Joseph Conrad
Married to the Devil: The Secret Agent's Critique of Late-Victorian Gender Roles

By Brandon Colas
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 as to the reason for his choice of such a bizarre target for a terrorist act (National Maritime Museum). To the chagrin of all anarchists, as Joseph Conrad observed, "the outer wall of the Observatory, it did not show as much as the faintest crack" (9). The British populace was outraged at this attack upon their cultured and refined society. London, which had been a center of many quasi-Utopian anarchist groups, soon began deporting various anarchists.  

Martial Bourdin's failed bombing attempt and the international anarchist movement in London set the stage for Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel The Secret Agent. At the time period of this work, anarchism was in its early stages of development. Anarchists saw many problems in society, but rarely offered practical solutions to improve anyone's living conditions. This discrepancy lends itself naturally to irony, and did not go unnoticed by contemporary intellectuals. As most critics observe, Conrad's extremely ironic tone throughout The Secret Agent emphasizes a pessimistic attitude towards society and individuals. Norman Holland notes that Conrad uses a "heavily ironic and dry verbal style" to reveal the chaos present in each character's relationships (54). 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 novel's ironic tone conveys pessimism towards society and relationships, but they differ over Winnie Verloc's morality. The central character of the novel, many critics consider her a tragic heroine due to her sacrificial role. Conrad himself seems to support this interpretation: in his preface to the 1920 edition of the novel, he states that this is "Winnie Verloc's story" (13), which could imply that she is a heroine. John Palmer writes, "morally, however, Conrad's deepest interest lies with Winnie and Stevie, the norms of male and female innocence, and Verloc's essential victims" (118), implying that Winnie is a victim of circumstances, undeserving of her suffering. In Tillyard's essay, "The Secret Agent Reconsidered," he calls Winnie Verloc pathetic and noble (104), someone who should cause sympathetic feelings in readers. Richard Curle claims that Conrad's "women portraits are the most finished, delicate, and poignant of all his portraits." Winnie, is a "tragedy," and indeed, "[Conrad's] finest women are good women" (145, original emphasis).

Other critics see Winnie as a darker character. For example, Jacques Berthoud states that Winnie is as impenetrable as her mysterious husband because of her utter lack of curiosity (150). Wright observes that after Stevie dies, "her studied efforts of deception have been defeated by the more sinister deceit of Verloc himself" (195). George Panichas goes farther, considering her as evil as her husband, commenting, "Both husband and wife have been dishonest with each other, masking their motives [for each other] in the most insidious ways" (Modern Age). Rosenfield even considers Winnie an archetypal "femme fatale" (113).

Though Winnie has some positive characteristics, such as a maternal love towards her helpless brother, she is an essentially negative character. Her passive obedience to social conventions makes her mostly responsible for the death of her brother, her murder of her husband, and her subsequent suicide. The complex morality of Winnie Verloc is the central question of the novel. Despite a surface appearance of nicety, Winnie is the most chilling character in what Berman calls Conrad's "most chilling novel" (111). Winnie is a stereotypical Victorian wife, and Conrad uses her magnetic attraction towards destruction to criticize women who obey unreasonable social expectations. Conrad's use of a biblical allusion to Satan warns readers that the Victorian wifely ideal dehumanizes women and that women passively following Victorian social conventions by sacrificing all of their dreams and relationships for others, not communicating with their husbands, and marrying primarily due to economic concerns will never reach their full potential.

Winnie's greatest character flaw is her passivity. Her passive philosophy of life causes her to conform to Victorian social expectations of self-sacrifice, silence, and a marriage made in the courtroom, and this passivity stunts any moral development. Indeed, The Secret Agent is "a study in sloth" (Bloom 57), and passivity explains most of Winnie's activities within the novel. Conrad's excessively harsh judgment upon her, a death sentence because of her passivity, suits the darkly ironic tone of The Secret Agent. As Andrew Roberts states, the Verloc's marriage and family life "is clearly a parody of the secrecy and restraint of the corrupt and suffocating bourgeois society of which Verloc is a servant" (139). Winnie's obedience to her suffocating societal expectations leads to her dehumanization.

Victorian society expected wives to completely sacrifice themselves for the benefit of their husbands and families. For example, Sarah Stickney Ellis, a popular Victorian moralist, admonished wives to always "make sacrifices, in order that his enjoyment may be enhanced" (68). Within a poor marriage, wives should "suffer and be still," rather than seek better treatment; the worst sin a wife could commit was defying her husband (Hammerton 76-77). Dorothy Mermin and Herbert Tucker, Victorian scholars, note that in the typical British home, "women remained safe at home in the private sphere of tenderness, sympathy, piety, self-sacrifice, and love, providing nurture and uplift for men and children" (81). Social mores allowed women little else.

Winnie makes an enormous sacrifice to provide for her brother who is retarded and her mother who is infirm when she gives herself in marriage to Mr. Verloc who is repulsive. Famous for his sea stories, Conrad uses boating allusions to make Winnie's sacrifice more vivid to the reader. Although she dearly loved an impoverished butcher's son, he had "no accommodation for passengers [Winnie's brother and mother]" in his boat of life. Mr. Verloc, however, always had "some money in his pockets" and accepted "as a matter of course the presence of passengers" in his life's "barque" (201). When Winnie meets Comrade Ossipon on her way to commit suicide, she cries about her sacrificial marriage, "Seven years - seven years a good wife to him, the kind, the good, the generous, the - And he loved me. Oh, yes. He loved me till I sometimes wished myself - Seven years" (226). Her sacrifice is, pathetically, ironically, unnoticed by her family: Stevie is mentally incapable of grasping her love for him, and her nave mother "never really understood why Winnie had married Mr. Verloc", deciding, "it was clearly providential" (45-46).

Winnie also sacrifices any supportive relationships outside of her immediate family by marrying Mr. Verloc. His true work as a double agent is secretive and he runs a pornography shop for his cover business. Thus, the only visitors to the house and attached shop are grotesque anarchists and nervous young men. After Winnie murders Mr. Verloc, she tries to think of someone who can help her, but "she had no acquaintances of her own. No one would miss her in a social way" (221). She is "friendless" in this dark city of "five millions of lives" (221, 11). Drowning imagery shows her helpless despair as she recognizes her overwhelming isolation in London. "She floundered over the doorstep [....] This entrance into the open air had a foretaste of drowning [....] Another wave of faintness overtook her like a great sea, washing away her heart clean out of her breast" (220-221). Winnie's sacrifice of any relationships beyond her family leaves her alone when she most needs help.

Though Winnie's sacrifice gives Susan Jones ample reason to state that Conrad presents Winnie in the Polish tradition of "idolized motherhood and female heroism" (50), she does not acknowledge the knotty problem of Winnie's passivity. In the same manner, Holland's perception of females as the models of self-sacrifice (57) is somewhat accurate, but flawed, because Winnie's apparently noble sacrifice is mainly motivated by her passivity. Ironically, she is still a moral failure even as she gives up everything for her family. She sacrifices a life spent with the boy she loves not because she needs to, but because for her, the easiest psychological route is obeying Victorian social expectations. She assumes that she is solely responsible for keeping her family intact, and her mental passivity finds a sacrificial solution by marriage to Mr. Verloc. Winnie could have married the butcher's son, whom she loved, and sent Stevie and her mother to charity while working to eventually earn money for their care. In the center of the novel, for example, Winnie's mother retreats to a charity-house, despite the financial prosperity of the Verloc household. If she could fall into the arms of charity when the Verlocs were well-off, she could have received care while Winnie and the butcher's son were fighting their way out of poverty. Stevie, who is mentally retarded, presents a more complex problem, but some sort of charity likely could have taken care of him as well. However, Winnie never looks for aid for either family member. Searching for help would be more work - and less conventional - than accepting an unloving marriage.

Besides the subordinating sacrifices of females, a hallmark of Victorian society was poor communication between husbands and wives. A Victorian historian, Ginger Frost, notes that men "could not express their emotions openly" and had to keep their pains private and sorrows secret (55). According to Mrs. Ellis, the husband "knows not half the foolish fears that agitate her breast. He could not be made to know, still less to understand, the intensity of her capability of suffering from slight" (68). Neither the husband nor the wife are truly honest with each other in a relationship without communication, and neither will realize genuine emotional growth. Mrs. Ellis also reveals that much of Victorian society believed that women, who lacked worth, should not talk about themselves to their husbands. Men may seem dull discussing politics, but women are "infinitely worse - they have themselves [to talk about]" (39-40). Although a companionate ideal of marriage developed in the late-Victorian era, it saw little actual influence in the lives of the lower-middle classes (Frost 155) or, for that matter, most of England.

There is no loving companionship in the Verloc's socially-defined relationship largely due to an utter lack of communication. Mr. Verloc and Winnie never explain themselves to the other, and throughout the novel, their ambiguous relationship lumbers towards disaster. They each have married with hidden pasts, for both have had previous relationships that utterly failed - a female spy betrayed Mr. Verloc and Winnie walked away from the person she truly loved. Neither shares significant events in their life with the other. Mr. Verloc's "work was in a way political, he told Winnie once. She would have, he warned her, to be very nice to his political friends." She, on the other hand, agrees, and looks at him with a "straight, unfathomable" face (20), and throughout the novel, her face never betrays emotions to her husband, until the few moments before she kills him. Winnie has been married to Mr. Verloc for seven years, yet she never knows his true occupation until the end of the novel, never questions why he stays out until three or four in the morning on a regular basis, and never asks why the only visitors to their house are anarchists ranting about the "cannibalistic" nature of capitalism (53). Winnie is completely incurious, her "force" and "safeguard" in life being a "distant and uninquiring acceptance of facts" (132). Later, Conrad states that "she felt profoundly that things did not stand much looking into" (151). Her passive acceptance of life as it appears destroys those around her.

Two critical bedroom scenes highlight the Verloc's lack of communication. In the first, Mr. Verloc feels that his stilted, awkward conversation with Winnie "was as if her voice was talking on the other side of a very thick wall" (59-60). About to share his upsetting occupational problems with her, he restrains himself, afraid of leaving his well-defined social sphere and becoming vulnerable to an unfathomable woman. Meanwhile, Winnie ignores his disquiet, and talks to him about Stevie, though to all of her remarks, "Mr. Verloc made no comment" (60-61). His silence does not disturb Winnie because it is typical of their relationship. In the second bedroom scene, Mr. Verloc, about to comment on his mother-in-law's escape from their house, "very nearly said so" (151). He feels that her exit might be of ill portent. He is "within a hair's breadth of making a clean breast of it all to his wife" and explaining his true career, but "he forebode" (152). Mr. Verloc instead "bore his sufferings silently" (153). Winnie, unapproachable by her husband, has followed the pattern of life for many Victorian wives. Immediately before their relationship catastrophically ends with Winnie's murder of Mr. Verloc, Conrad explains why they cannot understand each other: "they refrained from going to the bottom of facts and motives" (203).

Winnie's lack of communication with her husband is due to her passivity. She bases her relationship with him on the simplest route, living like the typical Victorian wife. Rosenfield notes the centrality of the Verlocs' lack of communication in their relationship as she states, "this novel is a domestic drama, a story of personal relationships and lack of communication" (108). Mr. Verloc is naturally secretive, and Winnie "felt profoundly that things do not stand much looking into" (Conrad 150-151). Their relationship never consists of genuine communication not only because of societal expectations, but because communication takes effort. For example, Winnie realizes that it takes less work to allow Mr. Verloc to stay out "as early as three or four in the morning" than questioning him about his whereabouts and activities (20). When Mr. Verloc arrives back from the embassy, he is clearly in emotional shock because of his idiotic orders to bomb Greenwich Observatory, but Winnie never takes the effort to ask him about his upsetting problems.

Victorian society expected sacrifices of women, and a lack of openness between husbands and wives. In light of this, it is unsurprising that their culture frequently viewed courtship and marriage from a legal, unromantic, perspective. Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers is a humorous novel about an engagement gone awry, resulting in a lawsuit, but Pickwick's troubles were not uncommon in Britain. If an engagement was broken, women frequently sought retribution in a public court of law (Hammerton 51). Frost claims that men "had to keep their promises with great strictness. Even if it meant alienating family or enduring an unhappy union, a man was expected to fulfill his contracts" (55). Because men could generally marry based on affection while women had to look for the best bargains, the court system was a rare opportunity for females to gain some advantage (59).

Before Winnie discovers that her brother Stevie is dead because of Mr. Verloc, she tells her husband, "if I hadn't trusted you I wouldn't have married you" (162). Trust is the sole basis for their relationship; only a legal contract binds them together. Conrad never uses the word "love" to describe Winnie's feelings for her husband. Instead, he chooses economic and legal terminology such as "contract", "free woman", and "bargain" (207, 209, 215). After Stevie's death Winnie feels freed in a legal sense. His protection was her implicit reason for marriage, and his death makes her "dishonoured contract null and void" (Berthoud 151). Mark Wollaeger notes that "Winnie's mind has always been dominated by a single concern [of Stevie's well-being]," and when Mr. Verloc admits his role in Stevie's death, she has a paradigm shift (151-152). Conrad states, "she had her freedom. Her contract with existence, as represented by that man standing over there, was at an end". Winnie realizes that she has "no need to stay there, in that kitchen, in that house, with that man - now that Stevie was dead" (207). Conrad's diction highlights the Verloc's lack of a loving relationship: to Winnie, Mr. Verloc is not Adolf, but only "that man". In fact, Winnie's catalyst to kill him and flee is a sudden, frantic, belief that "he would never let her go" to her freedom (211).

Jones argues that The Secret Agent, along with other works by Conrad, offer "sympathetic portraits of female frustrations and domestic entrapment in [their] marriage plots" (69). She fails to account for Winnie's responsibility in ignoring the companionate ideal of marriage that was developing at the time of the novel. Conrad does have some sympathy for Winnie, but he is also furious at her passive attitude towards marriage. Winnie chooses a marriage based like a legal contract, which was typical in Victorian society. This approach requires much less emotional investment and work than the companionate ideal (which is entirely impossible for the Verlocs). Winnie's contractual marriage due to her passivity leads to her family's destruction, but requires less immediate effort than a marriage based on any romance.

From a historical perspective, Winnie is a standard Victorian woman, and Winnie's own words further reveal her belief that she was the ideal wife. She believes she is responsible to hold the home together, and proudly tells herself that she has made Mr. Verloc and Stevie "like father and son" (157). When Winnie thinks that Mr. Verloc is about to leave her, which would deprive Stevie of financial support, she attempts to convince him to stay by reminding him, "You've a comfortable home" (163), and sending him a seductive glance, telling him he cannot leave because, "you would miss me too much" (165). Ironically, though Winnie has given her husband all that her society expects her to, she has withheld the loving relationship that he truly needs. After she murders Mr. Verloc, Winnie tells Comrade Ossipon that throughout their marriage, "I was a respectable woman", bitterly claiming, "I was a good wife to him". She scorns Ossipon's misconstrued idea that their marriage was based on love (225).

Conrad uses Winnie to show readers that women who follow Victorian societal norms are eventually stripped of their humanity. Winnie's punishment, becoming a suicidal devil, seems excessively harsh, but this hyperbole perfectly suits the ironic tone of the novel. Because of Winnie's self-compromising sacrifices, lack of communication, and contractual conception of marriage, her ending is a terrible caricature of what really happened to many Victorian wives. Conrad wildly exaggerates conformity's results to shock his readers into a realization of the dangers of compliance with foolish social norms.

After Conrad characterizes Winnie as a passively typical Victorian woman, his use of a biblical allusion to the devil makes it clear that Winnie Verloc is a warning for women (and men) to avoid. Critics have never fully explained this biblical allusion for two reasons. Though it clearly refers to God's curse on Satan, it comes from a somewhat obscure section of the story of the Fall. The reference is also difficult to reconcile with the presupposition, fostered by Conrad's preface, that Winnie is the heroically tragic heroine of The Secret Agent. (Although, as Berman observes, Winnie does not appear in the novel as she does in the preface (126).)

Conrad, though he was an atheist, knew the Bible well. As Rosenfield notes, "Conrad's allusions to common Hebraic-Christian motifs were consciously employed - the Bible being a part of his cultural heritage" (4). Conrad scatters biblical references throughout The Secret Agent. Mr. Verloc "saw no writing on the wall" foretelling his doom (198), as described in Daniel 5. Winnie assumes "the biblical attitude of mourning" after hearing of Stevie's death (203). The powerful and impersonal world of politics contrasts with weak "men whose flesh is grass" (206), paralleling Isaiah 40:6, "All flesh is grass" (206). Winnie is freed from her contract to her husband after seven long years of marriage, like the Jews who were commanded to set their servants free every seven years (Deuteronomy 15:12-18).

The allusion equating Winnie Verloc with the devil appears after she murders Mr. Verloc, as she begs Comrade Ossipon to care for her. She trips as she rushes to Ossipon, who "positively saw snakes now. He saw the woman twisted around him like a snake, not to be shaken off. She was not deadly. She was death itself - the companion of life" (237). Eileen Sypher assumes that this reference makes Winnie a Medusa (42), but the rest of the text poorly supports this interpretation. Rosenfield utilizes this quote to observe that, "she represent[s] the creature who tempted Eve" (85). Rosenfield, correct in her observation that Winnie represents the serpent, fails to recognize Conrad's implications by not accounting for Winnie's next words: "'Tom, you can't throw me off now,' she murmured from the floor. 'Not unless you crush my head under your heel'" (237). This quote closely parallels Genesis 3:15. God promises future judgment on Satan because of his deception to Adam and Eve, stating, "And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." The reference to Genesis 3:15 implies that Winnie, clearly a typical Victorian woman, deserves punishment for her conformity to unrealistic societal norms (which is her only "sin" throughout the novel).

Winnie is not merely an archetypal temptress such as Delilah, Eve, or Circe, because of the implications of her serpentness. The serpent is equated throughout the Bible as not only a tempter, but Satan. For example, Revelation 20:2 states that an angel from heaven "laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years" (c.f. 12:9, 14). As Satan is judged for his sin of deception, Winnie is judged for obeying social constructs of femininity. Conrad further supports the interpretation of Winnie becoming Satan by stating, in a characteristically ironic tone, "it struck [Comrade Ossipon] as very possible that in that household of two it wasn't precisely the man who was the devil" (227).

Further evidence that The Secret Agent equates Winnie with Satan is found in Conrad's description of Comrade Ossipon after Winnie murders Mr. Verloc. He is repeatedly described as Winnie's "saviour" (238, 241, 243). The biblical Savior (in most Christian circles) crushes the serpent's head at Calvary. Likewise, Ossipon is responsible for Winnie's death. After he deserts her, she ends her life by drowning in the Atlantic Ocean.

Conrad's hyperbole in equating a standard Victorian woman with the devil suits the ironic tone of the novel. He exaggerates Winnie's punishment because her tragedy - which is, in fact, an indictment of Victorian society - is too complex to directly confront. By his darkly ironic tone throughout the work, Conrad's outrage becomes more subtle - and more sharp. Blasting The Secret Agent as a "misogynistic text" (Sypher 42) fails to account for its complexity.

Conrad's social irony succeeds as he turns Winnie Verloc into a devil, the exact opposite of the Victorian "angel of the hearth." This pessimistic view towards British society superbly matches his description of the "utter desolation, madness and despair" describing Winnie's life story (13) - and the lives of many British women in the late-Victorian era. Conrad uses The Secret Agent to warn women against passively accepting dehumanizing British social roles. Winnie Verloc takes the passive route and needlessly sacrifices for others and stays silent in her contractual marriage. Her tacit acceptance of Victorian societal pressures turns her into a devil. The Secret Agent is not an attack upon women in general but upon Victorian society and the women who follow its norms without recognizing the negative side effects.

Through his irony, Conrad also criticizes the relationships within a society focused on outside appearances rather than inward realities. Each of the main characters is a secret agent of sorts, with a double or triple life. Every character, and especially Winnie, is involved in the same manipulative game. Each character in the novel loses part of his person through this game. But because Winnie specifically represents the typical Victorian wife, Conrad harshly punishes her in order to dramatically warn readers against their dehumanizing standards.

The growth of anarchist groups in Britain appears diametrically opposed to the Victorian ideal of an externally proper lifestyle. Yet the Victorians' fears of anarchist destruction ironically, allowed many of them to gloss over the traumatizing psychological effects that their social norms, appearing prim and proper, had within their own lives. Victorian society and its relationships, often based on a false consciousness, stifled many individuals. The numerous Victorian lives who never reached their full human potential were as unfortunate and wasted as Martial Bourdin's fatal explosion. Conrad's moral, missed by his contemporary readers, still rings true today. Passively accepting inhuman expectations will dehumanize you.

Works Cited
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Berthoud, Jacques A. Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
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"The Condition of England" in Victorian Literature: 1830-1900. Ed. Dorothy Mermin, and Herbert Tucker. Accessed on 3 Nov. 2003.
Tillyard, E. M. W. "The Secret Agent Reconsidered." Conrad: A Collection of Critical Essays. Comp. Marvin Mudrick. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966. 103-110.
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Wollaeger, Mark A. Joseph Conrad and the Fictions of Skepticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.
Wright, Walter F. Romance and Tragedy in Joseph Conrad. New York: Russell & Russell, 1966.

© Brandon Colas, May 2004

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