By David Reynolds
Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent depicts the lives of those involved in an event of terror; this includes both the terrorists and the authorities. As Conrad presents his audience with an ensemble cast of characters, the reader encounters many varying notions of justice and morality. Representing multiple perspectives regarding the events of his narrative, these different ideologies keep the reader engaged in the plot. While it is difficult to identify with any one character in the novel, the complexities of the moral values of Adolf Verloc, Michaelis, Chief Inspector Heat, and the Assistant Commissioner each maintain certain qualities to which the reader can relate.
Conrad’s narrative is not without its slow points, however. As the tale revolves around the terrorist attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory, it comes across as a little odd that this particular event itself is left undescribed by the author. Although Conrad’s tale is not devoid of suspense, the action of the bombing is not related in the same temporal continuity as the rest of the tale. While it does serve the purpose of emphasizing the relevance of the characters’ mental and emotional states, I found that, by omitting this scene, Conrad risked losing the interest of his audience.
Furthermore, Conrad is prone to indulging in depicting scenes which drag on and are outright uninteresting. For instance, as the Assistant Commissioner first meets with Sir Ethelred, the Under Secretary of the Home Office, Conrad spends pages relating small talk between the Assistant Commissioner and Toodles (Conrad 117-120), and later depicting the personages of an Italian restaurant (Conrad 121-124). Instances such as this force the reader to suffer through the irrelevance and patiently wait for the character driven plot to resume once again.
Nevertheless, the reader reads on. Conrad had piqued my interest by representing so many varying archetypes of morality. The conceptions of justice and what is right differ greatly between the anarchists and authorities, but Conrad presents this in such a way that there remain different ideas of morality within each group as well.
The anarchists generally support an ideal of disorder that would benefit society as a whole. Verloc’s sense of morality is guided by this anarchism and fight for the proletariat, hence he uses his own brother-in-law to bomb Greenwich Observatory. For the most part, Verloc comes across as a cold-hearted individual, but he does have some slight redemptive qualities. Conrad dictates that “Mr. Verloc’s soul, if lacking greatness perhaps, was capable of tender sentiments” (Conrad 188). Verloc does have a shred of moral obligation to those he’s close to. However, it does not prove to be a strong motivator for his actions as it could not prevent him from sending Stevie to fumble off to his doom.
On the other hand, another anarchist is Michaelis. He is portrayed as very much the idealist. Michaelis is shown as being sympathetic to others plight but maintaining his conviction in the socialist-anarchist’s dream. In his youth, he participated in rescuing some prisoners from a police van. An officer was inadvertently killed at no fault of Michaelis, but he was imprisoned for his role in the break out. Conrad relates that at his trial “The death of the constable had made him miserable at heart, but the failure of the plot [breakout] also” (Conrad 88). Later, Michaelis is described as having “the temperament of a saint” (Conrad 90). While he is not afraid to act upon his convictions, Michaelis abhors violence as a means to an end.
Like the anarchists, the authorities’ morals of The Secret Agent are not clear cut as entirely right or wrong. The contrast arises between the methods and goals of Chief Inspector Heat and the Assistant Commissioner. Heat views justice as a matter of satisfying the public’s craving for a suitable criminal, even if that means scapegoating the innocent. In conversation with Sir Ethelred, the Assistant Commissioner makes an objective and insightful remark that:
For him the plain duty is to fasten the guilt upon as many prominent anarchists as he can on some slight indications he had picked up in the course of his investigations on the spot; whereas I, [Heat] would say, am bent upon vindicating their innocence (Conrad 117).
The Assistant Commissioner’s comment rings true – Heat’s brand of justice punishes culprits, while the Assistant Commissioner seeks justice for the guilty and freedom for the innocent. As a recognized institution of justice, it is interesting to see that solidarity thrown into question.
Morality plays a significant role in Conrad’s The Secret Agent. However, there is no clear cut right or wrong, and it is questionable whether any justice is served. Here, art mimics life. Questions of ethics are never black and white, and it is arguable that no one ever knowingly acts in a manner that they think is wrong. In this light, we can see that each of the characters, Verloc, Michaelis, Heat, and the Assistant Commissioner, act according to what they think is just.
Conrad, Joseph, and Peter L. Mallios. The Secret Agent. The Modern Library classics. New York: Modern Library, 2004. Print.