The Secret Agent

by

Joseph Conrad

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The Secret Agent: Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Michaelis’s patroness has connections with the Assistant Commissioner’s wife. The patroness is a rich, influential old lady. She is an intelligent woman who attracts a vast and varied social circle; she “liked to watch what the world was coming to,” and guests can never quite guess who they’ll meet in her drawing-room. Some years ago, Michaelis received a life sentence for a plot to rescue some prisoners from a police van. During the incident, a policeman with a wife and family was shot and killed, arousing popular outrage. At the time, Michaelis was just a young locksmith whose role was little more than to open the van.
The Assistant Commissioner has a personal connection to Michaelis, through the elderly society lady who supports Michaelis financially. Michaelis’s youthful complicity in an anarchist plot led to years in prison, which destroyed his ability to support himself afterward. Michaelis’s dependence on the old lady, and his connection through her to mainstream society figures, shows that revolutionary circles aren’t so separate from conventional ones.
Themes
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Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Michaelis was equally distraught by the death of the policeman and by the failure of the plot, and he received a life sentence for his seeming callousness. He had an innocent and trustful personality, with humanitarian sympathies that deepened while he was in solitude. After his release, Michaelis wound up in the old patroness’s circle—she was impressed with his optimism and lack of bitterness. Thanks to her, his first public appearance since jail was a success.
Michaelis has spent most of his time theorizing in solitude, not plotting violence, and his ideas have made him an interesting party guest. His character may be based on Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist in Conrad’s day who promoted economic theories based on mutual cooperation.
Themes
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After Michaelis left that night, the patroness expressed disbelief that someone like him could be a “revolutionist.” She believes that Michaelis has a saintly temperament, and she pities him because his loved ones all died while he was in prison, and he’s lost the means of supporting himself. Someone, she decides, will need to look after him. The Assistant Commissioner, who was there at the time, hadn’t voiced an opinion, but he’d shared the patroness’s belief that Michaelis seemed harmless, if perhaps a bit mad. So, when the Greenwich bombing occurs, and Michaelis appears to be connected, the Assistant Commissioner immediately thinks of the elderly patroness and her steadfast defense of Michaelis. If Michaelis gets sent back to jail, his health won’t survive it, and the patroness won’t forgive the Assistant Commissioner.
Michaelis is the kind of revolutionary that mainstream society finds relatively palatable: he’s interesting and sympathetic, and his ideas seem too impractical to threaten the status quo. Even the Assistant Commissioner wants to defend him in order to protect his own position in society. Again, revolutionary circles and mainstream society can be surprisingly intertwined.
Themes
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Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
With all this in mind, the Assistant Commissioner tells Heat that it will be important to gather sufficient evidence against Michaelis. Heat is confident that he can get enough to satisfy the public and send Michaelis back to jail. When Heat gives an arrogant little laugh and says, “Trust me,” the Assistant Commissioner whirls around, feeling suspicious. Sitting down at his desk, he demands to know what Heat has got up his sleeve. A born detective tied to his paperwork, the Assistant Commissioner can’t help unleashing his suspicion somewhere. He senses that Heat’s loyalty is primarily to himself, and he suddenly relishes a challenge.
The Assistant Commissioner warns his subordinate to be careful about pursuing Michaelis. For his part, Heat doesn’t seem terribly concerned about making an airtight case against Michaelis; he just wants to get an anarchist behind bars in order to satisfy the public and protect his own job. But the Assistant Commissioner has an interest in protecting Michaelis and wants to put Heat in his place.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
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The Assistant Commissioner questions Chief Inspector Heat about Michaelis’s doings, though he’s perfectly aware of them himself. Michaelis has retired to the countryside because he’s working on his autobiography, in a cramped cottage that’s comfortably reminiscent of prison. Inspector Heat, for his part, has always resented Michaelis’s status as a kind of celebrity prisoner. He is comfortable arresting someone on a bare suspicion; his previous superiors would have allowed it. Besides, Michaelis will be easier to arrest, and his arrest more palatable to public opinion, than certain others Inspector Heat has in mind. To do so would feel like a personal triumph. 
After his demoralizing encounter with The Professor earlier today, Chief Inspector Heat is especially eager to arrest an anarchist—and Michaelis presents a much safer, more approachable target than the bomb-laden Professor. Apparently, Heat’s reasoning would have been accepted by his department in the past, suggesting that the anarchists have some good reasons to resent the police.
Themes
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The Assistant Commissioner wants to know why, if Heat is so convinced about Michaelis, he didn’t seek Michaelis’s arrest before coming into this meeting; Heat shouldn’t toy with him like this. Chief Inspector Heat starts sweating with indignation. The conversation turns to Heat’s investigation that day, and Heat pulls out the scrap from the coat. The Assistant Commissioner finds an address, 32 Brett Street, inked onto the fabric. Heat tells him that’s Verloc’s shop. Heat further explains that the department has always been aware of Verloc’s role as an embassy spy, but that exposing him was never thought to be publicly useful.
The Assistant Commissioner won’t let Chief Inspector Heat get away with such shoddy reasoning. When they look at the concrete clues at hand, they confirm a connection to Verloc. In the past, however, the department has tolerated Verloc’s spying. Motivated largely by public opinion, they have been selective about which matters to pursue and which to overlook.
Themes
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Under the previous ambassador, Heat even met Verloc and acted on intelligence that Verloc passed along. Since then, Heat has occasionally crossed Verloc’s path and kept tabs on him. One evening, he went to Verloc’s shop, and Heat told Verloc that as long as he didn’t get involved in anything too outrageous, the police would leave his shop alone. In exchange, Verloc gives Heat occasional useful “hints.” He knows that Verloc often meets with new foreign arrivals and keeps track of them. He and Heat exchange unsigned communications from time to time. However, the latest bombing came as a total surprise.
The legality of some of Verloc’s wares (contraceptives and pornography) is considered shady, so police interference could wreak havoc with his business. The police overlook Verloc’s business in exchange for hints about foreign anarchist activity in London. However, they received no warning of today’s incident.
Themes
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Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Though Heat insists that he must do his work as he sees fit, the Assistant Commissioner is annoyed at having been kept in the dark, and at Heat’s persistent belief that Michaelis is more relevant to the case at hand. He tells Heat to report back tomorrow to discuss things further. Not long after the Chief Inspector leaves, the Assistant Commissioner, too, puts on his hat and leaves the building.
The Assistant Commissioner doesn’t appreciate that Heat has his own personal informant. Despite Heat’s certainty about the best direction to pursue, the Assistant Commissioner is ready to take the case into his own hands.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon