The Secret Agent

by

Joseph Conrad

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The Secret Agent: Chapter 7 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Assistant Commissioner walks through the muddy streets, enters a public building, and speaks to Toodles, a young, unpaid private secretary. Toodles warns that his boss isn’t in a good mood, but he gets permission for the Assistant Commissioner to enter. He is soon ushered into the presence of Sir Ethelred, a Secretary of State, a bulky, droopy-eyed, hawk-nosed man who immediately asks if this is the beginning of another “dynamite campaign.” He doesn’t want any details. The Assistant Commissioner assures him that it isn’t another terrorist campaign, but Sir Ethelred is skeptical—a month ago, he received the same assurance, yet today’s attack still happened.
The Assistant Commissioner approaches his own superior, a member of Parliament. Sir Ethelred just wants the barest details about what’s happened—whether the bombing was terrorism or not—suggesting that, among both high-ranking politicians and ordinary people, accurate perceptions of revolutionary activity are rare. People prefer to get the simplest, most digestible soundbites about complicated matters rather than trying to understand the. nuanced motivations of these movements.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
The Assistant Commissioner tells Sir Ethelred that he can offer a different perspective from Chief Inspector Heat’s. For example, today’s incident doesn’t fit the profile of a typical anarchist attack. He succinctly runs through the details of the case. Sir Ethelred is appalled at the involvement of a foreign embassy and decries the “methods of Crim-Tartary.” But the Assistant Commissioner assures him that he thinks the crime amounts to mere childishness, not sophisticated international intrigue. However, he agrees that secret agents are dangerous and shouldn’t be tolerated. That’s why he’s come to speak to the Secretary of State in person.
The Assistant Commissioner tries to persuade Sir Ethelred that this isn’t a typical anarchist plot, but Sir Ethelred’s reaction to the Embassy connection shows that he isn’t entirely convinced. “Crim-Tartary” refers to the Crimean region of Russia and to the Tartar people, a Central Asian ethnic group renowned for its ferocity as warriors. This is an exaggerated perception of the forces involved, to say the least, but it indicates that the British police are anxious about foreign interference.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
In closing, the Assistant Commissioner tells Sir Ethelred that he thinks Inspector Heat ought to be replaced because of his use of the secret agent for information. Such information ought to be the property of the Special Crimes division overall instead of being Inspector Heat’s exclusive source. Heat will resist this, of course, since he sees such measures as siding with criminal revolutionists.
The Assistant Commissioner moves against Inspector Heat on the grounds that Heat isn’t loyal enough to the department—he hoards an exclusive information source to himself.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
The Assistant Commissioner says that the existence of foreign spies in revolutionary groups throws a wrench in the police’s surveillance of such groups—it makes everything uncertain. This is even more true because the Commissioner is convinced that incidents like today’s bombing are “episodic,” not part of a larger scheme. The foolhardiness of the affair is evidence of that fact; the stumbling nature of the crime suggests that someone ignorant of English was recruited for the job, or possibly someone deaf and mute. In any case, the Assistant Commissioner intends to go over Inspector Heat’s head to solve the mystery. He believes that Heat’s sense of duty—particularly his determination to implicate prominent anarchists—is tainting his investigation. Therefore, the Assistant Commissioner wants a free hand to solve this case himself. Sir Ethelred grants it, telling the Commissioner to report back later tonight with his discoveries; Toodles will let him in.
The Assistant Commissioner thinks that today’s bombing should be viewed as an anomaly—not part of a carefully planned, systematic campaign. Such unpredictable events, he believes, are the result of foreign meddling. The clumsiness of the incident suggests that whomever was responsible for the bombing wasn’t very competent for the job. By making a case that this isn’t the typical anarchist job, the Assistant Commissioner successfully overrules Inspector Heat (who’s committed to blaming anarchists) and wins Sir Ethelred’s trust in dealing with the case.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
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Sir Ethelred is curious about the Assistant Commissioner’s interest in the case, and the Commissioner replies that it’s simply his impatience with old methods and secondhand information. Sir Ethelred wishes him well, and the Commissioner says goodbye to Toodles, who explains that Ethelred is under a lot of stress dealing with attacks on his bill for the nationalization of the fisheries—people are calling it the beginning of a social revolution. There have been protests, and Toodles fears that a “foreign scoundrel” might throw a bomb at Sir Ethelred. The Commissioner puts him at ease and then heads back to his office.
Around the time of the Greenwich bombing, the Second Fisheries Bill was going through Parliament. Conrad portrays the bill as more revolutionary than it actually was—entirely nationalizing the fishing industry. In fact, the fishing industry simply came under a different national jurisdiction. However, Conrad uses this example, and Toodles’s reaction, to show the overall English nervousness about “foreign scoundrels” at the time.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
A short time later, the Assistant Commissioner heads out into the dank, gloomy city. He catches a cab and is soon deposited in front of a small Italian restaurant. As the Commissioner eats his solitary meal, he enjoys a pleasant sense of freedom. As he prepares to leave, he catches sight of his reflection and thinks he looks “foreign.” He feels that nobody would guess his identity or occupation. He disappears back into the wet London night and makes his way to Brett Street, not far away. He feels oddly cheerful and adventurous. The Assistant Commissioner watches a policeman disappear down Brett Street and then observes the Verlocs’ shop from a distance. Its door is ajar.
The Assistant Commissioner’s city wanderings and solitary meal symbolize his freedom from sitting behind his office desk and being dependent on his subordinates. He is getting back into the riskier solo detective work that he prefers to do. In addition,, the reference to the Italian restaurant and the Assistant Commissioner’s “foreign” look are intentional. Despite his own desire to isolate and expel foreign elements from London, London has assimilated elements of foreign cultures, and the resulting cultural mix rubs off on English citizens too. In other words, it’s not possible to fully separate “foreign” and “native.”
Themes
Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
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