The Secret Agent

by

Joseph Conrad

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The Secret Agent: Chapter 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mr. Verloc returns from the Continent (mainland Europe) 10 days later, apparently unrefreshed, and Winnie chats with him over breakfast. In his absence, she cleaned the house, managed the shop, and saw some of Verloc’s friends—like Mr. Michaelis, who is on his way to the country, and Comrade Ossipon, who made Winnie blush faintly. Stevie, she tells Verloc, moped a lot in his absence. Presently, when Verloc takes off his hat, Stevie eagerly removes it to the kitchen. When Verloc is surprised, Winnie tells him that Stevie would do anything for him.
In Verloc’s absence, things have carried on much as before, with the exception of Ossipon flirting with Winnie, which she rejects out of steadfast loyalty to her husband. Verloc is usually oblivious to Stevie and has overlooked Stevie’s respect and eagerness to please him. Winnie’s observation about Stevie—that he’s pliable in Verloc’s hands—has an ominous note, since it subtly hints that Verloc may take advantage of Stevie later on.
Themes
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Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
In the kitchen, the charwoman, Mrs. Neale, is scrubbing the floor. Whenever Stevie comes near, she starts complaining about her poor children, since Stevie always gives her whatever pocket money he has on hand. Today, finding no shillings in his pocket, Stevie bangs on the table in frustration, and Winnie has to comfort him.
Stevie is easily manipulated by others’ suffering: just hearing someone express a need makes him want to remedy it. When he can’t, however, he lashes out in frustration.
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Later that day, Winnie asks Verloc to take Stevie for a walk—he is moping too much. Verloc objects that Stevie would get lost, but Winnie tells him that Stevie worships him—and anyway, he’s able to find his way back. She watches as the two walk down the street in similar coats and hats, thinking that they could be mistaken for father and son. She feels proud of herself for cultivating that kind of relationship between the two. She believes Verloc has been taking more notice of Stevie, too. However, since they began taking walks together, Stevie has been spending more time muttering to himself, clenching his fists, and scowling. He’s even neglecting his hobby of drawing circles. Winnie worries that Stevie is hearing things from Verloc’s anarchist friends that are upsetting him.
Winnie starts encouraging Verloc and Stevie to spend more time together, which will prove consequential later on in the novel. She thinks they look like father and son; and while she means this as a positive thing, it hints that Verloc may be as abusive as Stevie’s real father was, albeit in a subtler way. The walks even seem to have an agitating effect on Stevie. However, Winnie never inquires too deeply into things, and she doesn’t suspect anything of Verloc—she assumes it’s his friends’ fault for getting Stevie stirred up.
Themes
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When Winnie brings this up, Verloc suggests that it might be time for Stevie to get out of town for a while—he could stay in Michaelis’s cottage. Michaelis has always been kind to Stevie, and Winnie likes him, so she agrees. She remarks that Verloc, too, seems to have grown fonder of Stevie recently, but Verloc just swears unhappily under his breath. The next day, he and Stevie depart for the country. As they go, Stevie gives Winnie an unusually gloomy look, different from his usual childlike trustfulness.
Verloc has begun to plot the attack. Michaelis provides a convenient place for Stevie while Verloc puts his bombing plan in motion. Winnie doesn’t suspect anything bad, however, and she certainly doesn’t guess that her and Stevie’s farewell could be their last. Stevie’s coldness, however, hints that Verloc’s manipulation of him has already taken effect.
Themes
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While Stevie is in the country, Winnie spends more time alone. On the day of the Greenwich bombing, Winnie hasn’t seen Verloc all day. She is sewing at the shop counter when he gets home at dusk, and she doesn’t look up as he walks in. Verloc barely speaks to Winnie, but she’s used to that. As she goes about her kitchen duties, however, she notices an odd sound and finds Verloc sitting in front of the fire, clutching his head. He has thrown off his coat and hat, and his teeth are chattering. Winnie is startled and uneasy.
After flashing forward into the future and then back into the past, the story catches up to the day of the bombing. Again, however, only the aftermath is seen, this time from Winnie’s oblivious perspective. She is going about her normal domestic routines, but Verloc is clearly not himself.
Themes
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Winnie questions Verloc about his day. He tells her that he’s been to the bank and withdrawn all their money, but that she can trust him. Winnie quietly agrees and methodically goes about preparing their supper. After setting the table, she goes into the kitchen to get the carving knife and fork. As she returns to the table, she remarks that if she didn’t trust Verloc, she wouldn’t have married him. She calls him to the table, telling him he should nourish his cold. He comes to the table but only drinks tea. He speaks vaguely of emigrating to France or California.
Winnie and Verloc’s marriage is based on mutual trust: on Winnie’s side, it’s trust that Verloc will provide for her and especially for Stevie. This trust is the entire basis of Winnie’s conventional domestic routine, which she carries out unvaryingly today, even though Verloc is behaving strangely. Meanwhile, the appearance of the carving knife at the table will have important consequences.
Themes
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Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Although this suggestion is unexpected, Winnie attributes it to Verloc’s cold; he isn’t himself. She reminds him that they have a comfortable life. She looks around their cozy, respectable home, which only lacks Stevie at the moment. She also gives Verloc a lingering kiss on the forehead and reminds him that he hasn’t yet tired of her.
The dramatic irony of the story builds. Winnie still appears to be oblivious to the fact that anything has changed and that her respectable home is actually a façade. Importantly, her comment that Verloc hasn’t tired of her recalls her insistence to her mother that if Verloc ever got tired of Stevie, he’d have to be tired of her as well.
Themes
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Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Related Quotes
As Winnie clears the table, she calmly rejects Verloc’s suggestion of moving abroad—she doesn’t think Stevie could handle that. She tells Verloc that he’d have to go without her, but she immediately regrets sounding unkind. To make up for it, Winnie gives him a flirtatious look and says he’d miss her too much to leave her behind. Verloc steps forward as if to embrace Winnie, but then the ringing of the shop bell interrupts them. Mechanically, Verloc goes to answer the door. Winnie keeps washing the dishes, and Verloc is gone for a long time.
Winnie continues to trust Verloc and show affection to him, still seeing him as a steadfast provider for herself and Stevie— but the interruption of their embrace foreshadows an impending disruption of their domestic peace.
Themes
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When Verloc returns from the shop, he is pale. Staring at the overcoat thrown across the sofa, he tells Winnie that he’ll have to go out this evening. Winnie goes into the shop and finds a man with a twisted moustache, looking damp from the city streets. To Winnie, he looks foreign. After a while, she asks him if he’s from the Continent and whether he understands English and he gives her a strange smile and answers without an accent. Winnie assures the stranger that her husband will take good care of him, and she recommends a nearby hotel for his lodgings.
Verloc is shaken—it seems that he’s been tracked down because of the scrap of Stevie’s coat found at the scene of the attack (hence why Verloc stares at his own coat). Winnie assumes that the stranger is one of Verloc’s foreign contacts and addresses him accordingly. However, this person is likely the Assistant Commissioner, looking uncharacteristically “foreign” after his wanderings through the city.
Themes
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Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
After a while, Winnie goes back into the house to see what’s keeping Verloc. He’s put on his coat, but he’s leaning against the table as if feeling sick. He admits that he knows the man in the shop, but he won’t tell Winnie from where. She asks if he’s from the Embassy, and Verloc looks frightened. Winnie explains that Verloc has been talking in his sleep lately. The subject of the Embassy seems to anger Verloc. He gives Winnie his pocketbook full of bank notes for safekeeping and goes out to deal with the visitor.
Up until this point, Winnie hasn’t been directly in the loop regarding Verloc’s work for the Embassy. Verloc has been so distraught, however, that he’s been talking about the Embassy in his sleep, so Winnie is more aware than he has believed. Surprisingly, though, she doesn’t seem to have overheard anything about the bomb plot.
Themes
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Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
After Verloc goes out, Winnie looks around the house again: it suddenly seems lonely, remote, and unsafe. She conceals the pocketbook in her bodice. Then, she hears the shop bell again and goes to meet the customer, whom she vaguely recognizes: it’s Chief Inspector Heat. Heat had walked most of the way home before deciding to double back and ask Verloc some casual questions; though he’s effectively been thrown off the bombing case, there’s nothing to stop him from approaching Verloc as a private citizen. He hopes to catch Verloc off guard and maybe hear some incriminating remarks about Michaelis.
After Verloc goes out with the Assistant Commissioner, the atmosphere of the shop changes right away, as if signaling the coming change in the Verlocs’ relationship. Meanwhile, Chief Inspector Heat hasn’t given up, though he’s still focused on trying to apprehend Michaelis.
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As Winnie idly rummages around the shop, Chief Inspector Heat introduces himself and questions Winnie about Verloc’s whereabouts. From Winnie’s description of Verloc’s present companion, Heat knows it’s the Assistant Commissioner. He feels disgusted and believes that his superior is mishandling the case. He looks closely at Winnie, suspecting that she could give him further information. Winnie is baffled by his questions—she hasn’t read any news today.
Chief Inspector Heat mistrusts the Assistant Commissioner and hopes to beat him to solving the case. However, although Heat assumes that Winnie has inside information about the revolutionary circle’s activities, she isn’t even aware of today’s bombing incident.
Themes
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Chief Inspector Heat tells Winnie that he’s here to speak to Verloc about a stolen overcoat. Mindful of the wad of money in her dress, Winnie jumps a bit at the mention of stealing. She says they haven’t lost an overcoat. Just then, Heat notices a bottle of purple marking ink in the shop and pulls out the label in his pocket. Winnie recognizes it—she’d written and placed the label inside Stevie’s coat. She explains that Heat can’t question Stevie because he’s in the country with Michaelis. Heat’s eyes brighten knowingly, and he questions Winnie further about Stevie. The young man who’d been seen that morning was described as looking peculiar and nervous; he notes that Winnie describes her brother as “excitable.”
The labeled scrap of Stevie’s coat finally reappears. Winnie had lovingly placed this in Stevie’s coat to ensure that he could make his way back to the shop if he got lost—but instead, it has led the police to the Verlocs. Chief Inspector Heat, however, still doesn’t recognize the breakthrough on his hands; he still thinks that Michaelis is his target.
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Heat shows Winnie the coat scrap. Instantly recognizing it, she staggers a little. Heat realizes that the details of the case have fallen into place: Stevie was the bomber, and Verloc was the “other man.” He tells Winnie that he thinks she knows more than she’s letting on. Winnie ponders for a minute and then suddenly goes rigid. At that moment, Verloc comes in.
The pieces of the case finally fall into place for Inspector Heat, as he realizes that Stevie and Verloc must have been accomplices in the bombing. Winnie seems to realize that something is amiss with Stevie and Verloc as well, though she doesn’t yet know exactly what’s happened to Stevie.
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Ignoring Winnie, Verloc asks what Inspector Heat is doing there. He and Heat step into the parlor and shut the door, whereupon Winnie runs to the door and presses her ear to the keyhole. Heat accuses Verloc of being the second man in the bombing plot. He further says that he knows Verloc has been talking with the Assistant Commissioner, but that Heat is the one who really solved the crime. Though Winnie can’t see it, Heat shows Verloc the scrap of Stevie’s coat.
Winnie remains shut out of the details of the case, but she now hears everything. Inspector Heat maintains that he cracked the case, though moments ago he had a completely different resolution in mind. This shows that Heat is devoted to his own pride and reputation above all else.
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Chief Inspector Heat encourages Verloc to get away, and that he doesn’t think the Department will pursue the case further. Verloc laughs a little, saying that Heat probably wants “the others” to deal with him, now that everything is coming out. Heat asks Verloc how he got away from the scene of the crime, and Verloc says that he just ran away when he heard the premature bang. Heat says that the bomber stumbled against a tree root and that his remains had to be gathered with a shovel. Hearing this, Winnie stumbles away from the keyhole, covering her ears, her eyes wild.
The department has tolerated Verloc’s activities in the past, and Heat thinks the same will be true now. Verloc thinks this will just give the Embassy, now exposed, the opportunity to eliminate him for betraying them instead. However, while the men discuss Verloc’s fate, all Winnie hears are the horrifying details of Stevie’s death. From the beginning of his involvement in the plot to the end, he has been treated as literally disposable.
Themes
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Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
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Meanwhile, Verloc tells Heat that he plans to make a full confession. Heat reflects on what this will mean: the exoneration of Michaelis and the exposure of The Professor’s bomb-making work, not to mention a departmental shake-up. Heat says that he wouldn’t trust the Assistant Commissioner, and that even if Verloc agrees to testify with the expectation of a lighter sentence in exchange, he might be surprised by what happens. Again, he urges Verloc to get away while he has a chance; some in the Department still believe he’s dead, after all.
Heat would still prefer that Verloc escape prosecution for the crime, presumably so that he can still turn some aspect of the case in this own favor and wrangle credit for it. Since some people believe that Verloc was the bomber who got killed, there’s still hope that he can escape.
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Inspector Heat asks what drove Verloc to get involved with such a plot. In his explanation, Verloc calls Mr. Vladimir a “Hyperborean swine.” Heat leaves, and the shop bell startles Winnie from where she’s been sitting frozen at the counter, hands pressed to her face. Against the dull firelight, Winnie’s wedding band glitters brightly.
“Hyperborean” refers to an inhabitant of a northern region—though Vladimir seems more likely to be Russian, which is to England’s east. Whatever the accuracy of his expressions, Verloc blames the Embassy for everything.
Themes
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Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon