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The Secret Agent

Joseph Conrad

The Secret Agent

Joseph Conrad
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The Secret Agent Summary

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The Secret Agent is a novel by British-Polish writer Joseph Conrad, first published in 1907. Set in London in 1886, it charts the adventures of the secret agent Adolf Verloc and the work he does on behalf of a powerful but unnamed country, more than likely Russia. The book is an espionage tale, a family drama, and a comic satire that pits hilariously inept anarchists against overzealous policemen. Welcome to the world of Joseph Conrad.

Adolf owns and runs a little shop where he sells birth control devices, pornography, and various sundries and curios. He shares his home with his wife, Winnie; Winnie's mother; and Winnie's brother, Stevie, who is mentally challenged. Winnie takes more or less constant care of Stevie, and the two have more of a mother-son relationship than a sister-brother one.

Meanwhile, Adolf maintains friendships with Comrade Ossipon, Michaelis, and The Professor, a motley assortment of anarchists. Though they are failures as terrorists, their behavior—largely a publishing and distributing a pro-anarchist pamphlet—has drawn the attention of the local police.
Though Adolf pals around with anarchists, he is secretly a spy for an unnamed foreign country. One day, Mr. Vladimir, his boss, summons him and explains that because Adolf is not very good at being a secret agent, he must prove himself by successfully pulling off a major job. He must blow up the Greenwich Observatory.

Later, Adolf meets up with his anarchist friends, and they talk about the current legal and political climate in Britain and the need for communism and revolution. Stevie overhears their talk and is upset by his brother-in-law's views.

Then, the plot jumps ahead to after the Greenwich Observatory bombing. The Professor tells Ossipon that he gave explosives to Adolf. He also talks about the bomb that he—The Professor—always carries with him, a set of explosives in his coat that he can set off with the push of a button. After leaving Ossipon, The Professor runs into Chief Inspector Heat of the police force, who is investigating the Greenwich explosion. He tells The Professor that Michaelis is a suspect in the bombing. Heat then goes to the Assistant Commissioner and tells him that Adolf, their secret contact, might be able to help bring Michaelis to justice. Since the Assistant Commissioner knows Michaelis via their mutual high-society friends, he wants to get to the bottom of the case to prevent any untoward reflection on his own reputation.

The story goes back to the period before the Greenwich bombing, this time told from the point of view of Adolf's wife, Winnie. Adolf returns from his meeting with Mr. Vladimir. Winnie explains to him how much Stevie looks up to him and that she would like to see Adolf and Stevie spend more time together. Adolf agrees and appears to forge a stronger relationship with Stevie. However, in reality, he is using Stevie to carry out the Greenwich bombing, exploiting Stevie's naïveté and trusting nature. Adolf sends Stevie to the Observatory, but Stevie trips, inadvertently setting off The Professor's bomb, which Adolf had put in Stevie's coat. Stevie dies instantly.

Afterward, Heat arrives at the Verloc home. He informs Winnie that he found Stevie's coat at the site of the bombing; he knew it was Stevie's because the address of Adolf's shop was written on the label. By the time Adolf gets home, Winnie has pieced everything together and knows that her husband is responsible for Stevie's grisly end. Adolf confesses, and Winnie stabs him to death.

Distraught, Winnie runs; she crosses paths with Ossipon. She asks him for help. Ossipon agrees, going so far as to admit that he has feelings for her. However, he has ulterior motives: He wants to claim the money sitting in Adolf's bank account. Together, Ossipon and Winnie make plans to leave England, and they buy passage on the ferry. Winnie's emotional shakiness, coupled with her confession that she killed Adolf, begin to give Ossipon second thoughts. He sets off on his own instead, leaving Winnie, but taking Adolf's money. Later, reading the newspaper, Ossipon learns that Winnie vanished from the ferry—a woman matching her description threw herself overboard and drowned, leaving only her wedding ring behind as identification.

The Secret Agent is a fictional take on a real-life event: the 1894 bombing in Greenwich Park, London. The true motives of the anarchist—who died in the explosion when his bomb went off prematurely—remain unknown to this day. The bomber's incompetence inspired Conrad to imagine this colorful backstory.

The novel has been adapted for the big screen twice. The first was the Alfred Hitchcock movie Sabotage, in 1936, and the second the 1996 movie, The Secret Agent. Two miniseries based on the book have also been produced.