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The Secret Agent

The origin of "The Secret Agent": subject, treatment, artistic purpose
and every other motive that may induce an author to take up his pen,
can, I believe, be traced to a period of mental and emotional reaction.

The actual facts are that I began this book impulsively and wrote it
continuously. When in due course it was bound and delivered to the
public gaze I found myself reproved for having produced it at all. Some
of the admonitions were severe, others had a sorrowful note. I have not
got them textually before me but I remember perfectly the general
argument, which was very simple; and also my surprise at its nature. All
this sounds a very old story now! And yet it is not such a long time
ago. I must conclude that I had still preserved much of my pristine
innocence in the year 1907. It seems to me now that even an artless
person might have foreseen that some criticisms would be based on the
ground of sordid surroundings and the moral squalor of the tale.

That, of course, is a serious objection. It was not universal. In fact,
it seems ungracious to remember so little reproof amongst so much
intelligent and sympathetic appreciation; and I trust that the readers
of this Preface will not hasten to put it down to wounded vanity of a
natural disposition to ingratitude. I suggest that a charitable heart
could very well ascribe my choice to natural modesty. Yet it isn't
exactly modesty that makes me select reproof for the illustration of my
case. No, it isn't exactly modesty. I am not at all certain that I am
modest; but those who have read so far through my work will credit me
with enough decency, tact, savoir faire, what you will, to prevent me
from making a song for my own glory out of the words of other people.
No! The true motive of my selection lies in quite a different trait. I
have always had a propensity to justify my action. Not to defend. To
justify. Not to insist that I was right but simply to explain that there
was no perverse intention, no secret scorn for the natural sensibilities
of mankind at the bottom of my impulses.

That kind of weakness is dangerous only so far that it exposes one to
the risk of becoming a bore; for the world generally is not interested
in the motives of any overt act but in its consequences. Man may smile
and smile but he is not an investigating animal. He loves the obvious.
He shrinks from explanations. Yet I will go on with mine. It's obvious
that I need not have written that book. I was under no necessity to deal
with that subject; using the word subject both in the sense of the tale
itself and in the larger one of a special manifestation in the life of
mankind. This I fully admit. But the thought of elaborating mere
ugliness in order to shock, or even simply to surprise my readers by a
change of front, has never entered my head. In making this statement I
expect to be believed, not only on the evidence of my general character
but also for the reason, which anybody can see, that the whole treatment
of the tale, its inspiring indignation and underlying pity and contempt,
prove my detachment from the squalor and sordidness which lie simply in
the outward circumstances of the setting.

The inception of "The Secret Agent" followed immediately on a two
years' period of intense absorption in the task of writing that remote
novel, "Nostromo," with its far off Latin-American atmosphere; and the
profoundly personal "Mirror of the Sea." The first an intense creative
effort on what I suppose will always remain my largest canvas, the
second an unreserved attempt to unveil for a moment the profounder
intimacies of the sea and the formative influences of nearly half my
life-time. It was a period, too, in which my sense of the truth of
things was attended by a very intense imaginative and emotional
readiness which, all genuine and faithful to facts as it was, yet made
me feel (the task once done) as if I were left behind, aimless amongst
mere husks of sensations and lost in a world of other, of inferior,
values.

I don't know whether I really felt that I wanted a change, change in my
imagination, in my vision and in my mental attitude. I rather think that
a change in the fundamental mood had already stolen over me unawares. I
don't remember anything definite happening. With "The Mirror of the Sea"
finished in the full consciousness that I had dealt honestly with myself
and my readers in every line of that book, I gave myself up to a not
unhappy pause. Then, while I was yet standing still, as it were, and
certainly not thinking of going out of my way to look for anything ugly,
the subject of "The Secret Agent"--I mean the tale--came to me in the
shape of a few words uttered by a friend in a casual conversation about
anarchists or rather anarchist activities; how brought about I don't
remember now.

I remember, however, remarking on the criminal futility of the whole
thing, doctrine, action, mentality; and on the contemptible aspect of
the half-crazy pose as of a brazen cheat exploiting the poignant
miseries and passionate credulities of a mankind always so tragically
eager for self-destruction. That was what made for me its philosophical
pretences so unpardonable. Presently, passing to particular instances,
we recalled the already old story of the attempt to blow up the
Greenwich Observatory; a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that
it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even
unreasonable process of thought. For perverse unreason has its own
logical processes. But that outrage could not be laid hold of mentally
in any sort of way, so that one remained faced by the fact of a man
blown to bits for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea,
anarchistic or other. As to the outer wall of the Observatory it did not
show as much as the faintest crack.

I pointed all this out to my friend who remained silent for a while and
then remarked in his characteristically casual and omniscient manner:
"Oh, that fellow was half on idiot. His sister committed suicide
afterwards." These were absolutely the only words that passed between
us; for extreme surprise at this unexpected piece of information kept me
dumb for a moment and he began at once to talk of something else. It
never occurred to me later to ask how he arrived at his knowledge. I am
sure that if he had seen once in his life the back of an anarchist that
must have been the whole extent of his connection with the underworld.
He was, however, a man who liked to talk with all sorts of people, and
he may have gathered those illuminating facts at second or third hand,
from a crossing-sweeper, from a retired police officer, from some vague
man in his club, or even, perhaps, from a Minister of State met at some
public or private reception.

Of the illuminating quality there could be no doubt whatever. One felt
like walking out of a forest on to a plain--there was not much to see
but one had plenty of light. No, there was not much to see and, frankly,
for a considerable time I didn't even attempt to perceive anything. It
was only the illuminating impression that remained. It remained
satisfactory but in a passive way. Then, about a week later, I came upon
a book which as far as I know had never attained any prominence, the
rather summary recollections of an Assistant Commissioner of Police, an
obviously able man with a strong religious strain in his character who
was appointed to his post at the time of the dynamite outrages in
London, away back in the eighties. The book was fairly interesting, very
discreet of course; and I have by now forgotten the bulk of its
contents. It contained no revelations, it ran over the surface
agreeably, and that was all. I won't even try to explain why I should
have been arrested by a little passage of about seven lines, in which
the author (I believe his name was Anderson) reproduced a short dialogue
held in the Lobby of the House of Commons after some unexpected
anarchist outrage, with the Home Secretary. I think it was Sir William
Harcourt then. He was very much irritated and the official was very
apologetic. The phrase, amongst the three which passed between them,
that struck me most was Sir W. Harcourt's angry sally: "All that's very
well. But your idea of secrecy over there seems to consist of keeping
the Home Secretary in the dark." Characteristic enough of Sir W.
Harcourt's temper but not much in itself. There must have been, however,
some sort of atmosphere in the whole incident because all of a sudden I
felt myself stimulated. And then ensued in my mind what a student of
chemistry would best understand from the analogy of the addition of the
tiniest little drop of the right kind, precipitating the process of
crystallization in a test tube containing some colourless solution.

It was at first for me a mental change, disturbing a quieted-down
imagination, in which strange forms, sharp in outline but imperfectly
apprehended, appeared and claimed attention as crystals will do by their
bizarre and unexpected shapes. One fell to musing before the
phenomenon--even of the past: of South America, a continent of crude
sunshine and brutal revolutions, of the sea, the vast expanse of salt
waters, the mirror of heaven's frowns and smiles, the reflector of the
world's light. Then the vision of an enormous town presented itself, of
a monstrous town more populous than some continents and in its man-made
might as if indifferent to heaven's frowns and smiles; a cruel devourer
of the world's light. There was room enough there to place any story,
depth enough there for any passion, variety enough there for any
setting, darkness enough to bury five millions of lives.

Irresistibly the town became the background for the ensuing period of
deep and tentative meditations. Endless vistas opened before me in
various directions. It would take years to find the right way! It seemed
to take years!... Slowly the dawning conviction of Mrs. Verloc's
maternal passion grew up to a flame between me and that background,
tingeing it with its secret ardour and receiving from it in exchange
some of its own sombre colouring. At last the story of Winnie Verloc
stood out complete from the days of her childhood to the end,
unproportioned as yet, with everything still on the first plan, as it
were; but ready now to be dealt with. It was a matter of about three
days.

_This_ book is _that_ story, reduced to manageable proportions, its
whole course suggested and centred round the absurd cruelty of the
Greenwich Park explosion. I had there a task I will not say arduous but
of the most absorbing difficulty. But it had to be done. It was a
necessity. The figures grouped about Mrs. Verloc and related directly or
indirectly to her tragic suspicion that "life doesn't stand much looking
into," are the outcome of that very necessity. Personally I have never
had any doubt of the reality of Mrs. Verloc's story; but it had to be
disengaged from its obscurity in that immense town, it had to be made
credible, I don't mean so much as to her soul but as to her
surroundings, not so much as to her psychology but as to her humanity.
For the surroundings hints were not lacking. I had to fight hard to keep
at arms-length the memories of my solitary and nocturnal walks all over
London in my early days, lest they should rush in and overwhelm each
page of the story as these emerged one after another from a mood as
serious in feeling and thought as any in which I ever wrote a line. In
that respect I really think that "The Secret Agent" is a perfectly
genuine piece of work. Even the purely artistic purpose, that of
applying an ironic method to a subject of that kind, was formulated with
deliberation and in the earnest belief that ironic treatment alone would
enable me to say all I felt I would have to say in scorn as well as in
pity. It is one of the minor satisfactions of my writing life that
having taken that resolve I did manage, it seems to me, to carry it
right through to the end. As to the personages whom the absolute
necessity of the case--Mrs. Verloc's case--brings out in front of the
London background, from them, too, I obtained those little satisfactions
which really count for so much against the mass of oppressive doubts
that haunt so persistently on every attempt at creative work. For
instance, of Mr. Vladimir himself (who was fair game for a caricatural
presentation) I was gratified to hear that an experienced man of the
world had said "that Conrad must have been in touch with that sphere or
else has an excellent intuition of things," because Mr. Vladimir was
"not only possible in detail but quite right in essentials." Then a
visitor from America informed me that all sorts of revolutionary
refugees in New York would have it that the book was written by somebody
who knew a lot about them. This seemed to me a very high compliment,
considering that, as a matter of hard fact, I had seen even less of
their kind than the omniscient friend who gave me the first suggestion
for the novel. I have no doubt, however, that there had been moments
during the writing of the book when I was an extreme revolutionist, I
won't say more convinced than they but certainly cherishing a more
concentrated purpose than any of them had ever done in the whole course
of his life. I don't say this to boast. I was simply attending to my
business. In the matter of all my books I have always attended to my
business. I have attended to it with complete self-surrender. And this
statement, too, is not a boast. I could not have done otherwise. It
would have bored me too much to make-believe.

The suggestions for certain personages of the tale, both law-abiding and
lawless, came from various sources which, perhaps, here and there, some
reader may have recognized. They are not very recondite. But I am not
concerned here to legitimize any of those people, and even as to my
general view of the moral reactions as between the criminal and the
police all I will venture to say is that it seems to me to be at least
arguable.

The twelve years that have elapsed since the publication of the book
have not changed my attitude. I do not regret having written it. Lately,
circumstances, which have nothing to do with the general tenor of this
Preface, have compelled me to strip this tale of the literary robe of
indignant scorn it has cost me so much to fit on it decently, years ago.
I have been forced, so to speak, to look upon its bare bones. I confess
that it makes a grisly skeleton. But still I will submit that telling
Winnie Verloc's story to its anarchistic end of utter desolation,
madness and despair, and telling it as I have told it here, I have not
intended to commit gratuitous outrage on the feelings of mankind.

J. C.

1920.


Joseph Conrad

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