Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent Essay

5154 words - 21 pages

Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent: A Critique of Late-Victorian Gender Roles

February 15, 1894, was the most interesting afternoon in the otherwise dreary history of Greenwich Observatory. Earlier in the day, Martial Bourdin, a skinny anarchist, traveled by train from Westminster to Greenwich, concealing a small bomb. As he ominously ambled through Greenwich Park, towards the Observatory, something happened - no one knows exactly what - and he blew most of himself to shreds. The British, who loved to quantify in the late nineteenth century, noted that the explosion spread bits of flesh over a distance of sixty yards. Martial Bourdin remained alive for another half hour, but gave no hint ...view middle of the document...

According to John Palmer, this "dark" irony is essential for the novel's structure. He states, "The Secret Agent is built [...] on the characteristic esthetic tensions of satirical fiction - misunderstandings, dramatic ironies, revealing symbolic parallels and contrasts, and the like" (104). Claire Rosenfield says that Conrad uses an ironic type of "gallows humor" to effectively communicate the darkness of the world portrayed in the novel. Life is so appalling that this humor arrives "in the midst of horror, the point at which despair becomes humorous" (121). E. M. W. Tillyard's perspective differs from that of Rosenfield and Palmer; from his perspective, Conrad keeps "his dreadful story within the bounds of comedy" by means of his ironic method (103). His comments imply that the ironic tone does not effectively convey the sinister darkness present in the story.

Many critics note that Conrad's irony reflects a pessimistic perspective of the British society in The Secret Agent. Conrad's perspective is reflective of a society still reeling from the traumatizing social effects of industrialization. Walter Wright observes that London's drab streets and barren ugliness reveal the futility of life (189-190), and impersonal fate's destruction of individuals further reveals life's emptiness (197). From Wright's perspective, the life without control or choice in The Secret Agent is a life without meaning. Rosenfield believes the city of London represents the archetype of death, "a modern underworld" where the personal self is annihilated (99-100). In such a city, neither life commitment nor its opposite, despair, have any purpose (114). Holland considers Conrad's dark city of London "inner madness rendered as outer setting" (55), while Jeffery Berman aptly summarizes Conrad's cynical approach towards the society of The Secret Agent by stating, "nothing seems worth saving" (114).

Conrad's pessimistic view of society envelops each character's personal relationships. Throughout The Secret Agent, the usage of geometric imagery shows the ripple effects of evil within society on the micro level. Wright observes the "weblike involvement of the forces of lawlessness and those of the law" (179) and Rosenfield notes major similarities between both conservatism and anarchism in their cyclical worlds (80). Holland claims that each major character throughout the book has doubleness and tripleness in relationships with others (54), and in expressing the "chaos and maze of human relations," Conrad uses circle after circle and packs the novel with "geometric images," as if he "were trying to squeeze some order out of chaos" (55). Steven Land focuses on the societal structures that balance hostile forces throughout the novel. The dualistic framework within The Secret Agent gives each major character, including the police, a similar opposite (150-153), and implies that everyone, even the models of justice, has a double life.

Critics essentially agree that the...

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