Victorian London was one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities: London is both the heart of the British Empire and the place where people from all over the world come to live. Specifically, London’s Soho district, where The Secret Agent is set, had a reputation for its large immigrant population and also for being disreputable, a place where unfamiliar (foreign) political ideas flourished. Much of the novel’s plot deals with the English authorities’ discomfort with “foreign” elements, as authorities try to target and expel unwanted movements like anarchism. Yet Conrad suggests that this preoccupation with foreignness is symptomatic of living in a modern city: in a big, cosmopolitan city like London, nobody (whether foreign or native-born) is all that connected to their neighbors or community. Because of this, attempts to isolate and expel foreigners not only fail to resolve that alienation, they’re not even effective. Conrad paints a bleak picture of modern urban life, suggesting that it’s profoundly isolating for everyone but is especially alienating for immigrants.
Conrad portrays the modern city as an inhospitable place that cuts people off from one another. As Verloc broods about his role as a secret agent, the city reflects his sense of alienation from other people: “he pulled up violently the venetian blind, and leaned his forehead against the cold window-pane—a fragile film of glass stretched between him and the enormity of cold, black, wet, muddy, inhospitable accumulation of bricks, slates, and stones, things in themselves unlovely and unfriendly to man.” The material that makes up city life is “unfriendly” and, even if it offers basic shelter, it doesn’t provide a homey atmosphere where people can easily connect and thrive.
The sense of alienation flows out of the inhospitable environment. While watching paperboys sell newspapers, an anarchist named Ossipon reflects on the inescapable filth of the city: “the grimy sky, the mud of the streets, the rags of the dirty men, harmonised excellently with the eruption of the damp, rubbishy sheets of paper soiled with printers' ink. […] The trade in afternoon papers was brisk, yet, in comparison with the swift, constant march of foot traffic, the effect was of indifference[.]” The entire atmosphere of London is “gloomy,” “grimy,” and “rubbishy,” and the constant rush of people seems to be part of this oppressive atmosphere; their “indifference” reinforces a sense of alienation between people. Later in the novel, after Mrs. Verloc vengefully murders her husband and finds herself wandering helplessly through the city, its atmosphere reinforces her sense of being alone: “She was alone in London: and the whole town of marvels and mud, with its maze of streets and its mass of lights, was sunk in a hopeless night, rested at the bottom of a black abyss from which no unaided woman could hope to scramble out.” The muddy, dark city, which is difficult to navigate, underscores the helplessness of a vulnerable woman in the massive city.
The city is especially inhospitable to “dirty” foreigners, though ultimately, there’s not a perfectly clear boundary between foreign and native, meaning that it’s impossible to expel foreignness. Verloc is unavoidably influenced by London’s foreign influences. “He sat down to consume [supper] without conviction, wearing his hat pushed far back on his head. It was […] the frequentation of foreign cafes which was responsible for that habit, investing with a character of unceremonious impermanency Mr Verloc's steady fidelity to his own fireside.” Verloc’s habits are permeated with “foreign” influences, giving him an “impermanent” manner at home—he’s faithful to his home, yet there’s a sense that he never completely belongs there, either. And although London’s so-called foreignness is undesirable to authorities, it can’t be eradicated entirely. The Assistant Commissioner investigating foreign anarchists believes that the Observatory bombing is a good starting point for “the clearing out of this country of all the foreign political spies, police, and that sort of—of—dogs. In my opinion they are a ghastly nuisance; also an element of danger. […] The thing's becoming indecent." To him, foreign influence is something that must be cleansed from London; it’s not only un-English, but somehow inhuman. However, in the end, the police’s efforts haven’t actually rid London of foreign political elements—and importantly, they’re unable to apprehend Verloc, whose terrorist bombing is meant to copycat foreign anarchism but is actually executed by British people.
Ultimately, then, foreign elements can’t be simply ejected from London; such elements are too deeply embedded in British life, making them ironically too British to be eradicated. The bigger problem with the city isn’t that it’s contaminated by outsiders, but that it’s an inhuman environment for everyone who lives there. Foreigners might be scapegoated, but the alienating atmosphere of modern urban life is a universal problem.
Foreigners and the Modern City ThemeTracker
Foreigners and the Modern City Quotes in The Secret Agent
The Chief Inspector lost himself suddenly in a discreet reflective mood; and the Assistant Commissioner repressed a smile at the fleeting thought that the reputation of Chief Inspector Heat might possibly have been made in a great part by the Secret Agent Verloc.
"In a more general way of being of use, all our men of the Special Crimes section on duty […] have orders to take careful notice of anybody they may see with him. He meets the new arrivals frequently, and afterwards keeps track of them. […] When I want an address in a hurry, I can always get it from him. Of course, I know how to manage our relations. I haven't seen him to speak to three times in the last two years. I drop him a line, unsigned, and he answers me in the same way at my private address."
His descent into the street was like the descent into a slimy aquarium from which the water had been run off. A murky, gloomy dampness enveloped him. The walls of the houses were wet, the mud of the roadway glistened with an effect of phosphorescence, and when he emerged into the Strand out of a narrow street by the side of Charing Cross Station the genius of the locality assimilated him. He might have been but one more of the queer foreign fish that can be seen of an evening about there flitting round the dark corners.
And he himself had become unplaced. It would have been impossible for anybody to guess his occupation. […] A pleasurable feeling of independence possessed him when he heard the glass doors swing to behind his back with a sort of imperfect baffled thud. He advanced at once into an immensity of greasy slime and damp plaster interspersed with lamps, and enveloped, oppressed, penetrated, choked, and suffocated by the blackness of a wet London night[.]
The vast world created for the glory of man was only a vast blank to Mrs Verloc. She did not know which way to turn. Murderers had friends, relations, helpers—they had knowledge. She had nothing. She was the most lonely of murderers that ever struck a mortal blow. She was alone in London: and the whole town of marvels and mud, with its maze of streets and its mass of lights, was sunk in a hopeless night, rested at the bottom of a black abyss from which no unaided woman could hope to scramble out.