Though the ostensible drama of The Secret Agent is the Observatory bombing plot, the novel’s underlying drama is Winnie Verloc’s transformation from conventional wife to rebellious murderer. Winnie and Adolf Verloc have a quiet, unexpressive marriage that rests on taken-for-granted domestic routines, despite the “shop of doubtful wares” (essentially a pornography shop) that they run. However, when Winnie learns that Verloc enlisted her beloved brother, Stevie, for his terrorist plot, resulting in Stevie’s death, the façade of domestic peace is shattered, and Winnie’s loyalty to Verloc is destroyed with it. In enlisting his brother-in-law in a fatal terrorist plot, Verloc shatters his conventional domestic life, which leaves Winnie free to be subversive, too—culminating in her killing Verloc and fleeing London. Through Winnie’s stark transformation, Conrad suggests that loyalty to conventional structures like marriage is often more fragile than it appears; when their most treasured bonds of loyalty are violated (like Winnie’s bond with Stevie), people will rebel from conventionality.
At the beginning of the story, Winnie’s loyalty to Verloc is based on her conventional expectations for marriage and domestic life. Winnie is loyal to Verloc because he fulfills her expectations of him as a reliable provider: “Winnie did not expect from her husband in the daily intercourse of their married life a ceremonious amenity of address and courtliness of manner; […] always foreign to the standards of her class. She did not look for courtesies from him. But he was a good husband, and she had a loyal respect for his rights.” Winnie, in other words, is content in a conventional marriage in which she trusts her husband and remains faithful to him in exchange for his provision. At least superficially, Winnie is also content with everyday domestic life: “She glanced all round the parlour […] Ensconced cosily behind the shop of doubtful wares, with the mysteriously dim window, and its door suspiciously ajar in the obscure and narrow street, it was in all essentials of domestic propriety and domestic comfort a respectable home.” Verloc’s day job is running a shop that sells pornographic and contraceptive items—things that were deeply taboo in the late 19th century (when the novel is set). This socially deviant occupation hints that, “domestic propriety” notwithstanding, everything in the Verlocs’ home isn’t as it should be.
When Winnie discovers that Verloc has betrayed her by enlisting her brother in a fatal terrorist plot, her loyalty evaporates along with the façade of her conventional domestic life, and she rebels. Indeed, after Winnie overhears the police inspector investigating Verloc regarding the bombing and Stevie’s death, her domestic coziness melts away: “The perfect immobility of her pose expressed the agitation of rage and despair, all the potential violence of tragic passions, better than any shallow display of shrieks […] could have done […] In that shop of shady wares […] which seemed to devour the sheen of the light, the gold circlet of the wedding ring on Mrs Verloc's left hand glittered” like “a piece from some splendid treasure of jewels, dropped in a dust-bin.” Winnie’s impassive, quiet demeanor is revealed to hide a potential for fury, and the shop no longer seems just incompatible with domestic life. Rather, it reveals the hollowness of that life; her wedding ring even glitters mockingly against the “shady” backdrop. When Mrs. Verloc’s sense of security is stripped away by Stevie’s death, her true nature is revealed: “The exigencies of Mrs Verloc's temperament, which, when stripped of its philosophical reserve, was maternal and violent, forced her to roll a series of thoughts in her motionless head. […] With the rage and dismay of a betrayed woman, she reviewed the tenor of her life in visions concerned mostly with Stevie's difficult existence from its earliest days.” Caring for Stevie has been Winnie’s whole life, and when she is deprived of that meaning, “reserve” gives way to the capacity for violence. In turn, Mrs. Verloc’s capacity for violence transforms into rebellion. When Mrs. Verloc realizes that she’s not obligated to remain loyal to Mr. Verloc, she begins “to look upon herself as released from all earthly ties. […] Her contract with existence, as represented by that man standing over there, was at an end. She was a free woman.” Without Stevie, and with no reason to remain loyal to her husband, Winnie is freed from conventional constraints. This “freedom” soon leads Winnie to try to more literally free herself from her husband, and from society’s expectations, by resorting to drastic measures: she kills Verloc and then commits suicide.
As Winnie tells Ossipon before she flees London, her life has been one of thankless care for others, and now there’s no clear place for her in society: “Look here, Tom! I was a young girl. I was done up. I was tired. […] I sat up nights and nights with [Stevie] on my lap, all alone upstairs, when I wasn't more than eight years old myself. […] You can't understand that. No man can understand it. What was I to do?” In Winnie’s view, no man, including a husband, can understand the bond she shared with her needy brother; when that fundamental bond is violated, she feels justified in leaving all other loyalties behind.
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion ThemeTracker
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Quotes in The Secret Agent
Winnie after the death of her father found considerable consolation in the feeling that she need no longer tremble for poor Stevie. She could not bear to see the boy hurt. It maddened her. As a little girl she had often faced with blazing eyes the irascible licensed victualler in defence of her brother. Nothing now in Mrs Verloc's appearance could lead one to suppose that she was capable of a passionate demonstration.
"I had to take the carving knife from the boy," Mrs Verloc continued, a little sleepily now. "He was shouting and stamping and sobbing. He can't stand the notion of any cruelty. He would have stuck that officer like a pig if he had seen him then. It's true, too! Some people don't deserve much mercy." Mrs Verloc's voice ceased, and the expression of her motionless eyes became more and more contemplative and veiled during the long pause. "Comfortable, dear?" she asked in a faint, faraway voice. "Shall I put out the light now?"
"I have the means to make myself deadly, but that by itself, you understand, is absolutely nothing in the way of protection. What is effective is the belief those people have in my will to use the means. […] Therefore I am deadly […] Their character is built upon conventional morality. It leans on the social order. Mine stands free from everything artificial. They are bound in all sorts of conventions. They depend on life, which, in this connection, is a historical fact surrounded by all sorts of restraints and considerations, a complex organised fact open to attack at every point; whereas I depend on death, which knows no restraint and cannot be attacked. My superiority is evident."
"You revolutionists," the other continued, with leisurely self-confidence, "are the slaves of the social convention, which is afraid of you; slaves of it as much as the very police that stands up in the defence of that convention. Clearly you are, since you want to revolutionise it. It governs your thought, of course, and your action too, and thus neither your thought nor your action can ever be conclusive […] The terrorist and the policeman both come from the same basket. Revolution, legality—counter moves in the same game […] at bottom identical.”
The way of even the most justifiable revolutions is prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds. The Professor's indignation found in itself a final cause that absolved him from the sin of turning to destruction as the agent of his ambition. […] By exercising his agency with ruthless defiance he procured for himself the appearances of power and personal prestige. That was undeniable to his vengeful bitterness. It pacified its unrest; and in their own way the most ardent of revolutionaries are perhaps doing no more but seeking for peace in common with the rest of mankind—the peace of soothed vanity, of satisfied appetites, or perhaps of appeased conscience.
[Inspector Heat] could understand the mind of a burglar, because, as a matter of fact, the mind and the instincts of a burglar are of the same kind as the mind and the instincts of a police officer. Both recognise the same conventions, and have a working knowledge of each other's methods and of the routine of their respective trades. […] Products of the same machine, one classed as useful and the other as noxious, they take the machine for granted in different ways, but with a seriousness essentially the same. The mind of Chief Inspector Heat was inaccessible to ideas of revolt. But his thieves were not rebels.
The tears of that large female in a dark, dusty wig, and ancient silk dress festooned with dingy white cotton lace, were the tears of genuine distress. She had wept because she was heroic and unscrupulous and full of love for both her children. Girls frequently get sacrificed to the welfare of the boys. In this case she was sacrificing Winnie. By the suppression of truth she was slandering her. Of course, Winnie was independent, and need not care for the opinion of people that she would never see and who would never see her; whereas poor Stevie had nothing in the world he could call his own except his mother's heroism and unscrupulousness.
"You know you can trust me," Mr Verloc remarked […] with hoarse feeling.
Mrs Verloc turned slowly towards the cupboard, saying with deliberation:
"Oh yes. I can trust you."
And she went on with her methodical proceedings. She laid two plates, got the bread, the butter, going to and fro quietly between the table and the cupboard in the peace and silence of her home. On the point of taking out the jam, she reflected practically: "He will be feeling hungry, having been away all day," and she returned to the cupboard once more to get the cold beef. […] It was only when coming back, carving knife and fork in hand, that she spoke again.
"If I hadn't trusted you I wouldn't have married you."
She glanced all round the parlour, from the corner cupboard to the good fire in the grate. Ensconced cosily behind the shop of doubtful wares, with the mysteriously dim window, and its door suspiciously ajar in the obscure and narrow street, it was in all essentials of domestic propriety and domestic comfort a respectable home. […]
This was the boy's home too—the roof, the cupboard, the stoked grate. On this thought Mrs Verloc rose, and walking to the other end of the table, said in the fulness of her heart:
"And you are not tired of me."
"A genuine wife and a genuinely, respectably, marital relation. He told me that after his interview at the Embassy he would have thrown everything up, would have tried to sell his shop, and leave the country, only he felt certain that his wife would not even hear of going abroad. Nothing could be more characteristic of the respectable bond than that," went on, with a touch of grimness, the Assistant Commissioner […] "Yes, a genuine wife. And the victim was a genuine brother-in-law. From a certain point of view we are here in the presence of a domestic drama."
Like a peripatetic philosopher, Mr Verloc, strolling along the streets of London, had modified Stevie's view of the police by conversations full of subtle reasonings. Never had a sage a more attentive and admiring disciple. The submission and worship were so apparent that Mr Verloc had come to feel something like a liking for the boy. In any case, he had not foreseen the swift bringing home of his connection. That his wife should hit upon the precaution of sewing the boy's address inside his overcoat was the last thing Mr Verloc would have thought of. […] That was what she meant when she said that he need not worry if he lost Stevie during their walks. She had assured him that the boy would turn up all right. Well, he had turned up with a vengeance!
It was obviously unreasonable, the mere cry of exaggerated grief. He threw over it the mantle of his marital indulgence. The mind of Mr Verloc lacked profundity. Under the mistaken impression that the value of individuals consists in what they are in themselves, he could not possibly comprehend the value of Stevie in the eyes of Mrs Verloc. She was taking it confoundedly hard, he thought to himself. It was all the fault of that damned Heat. What did he want to upset the woman for? But she mustn't be allowed, for her own good, to carry on so till she got quite beside herself.
The lodger was Mr Verloc, indolent, and keeping late hours, sleepily jocular of a morning from under his bedclothes, but with gleams of infatuation in his heavy lidded eyes, and always with some money in his pockets. There was no sparkle of any kind on the lazy stream of his life. […] But his barque seemed a roomy craft, and his taciturn magnanimity accepted as a matter of course the presence of passengers.
Mrs Verloc pursued the visions of seven years' security for Stevie, loyally paid for on her part; of security growing into confidence, into a domestic feeling, stagnant and deep like a placid pool[.]
She started forward at once, as if she were still a loyal woman bound to that man by an unbroken contract. Her right hand skimmed slightly the end of the table, and when she had passed on towards the sofa the carving knife had vanished without the slightest sound from the side of the dish. […] But Mr Verloc did not see that. He was lying on his back and staring upwards. He saw partly on the ceiling and partly on the wall the moving shadow of an arm with a clenched hand holding a carving knife. It flickered up and down. Its movements were leisurely. They were leisurely enough for Mr Verloc to recognise the limb and the weapon.
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.