends. Unlike the others, Verloc has to work to support a woman, and he can’t afford to indulge in ideas and talk.
Ironically, Verloc’s socialist acquaintances are less intimidating than Vladimir, who wants Verloc to stage an atrocity in anarchism’s name. These anarchists aren’t particularly imposing figures—they all depend on others to support them. Verloc is more conventional in his lifestyle, and he also has greater responsibilities. Thus, although he has some traits in common with the anarchists—enough to blend in—he doesn’t align with them ideologically. Yet, despite his disagreements, his work for the Embassy seems to be much more financially than ideologically motivated.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
As Verloc gets ready for bed, he looks over his shop. He chose his line of work because he has always been drawn to “shady transactions” that make money easily; and because of his associations with spies and anarchists, he was already used to being watched by the police. Before heading upstairs, Verloc is surprised to see that Stevie is still up. Watching his brother-in-law pacing and talking to himself in the kitchen, he reflects that he must provide for Stevie, too, as well as for his wife and mother-in-law. Feeling burdened, Verloc goes upstairs.
Laziness accounts for Verloc’s choice of profession. Like his job for the Embassy, his “shady” wares (selling pornography and other socially taboo items) are primarily a means to an end. Because of his marriage, Verloc faces working-class burdens from which his anarchist friends are mostly free.
Themes
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Verloc wakes up Winnie to deal with Stevie. Then, while undressing, Verloc looks out the window at the “inhospitable” city, a dark and muddy mass of brick and stone. The view matches his foreboding. For a moment, he thinks he sees Mr. Vladimir’s face reflected there. Winnie returns and urges him to come to bed. Dreading insomnia, Verloc gets her talking about Stevie’s stubbornness. Winnie always rises to Stevie’s defense, and she encourages Verloc to think of Stevie as a useful member of the household. Overhearing the guests just gets him too worked up, she says, because he doesn’t understand them. The other day, Stevie even read an F.P. tract about a brutal military officer, and the cruelty in the story made him cry and stomp around with a knife. Verloc doesn’t respond, but, resigned to a sleepless night, he lets Winnie put out the light.
London is portrayed as a place unfit for human life: its impenetrable exteriors, darkness, and filth create an atmosphere of oppression and gloom. This atmosphere matches Verloc’s mounting sense of doom over Vladimir’s demands. Winnie, however, is oblivious to Verloc’s concerns and doesn’t appear to know anything about his double life. As usual, she is mainly concerned about Stevie’s well-being, especially his strong emotional responses to others’ suffering—the full significance of which she doesn’t yet understand.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
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