The characterization, the plotting, and the prose in The Secret Agent are all slightly off—unbalanced.
There is a remarkable degree of depth in the interactions between different characters. The air fairly vibrates with code between any given characters. Even the (somewhat unbelievable) chance encounter between ‘the professor’ and Inspector Heat in a side-street is painted from, as it were, all sides. The long and excruciating scene toward the end of the novel between Verloc and Winnie, during which she is entirely quiet, is masterful (made, I think, for the stage). And yet the characters are not only more interesting interacting with one another than by themselves, they are only interesting when interacting. The criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso is mentioned by one of the characters, Ossian, at the beginning and the end of the book. The reference is more, I think, than local 1890s intellectual color. Ossian’s diagnosis of Stevie as a ‘perfect-type’ is cruel; his sudden realization that Winnie is very like her brother is, to say the least, self-serving. My knowledge of Lombroso’s work is second-hand, but it seems to me that Conrad has essentially drawn his characters from Lombroso’s types. I compare the novel with, say, Thèrese Raquin. Zola certainly made explicit use of anthropological types—but his characters are, I want to say, painted alone, while Conrad’s are always painted together.
It is hard to see by what principle, exactly, is the plot narrated. Suspense, but by no means in the usual way; the suspense is not about what will in fact happen, but about the revelation of what has happened. It is not that the whole plot is given at the beginning, but rather that we know long before we are told, that Verloc will set the bomb. We know, long before we are told, that Stevie will die—then we must wait, and wait, for this truth to come out, and its consequences to unfold. Conrad goes out of his way to telegraph the presence of the knife; but as we wait for Winnie to kill Verloc, we are really waiting for her character to reach the point at which this is possible, rather than for the deed itself. Similarly, we do not wait for Ossian to abandon Winnie, but to see what Winnie will do after. Yet I do not mean to say that the plot of the book is driven by changes in character, or that ‘plot-points’ are moments in the development of the characters.
The prose itself is playful and mocking. It is aware of the double role that each word and sentence has in moving forward the story, and also as a distinct object in a field of other objects. This, I think, is the source for the peculiar and oft-repeated double-use of words. As example drawn at random, of a whole paragraph:
“He had his own crusading instincts. This affair, which, in one way or another, disgusted Chief Inspector Heat, seemed to him a providentially given starting-point for a crusade. He had it much at heart to begin. He walked slowly home, meditating that enterprise on the way, and thinking over Mr Verloc’s psychology in a composite mood of repugnance and satisfaction. He walked all the way home. Finding the drawing-room dark, he went upstairs, and spent some time between the bed-room and the dressing-room, changing his clothes, going to and fro with the air of a thoughtful somnambulist. But he shook it off before going out again to join his wife at the house of the great lady patroness of Michaelis” (pg 176).
This paragraph is built like some kind of sonnet. Short sentence/long sentence, the two rhymed with ‘crusade.’ The punctuation of the emptied-‘it’ that he has at heard. Long sentence/short sentence, this time rhymed with ‘walked...home.’ Then three ‘room’s in a row for no reason at all but the sentiment of circulation and the sound. Then the last sentence provides movement and contains four different people.
In other places, Conrad plays with his level of discourse. This can mean veering rapidly from over-purple to colloquial. Or in a more Auerbachian sense, it can mean mixing up mode of address and content: ‘Moreover, he was dead.’
My feeling is that these discursive and narrative peculiarities of Conrad’s will begin to make sense as an ensemble if I am able to think out more clearly the historical meaning of the text. I know relatively little about Conrad’s body of work. The Secret Agent was written in 1906, and seems to be ‘set’ in the 1890s. It has the obvious themes of farcical revolutionaries and clumsily repressive states. Various approaches to life within modernity are showcased, from the police inspector to the Nietzschean bomb-maker. Empire is present with varying levels of intensity throughout the book. There is no doubt some kind of overt anglophilia at work as well, despite the general impression that London is a swamp where it is always night. These themes are all too much on the surface. Thematic analysis and formal analysis can be, I think in this case ought to be, filled out through historical contextualization.
Although I hesitate to use the word, Conrad is standing on the brink of modernism. He is obviously more nearly modern than Zola or other French ‘naturalists,’ from whom he is borrowing. All the pieces of the narrative, I want to say, are old, but he has woven these patterns in new thread. It would be easy to go through the text and point out parallels with various forms of modern art (as people have done, I think without interesting result, for Virginia Woolf and Proust). One of the things this means is formal experimentation and self-consciousness. Conrad is certainly doing these things. Hypothesis: the level of Conrad’s experimentation and self-consciousness is the naturalist generic convention.