The Secret Agent

by

Joseph Conrad

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The Secret Agent: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Ossipon is sitting at a table in a dark, vaulted hall with chandeliers and medieval paintings. Near the door, a mechanical piano plays a noisy waltz. Across from Ossipon, a small man with spectacles, who’s known as The Professor, drinks beer. Despite his unimpressive demeanor, the man has an air of calm self-assurance that Ossipon finds impossible to penetrate. The man claims not to have heard the upsetting news that Ossipon heard from a newsboy a short time ago.
The story flashes forward in time, after Verloc’s “outrage” has been carried out, though it will take a while for all the details of the incident to fall into place. Ossipon, one of Verloc’s revolutionary friends, meets with a mysterious figure. The jarring combination of medieval and noisily modern elements in the setting adds to the feeling of chaos.
Themes
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Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
Ossipon questions The Professor about his “stuff,” and the man claims that he unhesitatingly gives some to anyone who asks for it. He doesn’t even fear the police—they know that he always has explosives on his person. Therefore, he’ll never be arrested; none of them is “heroic” enough for that. The Professor always walks with his hand closed around a rubber ball in his pocket that, when pressed, activates a detonator. He shows Ossipon a glimpse of the rubber tube poking out of an inner pocket, and Ossipon shudders at the thought of how quickly The Professor could destroy himself and take the whole building with him.
The Professor makes and distributes explosive devices. In fact, The Professor wears an explosive device attached to himself, ready to be detonated at any moment. This deters the police from trying to arrest him—under threat of arrest, he could kill himself, the police, and any bystanders. Though it’s not clear what motivates him, The Professor appears to be much more devoted to terrorism than any of the revolutionaries who’ve appeared so far in the story.
Themes
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The Professor says that the key is “force of personality.” Simply having the ability to blow himself up doesn’t protect him; he’s protected by others’ belief that he has the will to do it. That is what makes him deadly. Furthermore, even other people with strong personalities base their character on “conventional morality,” but The Professor does not. His personality is based on freedom from artificial constraints, and indeed upon death. When Ossipon compares him to Yundt and the other revolutionary propagandists, The Professor sneers; those men have no independence of thought, no character.
Other people know that The Professor means business—he’s not just posturing—and that’s what makes them fear him. His willingness to blow himself up comes from the fact that he doesn’t feel bound by normal ideas of right and wrong. Because he considers himself to be free from moral responsibility, he welcomes death (both his own and others’) to a degree that most people cannot.
Themes
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Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The Professor explains that his goal is simply “a perfect detonator.” He notes Ossipon’s wince and says that revolutionaries can’t bear the idea of something definite. Revolutionaries, by definition, are dependent on conventional social order, because they’re trying to revolutionize it. This makes them no better than the police they claim to oppose. Revolution and legality are two sides of the same coin, in other words. Unlike the revolutionaries, The Professor concludes, this makes him a “true propagandist.”
The Professor doesn’t have some abstract revolutionary goal—he just wants to destroy, and to do it perfectly. Ossipon is uncomfortable with this bare motivation. The Professor sees this as his whole problem. Revolutionaries are locked in conflict with the things they want to overturn (like the law) and flinch in the face of a real solution—that is, destruction. The Professor’s willingness to destroy everything, including himself, makes him a more genuine anarchist in his own eyes.
Themes
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Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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Ossipon changes the subject. He tells The Professor that a man was blown up on Greenwich Park this morning, and he shows The Professor a newspaper. There aren’t many details: at the site of the detonation, there’s a big hole in the ground, with fragments of a man’s body scattered around. It’s assumed that the bomber meant to blow up the Observatory.
The bombing isn’t shown directly in the novel—only its results are mentioned. This allows Conrad to prolong the mystery of what really happened. He bases the fictional incident on a real-life 1894 bombing attempt on the Greenwich Park Observatory, in which the bomber accidentally killed himself.
Themes
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Ossipon says that he knew nothing about a plot of this nature, and it’s bound to make revolutionaries’ position more difficult in this country. Staring hard at The Professor, he realizes that some of the other man’s explosives must have been used. The Professor readily admits it. Indifferently, he says that the fates of individuals don’t matter to him.
Ossipon is the type of revolutionary who, unlike The Professor, isn’t interested in destruction. The Professor, for his part, is willing to supply anyone who has a destructive goal.
Themes
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The Professor goes on to say that unlike America, which has a fundamentally anarchistic character, England idealizes the notion of legality too much, and the aim of anarchists should be to defeat this fallacy. He’d like nothing better, he claims, than to be taken down in a public shoot-out by the police; then, the “old morality” would be halfway undermined already.
The Professor thinks that England has a law-abiding temperament that anarchists must work to undermine. If the police were brave enough to confront him in public instead of abiding by convention out of fear for others’ safety, that would actually serve The Professor’s goal.
Themes
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Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Ossipon asks The Professor if he can describe the person to whom he gave his explosives, and The Professor immediately names Verloc. Surprised, Ossipon explains that Verloc wasn’t original or important, but he was nevertheless a useful and trusted figure who was good at staying under the police’s radar. He hasn’t seen Verloc for a month and can’t imagine what his motive might have been. He wonders what will become of Winnie, with Verloc apparently dead. The Professor describes the detonator he created for Verloc: it was on a 20-minute timer, so Verloc either ran out of time or dropped the explosive by accident.
Verloc’s involvement in the bombing is established, and Ossipon assumes this means that Verloc has been killed. His motive remains a mystery, but whatever Verloc’s reasons, something obviously went wrong with the bombing attempt.
Themes
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Ossipon wonders what to do next—the F.P. revolutionaries must disassociate themselves from the incident. He wants to visit the Verlocs’ shop to find out more details, but he’s afraid the police will be there, hoping to arrest somebody. Perhaps, he thinks, Verloc’s remains were so utterly destroyed that the bombing won’t be traced back to him. The Professor advises Ossipon to attach himself to Winnie Verloc, and then he leaves. The mechanical piano plays a gloomy Scottish air as Ossipon slowly leaves the building.
The bombing puts Verloc’s associates in a vulnerable position, and Ossipon is at a loss. Showing his lack of concern for convention, The Professor simply tells Ossipon to attach himself to the widow, presumably for the money. The music, meanwhile, gives an ominous feeling to the scene, foreshadowing trouble on the horizon for Ossipon and Verloc’s other associates.
Themes
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Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Outside, newspaper sellers are at work on the cold, muddy, early spring day. The mud, the sellers’ ragged clothing, and the newspaper ink all have a matching drabness. Even as many papers are sold, many more people hurry past with an air of indifference.
The newspaper sellers add to the overall sense of London’s dull, dirty, inhospitable atmosphere. The indistinct masses of people on the city streets don’t seem to care much about one another.
Themes
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