Analyzing Symbolism in Joseph Condrad's "The Secret Agent"

Updated on September 23, 2017
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Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

Conrad's Cyclical Circles of Chaos

Alliteration aside, in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Conrad uses numerous symbols to represent a continuous and dichotomous struggle between peace and chaos. As the novel plays out, one symbol in particular seems to fully embody the surreptitious adventures of Conrad’s characters: the circle. Like a lost Hobbit on his way to Mordor, one need only say, “We’re going in circles Sam,” to truly realize the unending pursuits displayed throughout the novel.

In George Panichas’–a dean of conservative literary critics–essay entitled “Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent as a Morel Tale,” Panichas states, “Both the revolutionists and the legal and political authorities respect no central value or discipline. They are ‘hollow men’ who exert no moral effort or judgment, preferring to drift in the world. In all matters, their minds and bearing seem to go in circles” (4). Panichas suggests that Conrad’s characters may never achieve peace through their single-minded endeavors. Like a lost Hobbit, Conrad’s characters will grow and develop, but will ultimately gain no ground in their journey. In the end, none will grasp true peace or happiness. They will finish where they began–in chaotic disorder; the circles of chaos will forever continue.

A Variety of Symbolic Circles

When viewing the events of The Secret Agent, one begins to see the importance of circles in the lives of Conrad’s characters. We are first subconsciously introduced to the characters’ trivial pursuits for peace and happiness in the beginning of the novel through the dim-witted Stevie. Here, Stevie’s spare time is “occupied by drawing circles with a compass and pencil on a piece of paper. He applied himself to that pastime with great industry ...” (Conrad 8). Although we do not yet realize the relationship between Stevie’s aspirations and the rest of the characters’, we begin to see a symbolic process where one task is just as mundane as all the others. Conrad metaphorically develops the different events throughout the novel as cyclical circles of chaos. If opposing factions remain separate, there will be peace, order, or solidarity; however, when those factions come together, only chaos will ensue.

Throughout the novel, we learn that Mr. Verloc has placed himself in several social circles. Initially, he is a double agent for the Russian embassy who spies on anarchists while maintaining a small and covert business. Verloc also identifies himself within two other political circles: anarchists and the police. As Verloc associates with anarchists such as Karl Yundt, Comrade Ossipon, and Michaelis, he is also a key informer for Chief Inspector Heat’s intelligence.

Finally, Verloc has a social circle of his own: his family. As a business owner, Verloc poses as an average citizen with his wife Whinnie and her younger brother Stevie. As we will soon learn, when these social circles are separate, there is peace, but when they collide, there is chaos. Verloc is a large player in all the social circles. Since much of the novel is based upon Verloc’s life, and since Verloc is part of all the social circles, the circles will be in a constant collision. This creates reoccurring cycles of chaos that ultimately result in a negation of any progressive activity from any of the characters.

Joseph Conrad
Joseph Conrad | Source

Symbolism: Chaos

The juxtaposition between circles and chaos first arises when Verloc is holding an anarchist meeting in his living room. Stevie is in the kitchen “seated very good and quiet at the table, drawing circles, circles, circles; innumerable circles ... a coruscating whirl of circles that by their tangled multitude of repeated curves, rendering of cosmic chaos, the symbolism of a mad art attempting the inconceivable” (34).

Here, Stevie represents a child-like peacefulness in Verloc’s home-life. As Stevie is drawing his innumerable circles, Verloc is attending to matters elsewhere in the house. In the living room, Verloc is conversing within the anarchist’s social circle. Stevie maintains peace while the two circles are separate, but as he gets up to go to bed, he passes the door where Verloc and the anarchists are talking, and hears Yundt’s evil illusions of, “eating people’s flesh and drinking blood” (44). Upon hearing Yundt’s discourse, Stevie, representing Verloc’s uniform and orderly family circle, “sank limply in a sitting posture on the steps of the kitchen floor” (38). Verloc’s separate social circles had literally collided causing any form of peace to quickly escape Stevie; figuratively though, as Stevie's circles dropped to the floor, there was a rendering of cosmic chaos.

Symbolism: Hollow Men

As Verloc and Whinnie prepare for bed, Verloc epitomizes Panichas’ vision of Conrad’s characters as “hollow men.” That night, Verloc, already being lazy and uninspired in life, held no emotion for either his wife or the things his wife cares for–Stevie. As Whinnie is trying to engage in conversation with him, Verloc lays on the bed “hopelessly inert in his fear of darkness” (45). Verloc’s fear of darkness is a fear of the hollow darkness that resonates from within. He is hollow because he has no true goal in life, nothing to stabilize his life or allow him to achieve a peace of mind. Since Verloc has no distinct social circle, he is torn in concentration and feels as though he is a drifter in a world without purpose. The chapter ends with Whinnie asking if she should put out the light. Verloc responds, “Yes. Put it out, ... in a hollow tone” (45).

Next, in Chapter IX, we see Verloc’s separate social circles interfering with his home life once again. This chapter begins with Whinnie stating to Verloc that Stevie would “go through fire for [him]” (135). To a normal man, a statement such as this would instill a certain pride in the young lad. However, for Verloc, it was “a weighty objection [that] presented itself to his mind, and he formulated it” (136). Again, we see the hollowness of Verloc’s intention. We receive the foreshadowing of his lack of moral discipline when the narrator states, “Whinnie, at the shop door, did not see this fatal attendant upon Mr. Verloc’s walks” (137).

Source

Symbolism: Whinnie's Wedding Ring

Whinnie, unknowing of the events soon to come, watched her brother leave with a man whom she trusted her entire life to. As a symbol of peace and trust between her and Verloc, Whinnie’s wedding ring must have lain close to her heart as she watched the two men walk off as if they were “father and son.” Verloc’s social circles had not yet conflicted, so Whinnie ended by congratulating herself with a “peaceful pride ... on a certain resolution she had taken years before” (137).

Whinnie’s ring is a symbol of the circle of trust between Verloc and herself in their marriage. Within her family circle, Whinnie believes Verloc to be a genuinely good man. She states, “If I didn’t trust you, I wouldn’t have married you” (142). Although Verloc seems aloof in their relationship, as long as he keeps his work circles separate from his family circle, peace and harmony will exist in Whinnie’s life. Alas, we soon see Verloc’s lack of moral judgement, as Panichas may have said, near the end of the chapter. Verloc’s decision changes the entire novel. If there ever was peace, it is gone. If there was ever love, it is lost. The repercussions of Verloc’s next action create utter chaos throughout the rest of the novel.

Symbolism: Apathy

Near the end of the chapter, Mrs. Verloc learns of Stevie’s death and of the truth of her husband. Whinnie first begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together when Chief Inspector Heat reveals that they have found a coat label with Verloc’s shop address written on it. When she puts two and two together, it is as if her entire life had been in vain. She had dedicated her life to a man who she believed would help her and Stevie prosper. Now, she realizes that her marriage had been a sham; she did not love Verloc, but more so the security which Verloc promised.

Because Verloc, once again, allowed his social circles to interweave within each other, he broke the most important circle of all: the circle of trust in his marriage. Unknown to Verloc, as soon as Whinnie realizes the truth of recent events, her “gold circlet of the wedding ring ... left [her] hand [and] glittered exceedingly with the untarnished glory of a piece from some splendid treasure of jewels, dropped in a dust-bin” (156). “She now experiences not only the death to a brother but also the death of a marriage of a husband, the consummate Secret Agent, who, she feels, had betrayed ‘a genuine wife’ and ‘a genuine brother-in-law’” (Panichas 6).

Circles Preventing Forward Movement (Plot Development)

Now, the readers may be saying to themselves, this is all well and good; I understand the hollowness of Verloc’s character, and can even see a lack of a central moral value or discipline in the other characters, but how does all this tie into Conrad’s cyclical circles of chaos? How is it that Conrad’s characters partake in trivial or mundane events and seem to gain little or no ground in their journey?

I said before that Verloc’s collision of social circles was the initial catalyst for the novel’s downward spiral of events for the characters. Stevie’s death was the eminent demise of any forward progression. These accusations were not based on false assumptions, and I believe this is what Panachas was attempting to display in his essay.

Following Stevie’s death, Verloc and Whinnie’s marriage is in ruins (although Verloc is left completely clueless as to this). Furthermore, Whinnie is ruined; she has completely lost her sanity. In an attempt to right the wrongs that Verloc has done, Whinnie grabs a carving knife and stabs Verloc as he is lying on the couch. “Dark drops fell on the floorcloth one after another, with a sound of ticking growing fast and furious like the pulse of an insane clock” (194).

Whinnie ends any forward movement Verloc may have obtained through his political endeavors. Because Verloc mixed his family circle–Stevie–with the circle of politics and anarchy, he created a cosmic chaos that ended in his own death. The death of Stevie triggered a certain madness in Mrs. Verloc; and we may also see that Verloc’s initial reaction ended Mrs. Verloc’s life as well.

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A Vicious Circle

As the cyclical circles of chaos continue, the initial catalyst ends with Whinnie stabbing her husband and killing him. With Stevie dead, and Verloc dead, Whinnie no longer has a social circle; she becomes a woman without purpose, a hollow woman lost in chaos. With peace gone and chaos growing, Whinnie ultimately ends her life in suicide. Her whole life, being a genuine wife to Verloc and a genuine sister to Stevie, was for nothing.

As if the entire novel traveled in a large circle, we are left with the Verloc family accomplishing no real endeavor. Verloc attained no real change to history despite all his pursuits. Stevie was never anything more than a dim-witted boy who developed the symbol of circles. And Whinnie grasped no real concept of what a genuine wife should feel for her husband. Verloc was a means to her end, and by the end of the novel, Verloc was literally the mean to her end.

A Tragic Ending

In conclusion, we learn that the lack of moral value or discipline in Conrad's characters ultimately results in a lack of any progressive movement throughout the novel. Although the characters may have grown and developed mentally, physically, or emotionally, they were unable to obtain any real impact on history or the events that followed. Because Verloc was unable to keep his separate social circles apart, the characters were subjected to constant chaos. In Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, the symbolic innumerable circles discontinued any form of peace that might have been achieved. In the end, none grasped true happiness or tranquility. The novel leaves the reader with a mad art attempting the inconceivable; the cosmic chaos forever continues.

Bibliography

Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Panichas, Geogre A. "Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent as a Moral Tale." Modern Age 39.2, (1997): 4, 6.

Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent"

© 2017 Luke Holm

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