The Secret Agent Themes | LitCharts

The Secret Agent


Joseph Conrad

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Themes and Colors
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Theme Icon
Foreigners and the Modern City Theme Icon
Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse Theme Icon
Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Secret Agent, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption

Due to high-profile assassination attempts against heads of state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (like the shooting of U.S. President McKinley in 1901), anarchy was a hot topic when Conrad wrote The Secret Agent in 1906. However, anarchism wasn’t a unified political movement: it was more of a diverse collection of ideas centering on the rejection of government and authority; some anarchists (like The Professor in the novel) were violent, while many…

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Foreigners and the Modern City

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…

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Weakness, Vulnerability, and Abuse

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…

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Loyalty, Conventionality, and Rebellion

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…

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