The City in Fiction and Film, week 10: The Secret Agent, part two


week 9

This week we continued with Conrad’s novel, and also took a look at Hitchcock’s adaptation of it as Sabotage (Hitchcock UK 1936). Our first step was to pick up on a reading exercise left over from last week: in what ways and to what extent do the Professor’s views of society/life (54-6) differ from or coincide with those of Inspector Heat (73-74) and the Assistant Commissioner (82)? [All page references to the current Penguin edition.]

The Professor imagines a world governed by social convention, from which he has separated himself because he is superior to the mass of humankind. To him, society is ‘a complex organised fact’ which orders their lives – even the lives of policemen and anarchists/terrorists, who are similarly bound by it. He describes how Chief Inspector Heat has always to worry about countless things – his bosses, reputation, legal process, being paid, publicity – whereas he himself is capable of focusing on just one thing: building the perfect detonator. He is misanthropic, and has cut himself off from others and, as far as he can, from the needs of his own body.

Heat recognises this social order – he understands thieves. They, like other workers, labour, choosing to risk imprisonment rather than to risk the ‘ankylosis, or lead-poisoning, or fire-damp, or gritty dust’ that come with working ‘in potteries, in coal mines, in fields, in too-grinding shops’ (73). There is a certain honesty to their dishonesty. They are subject to the same morality as him, to the same conventions and demands: ‘Products of the same machine, one classed as useful and the other as noxious, they take the machine for granted in different ways but with a seriousness essentially the same’ (74).

The Assistant Commissioner, who misses the active life of being a copper in the tropics, is discontented with his job (he does not like sitting behind a desk, or having to rely on the underlings he manages) and with his life (his wife, who is from a higher class, insisted on living in Britain). Each night, on the way home, he plays whist at his club with the same three acquaintances, none of whom really know each other – they are ‘co-sufferers’, plagued by the indistinct ‘secret ills of existence’ (82). The club, the game, is a safe haven, a semblance of friendship.

All three accept the existence of a less than satisfactory social order: the Professor would destroy it; Heat is content with it, as long as everyone stays in their assigned place and plays their ascribed role; the Assistant Commissioner does his duty in preserving it, regardless of personal feelings. This is the universe that that iron knitting machine knits without pause or consideration.

Stephen Bernstein’s ‘Politics, Modernity and Domesticity: The Gothicism of Conrad’s The Secret Agent‘ describes the novel in terms of its ‘gothic paranoia and ‘the omnipresence of gothic gloom’’: ‘Everything is ghostly, haunted’ (286) and ‘haunting … is a condition of existence’ rather than merely an isolated location or single individual (287). With this in mind, we looked for gothic imagery of: death, burial, gloom, misery, impoverishment, ill-health, sleepwalking, funerals, existential despair (and clocks).

Verloc’s house is ‘in a shady street behind a shop where the sun never shone’ (205), where the ‘dull brown shelves’ of ‘shady wares’ seem to ‘devour the sheen of the light’ (169). It is in a street where the distant cries of newspaperboys ‘expired between the dirty brick walls without reaching the threshold of the shop’ (162) – indeed, in the ‘darkness and solitude of Brett Street … all sounds of life seemed lost as if in a triangular well of asphalt and bricks, of blind houses and unfeeling stones’ (219). Winnie, when courting another, had imagined marriage as ‘a voyage down the sparkling stream of life’ (191); but when circumstances prompted her to marry Verloc in stead, she found ‘there was no sparkle of any kind of the lazy stream of his life’ , and ‘domestic feeling’ turns out to be ‘stagnant and deep like a placid pool’ (193). Verloc, after Stevie’s death, longs for prison, which ‘was a place as safe from certain unlawful vengeances as the grave’ (186), while Ossipon, on the run with Winnie, curses ‘insular Britain’, which might as well be a prison.


Or we could take Winnie as a key example of the range of deathly imagery applied to characters. When Verloc fails to comprehend the extent of her grief over Stevie, her heart ‘hardened and chilled into a lump of ice’ and ‘her features [set] into a frozen contemplative immobility addressed to a whitewashed wall with no writing on it’ (191). The next page recalls her traumatic childhood, in which she had to protect her younger brother from being beaten by their drunken father, a broken brute of a man. Haunted by these memories, she ‘heard [his] words again in a ghostly fashion’ (192). When she replies to Verloc, ‘it was as if a corpse had spoken’ (196). When she has put on a hat and veil to go out, he complains that it is impossible to ‘tell whether one is talking to a dummy or to a live woman’ (203). She even becomes an inanimate object in a suddenly abstract scientific space:

The veiled sound filled the small room with its moderate volume, well adapted to the modest nature of the wish. The waves of air of the proper length, propagated in accordance with correct mathematical formulas, flowed around all the inanimate things in the room, lapped against Mrs Verloc’s head as if it had been a head of stone. (206)

She looks at the clock ‘mechanically’ (212) – some time earlier, Verloc was described as an automaton:

Mr Verloc obeyed woodenly, stony-eyed, and like an automaton whose face had been painted red. And this resemblance to a mechanical figure went so far that he had an automaton’s absurd air of being aware of the machinery in side of him. (156)

Fleeing the house, terrified of being executed and thus intent on making her way to the Thames to commit suicide, Winnie finds, ironically, that ‘The fear of death paralysed her efforts to escape the gallows’ (214):

She was the most lonely of murderers that ever struck a mortal blow. She was alone in London: and the whole town of marvels and mud, with its maze of streets and its mass of lights, was sunk in a hopeless night, rested at the bottom of a black abyss form which no unaided woman could hope to scramble out. (214)

When Ossipon becomes embroiled in her escape attempt, he takes on the appearance of his own death mask – ‘with a face like a fresh plaster cast of himself after a wasting illness’ (232) – while she becomes like death: ‘all black – black as commonplace death itself, crowned with a few cheap and pale flowers’ (234), and when she lifts her veil, ‘out of [her adamant] face the eyes looked on, big, dry, enlarged, lightless, burnt out like two black holes in the white, shining globes’ (235). Ossipon, who is looking to justify robbing and abandoning her, suddenly see her resemblance to Stevie and, recalling Lombroso’s ‘criminal anthropology’,  begins to catalogue her degenerate features. He thus traps her once more in a system beyond her control – like marriage and family and money and class.

Against the broad backdrop of gothic paranoia found in such examples, we turned to chapter eight. The careful reader will have guess already that Stevie died in the explosion, but as chapter eight starts, he seems to be alive and well.

I remember when I first read The Secret Agent (I would have been maybe fifteen, and had already read Heart of Darkness (1899) to try to figure out  Apocalypse Now (Coppola US 1979), which I had sneaked into the cinema to see, and not understand, when I was 11, on the same day that I saw Star Trek: The Motionless Picture (Wise US 1979). Ah! my precocious and misspent youth!). I was absolutely caught up by the suspense of wondering whether it was indeed Stevie killed in the bomb blast, and then was completely thrown by chapter eight and most of chapter nine, which do not signal that they are set in between Verloc’s meeting with Vladimir and the bombing. For the longest time I hated those chapters – it felt like Conrad was cheating, just like the bit with the doorbell at the end of The Silence of the Lambs (Demme US 1991) – but now I see them rather differently. Yes, on one level, it remains a cheap trick; but it also effectively extends that pervading sense of death-in-life as Stevie is consigned, like Schrodinger’s cat, to a limbo existence, hovering between life and death. And chapter eight in particular is fabulously rich in conveying Conrad’s gloomy entombing London populated with grotesques.

The hackney carriage driver is ‘maimed’, his left hand replaced with an iron hook; his giant ruddy face, ‘bloated and sodden’ (125), almost lights up the ‘muddy stretch of … street’ (124). He is stubbly, dirty, with ‘little red eyes’ and ‘big lips’ that have a ‘violet tint’ (126). His intellect has ‘lost its pristine vivacity in the benumbing years of sedentary exposure to the weather’ (126). His horse is ‘infirm’ (124) and emaciated, its ‘ribs and backbone’ visible (132). The carriage itself is not much better (124). The streets through which he drives Winnie and her mother are so narrow that they can look in the passing windows, which shake and rattle as the carriage goes past, sounding as if they might collapse. Jammed ‘close to the curbstone’, their ‘progress’ is insignificant (126).

When Stevie jumps down from the box to lighten the horse’s burden, Winnie is as ‘white as a ghost’ (125) – later, Verloc will look at her ‘as though she had been a phantom’ (139) – but under the gaslights of the ‘early dirty night’ (126), her cheeks take on an orange hue (127). Her mother’s naturally bilious ‘predisposition’ gives her a yellow complexion – only blushing might turn her cheeks orange (127). The almshouse to which she is moving – barren, unfurnished, just ‘bare planks and cheaply papered bricks’ (123) – has such narrow dimensions that it ‘might well have been devised in kindness as a place of training for the still more straitened circumstances of the grave’ (127).

In ‘the seclusion of the back bedroom’ of Verloc’s house, she had ‘reflected stoically that everything decays, wears out, in this world’ (128); she know she will die soon, and so she must ensure Stevie’ s future by abandoning him prematurely, and this decision – to move south of the river! – seems to be at one with the entropic decline of the cosmos. Later, it will be noted that ‘it may be said that [,] having parted for good from her children [she] had also departed this life’ (135) – and she certainly departs the novel, returning only as a memory, someone who must be told of Stevie’s death yet who seems to Winnie to be so far distant as to be utterly inaccessible.

The cab meanwhile rattles on, jolting so violently as to obliterate ‘every sensation of onward movement’ and create the impression of ‘being shaken in a stationary apparatus like a medieval device for the punishment of crime or’ – and this is a brilliant, deflationary touch, ‘some very new-fangled invention for the cure of a sluggish liver’ (129). A similar ironic tone – evident throughout the novel – can be seen when the cabman examines his payment:

pieces of silver, which, appearing very minute in his big, grimy palm, symbolised the insignificant results which reward the ambitious courage and toil of a mankind whose day is short on this earth of evil. … he talked to Stevie of domestic matters and the affairs of men whose sufferings are great and immortality by no means assured. … A silence reigned, during which the flanks of the old horse, the steed of apocalyptic misery, smoked upwards in the light of the charitable gas-lamp. (131, 132, 132-3)

The continual disjunction between epic phrasing and commonplace life seems simultaneously to say that people should matter this much and clearly do not, and that such illusions might make life bearable, but they are nonetheless illusions.

(This ironic disjuncture exposes the hypocrisy and cant of those who chatter about the ‘dignity of labour’ and ‘heavenly rewards’ by drawing attention to the meagreness of lives here and now and the constraints under which they are lived. Part of me admires that the apolitical Conrad, who believes there is no possible solution to the exigencies of life in a godless universe, never looks for one, and that he refuses to offer any platitudes; but on the other hand, it also frees him from the responsibility of trying to find temporary and partial solutions to real suffering, which kind of annoys me. In this context, Stevie becomes the kind of model liberal subject, incoherently moved to pity and incomprehension – all ‘sensations’ (133), ‘immoderate compassion’ and ‘innocent but pitiless rage’ (134), he cannot comprehend that it is not somehow the job of the police to right such wrongs, but rather in Winnie’s words to ensure ‘that them as have nothing shouldn’t take anything away from them who have’ (138). This is undoubtedly one of those things that, she profoundly feels, ‘do not stand much looking into’ (141). The irony will escalate in the closing chapters of the novel as Conrad gives us insight first into Verloc and Winnie, as their mutual incomprehension grows, and then Winnie and Ossipon, as they talk at cross-purposes, neither perceiving the other, just imputing motives to them.)

The departing cab seems

cast out into the gutter on account of irremediable decay. … Its aspect was so profoundly lamentable, with such a perfection of grotesque misery and weirdness of macabre detail, as it if were the Cab of Death. (135-6)

After Winnie and Stevie return home, the pensive Verloc goes for an aimless walk, leading ‘a cortège of dismal thoughts along dark streets’ (141). On returning home, he stares at Winnie with ‘a somnambulistic, expressionless gaze’ (141) – perhaps like that of Cesar, who we saw in a clip from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari a few weeks ago; later, Inspector Heat will also be described as a ‘somnambulist’ (176). Verloc thinks of his mother-in-law in terms of ‘rats leaving a doomed ship’ (141), and then undresses

with the unnoticing inward concentration of a man undressing in the solitude of a vast and hopeless desert. For thus inhospitably did this fair earth, our common inheritance, present itself to the mental vision of Mr Verloc. All was so still without and within that the lonely ticking of the clock on the landing stole into the room as if for the sake of company. (142)

Conrad moves from sarcastic commentary on Verloc’s melodramatic self-presentation of his situation to the delightful image of the animated ticking of the clock – that would not be out of place in either a Fleischer cartoon or a volume of Marx (who often animates inanimate objects in their relation to human life). The clock will become a recurring image in the later stages of the novel – just a couple of pages later, Winnie will ‘let the lonely clock on the landing count of fifteen ticks into the abyss of eternity’ (144) before responding to her husband, and a couple more pages later we will learn of Stevie’s discomposing habit of sitting in the dark at its foot (147). In Winnie’s dullness after killing Verloc she will be puzzled by the ticking of another clock, one that does not actually tick, and then slowly realise it is the sound of his blood running out (209, 210). She will look at the clock again, assuming it must have stopped since time is passing much more slowly than she thought (212); and she will fear it, half-believing that ‘clocks and watches always stopped at the moment of murder for the undoing of the murderer’ (213). (We have already seen the importance of clock imagery to Fritz Lang’s vision of the modern city in both M and Metropolis.)

In closing, we briefly considered the differences between Hitchcock’s Sabotage and Conrad’s novel, noting among other things how Hitchcock of seems to take small items of inspiration. When the Assistant Commissioner leaves his office, ‘his descent into the street was like a descent into a slimy aquarium’ (117); in the film, Verloc meets his paymaster in the subterranean aquarium at Regent’s Park Zoo. When Hitchcock seems to play up Oscar Homolka’s resemblance to Bela Lugosi, this might also be based on vaguely vampiric imagery in the novel – the comparison of Verloc arriving back from the continent like the influenza (Dracula as a European infection), and the revelation that Ossipon basically conducts his business by night to sleep during the day, and so on. The aquarium, of course, also plays into Hitchcock’s imagery of caged birds and animals – exemplifying gothic entrapment, the snare of circumstances.

Hitchcock also has a rather different, if also black, sense of humour. He shows up the absurdities of common people through attention to the details of mundane life, whereas Conrad’s ironic distancing from his characters often seems like sarcastic mockery of their aspirations and illusions.

week 11

Recommended critical reading – see week 9
Recommended reading – see week 9
Recommended viewing – see week 9


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