The struggles of the poorest and weakest in society are a frequent focus of The Secret Agent. The anarchist characters claim, at least outwardly, that their activities are meant to improve poor people’s lot in life. More specifically, Winnie Verloc’s disabled brother, Stevie, exemplifies the frustration of vulnerable people who have no outlet for their sufferings. Indeed, Stevie’s sufferings are more acute because his own background of abuse and disability causes him to feel others’ pain as if it’s his own. Stevie’s struggles—culminating in Verloc’s callous recruitment of him to carry out the Observatory bombing—end up destroying him. Through the example of Stevie’s vulnerability and shocking death, Conrad argues that the most vulnerable members of a society often have no outlet to voice or cope with their suffering, which makes them susceptible to further exploitation. However, he also hints that the vulnerable will ultimately be vindicated.
Being weak and vulnerable himself, Stevie is especially sensitive to others’ suffering. Stevie gets worked up about things he doesn’t understand, as his sister, Winnie, observes: "If I had known [Verloc’s anarchist friends] were coming to-night I would have seen to it that he went to bed at the same time I did. He was out of his mind with something he overheard about eating people's flesh and drinking blood. […] He isn't fit to hear what's said here. He believes it's all true. He knows no better. He gets into his passions over it." Stevie is vulnerable to exaggerated anarchist rhetoric because he takes it literally, and it stirs up his emotions. He especially can’t stand it when other beings suffer, though there is little he can do about it. During a cab ride, he entreats the cab driver not to whip the infirm, terribly slow horse, and when the driver doesn’t stop, Stevie scrambles down from the cab and insists on walking alongside the cab instead. As he looks at the thin horse and hears the cabby talk about his family’s poverty, Stevie feels deep compassion that he can barely express: “‘Bad! Bad!’ His gaze remained fixed on the ribs of the horse, self-conscious and somber, as though he were afraid to look about him at the badness of the world. […] ‘Poor! Poor!’ stammered out Stevie, pushing his hands deeper into his pockets with convulsive sympathy. He could say nothing; for the tenderness to all pain and all misery” overpowers him. For Stevie, the horse’s and cabby’s situation of pain and poverty sums up the “badness” of the whole world. Used to suffering himself, Stevie is especially sensitive to such suffering in others, yet because of his own disability, he’s limited in his ability to express it—or do much about it.
Stevie has no outlet for his pain over others’ suffering, something that Conrad suggests is often the case for a society’s most vulnerable members. Because Stevie doesn’t have a way to articulate or otherwise respond usefully to suffering, he gets angry when he witnesses suffering: “In the face of anything which affected directly or indirectly his morbid dread of pain, Stevie ended by turning vicious. […] Supremely wise in knowing his own powerlessness, Stevie was not wise enough to restrain his passions. […] The anguish of immoderate compassion was succeeded by the pain of an innocent but pitiless rage.” Nobody else takes seriously the full extent of Stevie’s rage; his sister and mother always just assume he’s “excitable” and leave it at that. But Stevie is desperate for an outlet for his rage—the rage being, again, a result of his own compassion and vulnerability. Stevie’s emotional sensitivity and severe cognitive challenges make him vulnerable to manipulation and abuse, which his brother-in-law, Verloc, callously takes advantage of. In the end, however, Verloc gets caught, which somewhat vindicates Stevie.
When he needs someone to carry out the Observatory bombing, Mr. Verloc recruits Stevie and plays on Stevie’s vulnerability and rage. He wears down Stevie’s instinctive trust in the police by persuading him that the police are the enemy and sends him off to carry out the bombing, during which Stevie is accidentally killed. Ironically, Stevie’s need for special care leads to the crime being solved: “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!” Verloc just took advantage of Stevie instead of considering any of his needs, so it never occurred to him that Winnie would have placed identification on Stevie’s clothes—leading to Verloc getting caught.
Because Verloc doesn’t understand Stevie’s value, he also doesn’t understand his wife’s grief over losing her brother: “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.” His incomprehension leads to complacency, and he is caught off guard by his wife’s own rage, which leads her to stab him to death. Thus, Verloc’s attempt to use Stevie is his own undoing in the end. In this way, Conrad suggests that abuse of the vulnerable won’t go unpunished forever.
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse ThemeTracker
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse 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?"
There is a peculiar stupidity and feebleness in the conduct of this affair which gives me excellent hopes of getting behind it and finding there something else than an individual freak of fanaticism. For it is a planned thing, undoubtedly. The actual perpetrator seems to have been led by the hand to the spot, and then abandoned hurriedly to his own devices. The inference is that he was imported from abroad for the purpose of committing this outrage. At the same time one is forced to the conclusion that he did not know enough English to ask his way, unless one were to accept the fantastic theory that he was a deaf mute. […] But an extraordinary little fact remains: the address on his clothing discovered by the merest accident, too.
On the box, Stevie shut his vacant mouth first, in order to ejaculate earnestly: "Don't."
The driver, holding high the reins twisted around the hook, took no notice. Perhaps he had not heard. Stevie's breast heaved. […]
"You mustn’t," stammered out Stevie violently. "It hurts."
"Mustn't whip," queried the other in a thoughtful whisper, and immediately whipped. He did this, not because his soul was cruel and his heart evil, but because he had to earn his fare. […] But on the bridge there was a commotion. Stevie suddenly proceeded to get down from the box.
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.
"Poor! Poor!" stammered out Stevie, pushing his hands deeper into his pockets with convulsive sympathy. He could say nothing; for the tenderness to all pain and all misery, the desire to make the horse happy and the cabman happy, had reached the point of a bizarre longing to take them to bed with him. And that, he knew, was impossible. For Stevie was not mad. It was, as it were, a symbolic longing; and at the same time it was very distinct, because springing from experience, the mother of wisdom. […] To be taken into a bed of compassion was the supreme remedy, with the only one disadvantage of being difficult of application on a large scale. And looking at the cabman, Stevie perceived this clearly, because he was reasonable.
Mrs Verloc, his only sister, guardian, and protector, could not pretend to such depths of insight. […] And she said placidly:
"Come along, Stevie. You can't help that."
The docile Stevie went along; but now he went along without pride, shamblingly, and muttering half words, and even words that would have been whole if they had not been made up of halves that did not belong to each other. It was as though he had been trying to fit all the words he could remember to his sentiments in order to get some sort of corresponding idea. And, as a matter of fact, he got it at last. He hung back to utter it at once. "Bad world for poor people."
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.
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.