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Plot of “The Secret Agent” Novel by Joseph Conrad


The purpose of literature is to be thought-provoking and to convey strong messages. Even fictional stories demonstrate a certain degree of connection to the issues present in real life. Such works of literature are often filled with profound symbolism, which invites the reader on a philosophical journey through the convenient form of an enticing plot. Joseph Conrad became one of the most prominent novelists of English literature. While the writer is often viewed through the prism of early modernism, his style remains representative of 19th-century realism. Conrad’s characters are typically controversial and anti-heroic, which evokes strong, yet mixed feelings in the reader. Born in Poland, which was controlled by the Russian Empire at the time, he later immigrated to England, bringing his experiences with him. “The Secret Agent” is an excellent example of Conrad’s writing in that it deals with a relatively simple story while remaining unique in terms of its political and psychological dimension. In this novel, the author philosophizes on such important matters as the moral aspect of 19th-century terrorism and its influence on the people involved, which have remained topical until nowadays.

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Plot Overview

The structure and the plot of “The Secret Agent” make it a unique example of early 20th-century literature. The novel is set in London in 1886 amid the surge of terrorist activities throughout Europe. At the time, various anarchist groups organized their plots against capitalism and monarchies, aiming at causing chaos within developed nations. Adolf Verloc, the protagonist and the anti-hero of the novel, runs a Soho shop in London. Simultaneously, he secretly colludes with an anarchist organization while also spying for the Embassy of an unnamed country. Conrad (1907) familiarizes the reader with the most prominent members of the group, including Comrade Ossipon, the Professor, and Michaelis. On the other hand, Verloc has an actual family that poses certain issues for him. The protagonist lives with his wife Winnie, her mother, and her brother Stevie. Evidently, Verloc’s family members remain unaware of his affiliation with an anarchist group, which contributes to the atmosphere of secrecy reflect in the novel’s title.

As Mr. Vladimir takes the leadership of the Embassy, he urges Verloc to provoke a wave of revolutionary terror across Europe. As such, he assigns to him the task of delivering and exploding a bomb at the Greenwich Observatory (Conrad, 1907). Although the structure of the narration is non-linear, the readers eventually learn the exact manner in which the main character envisaged this plan. After a failed attempt at the terrorist attack, investigators discover a piece of fabric with Verloc’s address. However, the protagonist survives the explosion, as he was not the one to deliver the bomb. Instead, Verloc exploits the trust of his mentally disabled brother-in-law, nurtured by Winnie. Once he reveals the truth to both the investigators and his wife, the latter kills Verloc in the fallout of a heated discussion. As she attempts to flee the country with one of the protagonist’s anarchist associates, Winnie is abandoned by Ossipon and has her valuable possessions stolen by him. By the end of the novel, it is revealed that she has likely committed suicide, thus bringing the story of the Verloc family to an abrupt end.


Ultimately, the novel by Joseph Conrad has become a seminal piece of early 20th-century literature. Through its intricate dramatic plot, “The Secret Agent” effectively captures the spirit of the time. At the same time, the novel actively develops the era’s negative aspects from various perspectives. First of all, on the global level, Conrad ventures into the territory of international terrorism and anarchist ideas. As the events of the novel suggest, terrorism was both a matter of political pressure and a response to the socio-economic problems of the century. Furthermore, this theme serves as a fitting background for the personal tragedies of the characters. Adolf Verloc’s activities become destructive for him and his family, resulting in their imminent deaths. While Conrad’s work exists in a specific historical context, its themes have persisted through the last century and continue to threaten contemporary society.


Conrad, J. (1907). The secret agent. Methuen & Co.

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