The Secret Agent

by

Joseph Conrad

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The Secret Agent: Chapter 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Drawing on her late husband’s social connections, Winnie’s mother has secured a place in an almshouse for innkeepers’ widows. She carried out this task in secret, then surprised her daughter with the news one day while Winnie was dusting. Winnie’s mother tells her the details of her scheme, and Winnie accepts this information in silence. Winnie’s mother thinks about how to dispose of her furniture, her only possessions. If she gives the furniture to Stevie, it would seem to weaken his position of complete dependence, so she leaves everything to Winnie.
At this point, the novel flashes back to events that took place several weeks before the bombing, but after Verloc had received his assignment from Vladimir. Winnie’s mother moves out of the Verlocs’ home, hoping to provide better for Stevie’s future. Ironically, she does this by making him more dependent on Winnie. If it looks as if he should be able to fend for himself, he could end up in an even more vulnerable position.
Themes
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
When it’s time for Winnie’s mother to leave Brett Street, Winnie and Stevie come along for the cab ride. The carriage is drawn by an ill horse, and the driver has a hook for a hand. Seeing this, Winnie’s mother draws back, but a constable reassures the women that the driver has been driving for 20 years without accident. The three of them climb into the carriage, which proceeds very slowly down the streets. Stevie, distraught, urges the driver not to whip the sick horse. When the driver doesn’t refrain, Stevie suddenly scrambles down from the box, causing a commotion. He is unhurt, but he resists getting back into the carriage until Winnie tells him that Mr. Verloc would be displeased with his behavior.
The scene with Winnie, her mother, and Stevie is significant primarily because of what it reveals about Stevie’s character. It’s already been established that Stevie gets upset at any mention of other creatures’ suffering. During the cab ride, he can’t bear to see the weak horse whipped at all, even to make their journey faster. He resists taking any part in the horse’s suffering, instead sympathizing with the horse’s pain and wishing he could fix it.
Themes
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Related Quotes
As the ride slowly progresses, Winnie tells her mother that she doesn’t believe she will be happy in her new home. Wasn’t she comfortable with the Verlocs, she asks? And what will people think? Winnie’s mother assures Winnie that she’s been the best of daughters. The rattling of the rickety carriage makes it necessary for the women to scream their conversation at each other. Winnie’s mother looks out the window in shame, knowing that her entrance into a charity home will reflect poorly on the Verlocs. To secure a place, she had wept shamelessly in front of the charity chairman, letting him believe the worst.
Winnie’s mother’s departure puts Winnie in a vulnerable position: by moving into a charity home, Winnie’s mother implies that her own daughter is unable, or worse, unwilling to provide for her. This would have been a social stigma at the time, as women in Victorian England were expected to be caregivers and homemakers above all else. Winnie’s mother allowed the charity people to believe that Winnie was an insufficient caregiver order to secure a place there—and she did this, ironically, out of loyalty to both her children and their long-term well-being.
Themes
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Winnie’s mother’s tears had been genuine—she’d felt that she was sacrificing Winnie for Stevie’s sake. Though she doesn’t doubt Winnie’s loyalty to Stevie, she is also realistic, and she believes that over time, Mr. Verloc’s patience with Stevie will wear thin. By retiring to the charity home, Winnie’s mother ensures that Winnie basically inherits Stevie, making him legally dependent on her, and thereby ensuring that he’s safe for the rest of his life.
Winnie’s mother believes that at some point, Mr. Verloc will get tired of voluntarily providing for Stevie, putting Stevie in a helpless situation. By effectively taking herself out of the picture, she hopes to ensure Stevie’s legal dependence on Winnie. This situation shows how vulnerable women and disabled people often were in working-class Victorian London.
Themes
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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Winnie promises that she will come to visit her mother often, and so will Stevie; Winnie points out that his mother’s departure will be devastating for him. Winnie’s mother worries that the trip—two omnibuses and a short walk—will be too difficult for Stevie to manage alone, but Winnie promises that she’ll make sure Stevie doesn’t get lost. Abruptly, the carriage pulls up in front of a group of small, gabled houses. After helping his mother with her bags, Stevie comes outside and stands near the cab driver.
Stevie’s mother’s move will leave Stevie feeling disoriented and insecure, both practically and emotionally. The need to make sure that Stevie doesn’t get lost in the city will become an important point later in the story.
Themes
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Stevie stares sadly at the thin, drooping horse with uneven ears. Suddenly, the cab driver pokes Stevie in the chest with his hooked hand and says that the horse isn’t lame or abused; how would Stevie like to drive drunks around in the middle of the night? But the cabman has a wife and children to support. When he remarks that it’s not an easy world, Stevie bursts out with “Bad! Bad! […] Poor! Poor!” Filled with sympathy, he suddenly wishes he could make both the horse and the cabman happy and comfortable. He watches as the cabman and horse painfully journey onward.
The cab driver defends himself against Stevie’s implication that the horse is mistreated. In fact, the driver, too, has a difficult life. Stevie readily identifies with this and struggles to express the strength of his feelings in words. He feels overcome not only with sympathy for the cabby’s and horse’s struggles, but with an inability to do anything to help them.
Themes
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Waiting outside the charity house, Stevie’s indignation mounts; his tenderness toward others’ suffering is joined to an innocent rage. Even Winnie has never understood this, never inquiring too deeply into things. She remains oblivious tonight, taking Stevie’s arm after saying farewell to her mother. She flatters Stevie by asking him to look out for her on the way home. As the two pass the old cab and its decrepit horse parked outside a pub, Stevie keeps repeating, “Poor brute, poor people!” and “Shame!” Winnie just says, “Come along, Stevie.”
Because Stevie struggles to express himself verbally, other people don’t understand the range and depth of his emotions. Even Winnie, who takes most things at face value, usually dismisses Stevie’s emotions without asking questions about them. She doesn’t appreciate the anger that boils beneath the surface of Stevie’s compassion and helplessness.
Themes
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Deeply moral in his instincts, Stevie wants someone to be punished for the world’s cruelty toward poor people. He suggests to Winnie that the police could help, but Winnie tells him that isn’t the police’s job. Stevie is shocked. He’s always idealized the police as suppressors of evil. Why, then, do they pretend to be good? Winnie, somewhat echoing Mr. Verloc’s revolutionary friends, tells Stevie that the police are there to stop those with nothing from stealing from those who do have things. She avoids using the word “steal,” because the mere mention of such crimes upsets Stevie, yet Stevie is also upset when told that even the hungry aren’t allowed to take from the rich.
Stevie’s moral instinct overlaps with the instincts of some of the revolutionists in an interesting way. Like them, he perceives that the world is structured in an unfair way that hurts vulnerable people. Unlike them, however, he expects existing institutions (like the police) to fix the disparity. When Winnie tells him that this isn’t how the world works, Stevie is disoriented further.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
An hour later, back on Brett Street, Mr. Verloc is sitting at the shop counter, staring at a newspaper, when Winnie and Stevie get home. Later, over supper, Mr. Verloc is silent. Winnie had warned Stevie that Mr. Verloc would be sad about their mother’s departure, and Stevie believes with all his heart that Mr. Verloc is a good man, so he keeps quiet at the table. After dinner, Mr. Verloc wanders the streets in a failed attempt to escape his thoughts, and then he comes back home to find Winnie already in bed.
Though Winnie tells Stevie that Mr. Verloc is upset about their mother moving out, he’s really fretting about the bombing. Winnie has taught Stevie to revere and trust Mr. Verloc because of his provision for Stevie. This trust makes Stevie vulnerable, too, if Verloc ever chooses to exploit it.
Themes
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Winnie is awake, lonely and troubled over her mother’s departure. Mr. Verloc silently wonders if Winnie’s mother had sensed disaster and fled, like rats fleeing a sinking ship, but he doesn’t say anything. As Verloc gets into bed, he nearly confesses everything to Winnie. In his own way, he loves her—yet he’s also lazy, and he can’t bring himself to disrupt their domestic peace right now. Instead, he tells Winnie than tomorrow, he’s leaving for the Continent (mainland Europe) for a week or two. It’s not unusual for him to make such trips, so Winnie doesn’t comment. She says that she and Stevie will get by just fine, then puts out the light.
Verloc almost changes the course of the story by confiding in Winnie about the position that Vladimir has put him in. Yet this runs completely against the grain of Verloc’s nature and the normal pattern of their quiet, reserved household, so the opportunity passes.
Themes
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon