Atmosphere and setting: location, light, styleThe novel is very clearly set in London (the city Conrad depicted as the actual Heart of Darkness in the last lines of that novel). As soon as the three main characters have been mentioned, Conrad succinctly places them in a restrictive and unenlightened city:
"The shop was small, and so was the house. It was one of those grimy brick houses which existed in large quantities before the era of reconstruction dawned upon London."
Conrad's novel is not going to describe a pleasingly modish and sanitised London. He is harping back to a dingy, vast and uniform capital. This description of Brett Street immediately gives an impression of the impersonality of the metropolis, and the single word "grimy" conjures up multiple images of dust and neglect and pollution and shabbiness and penury. Conrad's creation of atmosphere is very economical: he uses apposite words effectively and does not over-describe. Though not so dense and filled with similes and metaphors as some of his early sea-based novels, the language of The Secret Agent remains exceedingly powerful in its accuracy and lack of extravagence.
The author sets us firmly in London by using familiar place-names. Polish- born Conrad my appear almost like a tourist when he name-drops Hyde Park Corner, Knightsbridge, Sloane Square, Rotten Row and all, but he defies such a label because his description of such places is never benign. He never lets well-known and pleasant places remain as such. Familiar places are named and, as such, undermined by their association with these crimes. They are infected just as the men on the street in the closing lines of the book are by the presence of The Professor..
Sloane Square and Victoria, silent and in darkness as Ossipon returns home, are personified and described as "watching" the guilty Ossipon, and the ostensibly sunny morning on which Verloc pays a visit to the Embassy is on close inspection sinister: the sun is "bloodshot", the light "rusty" and everywhere there is a "diffused light... in which neither wall nor tree nor beast nor man cast a shadow". The city is so sprawling and diffuse that nothing personal (even the sacrifice of an innocent youth) can make its mark. This suggestion of insignificance is highly threatening yet subtle. Light is used throughout as a form of 'pathetic fallacy' since it regularly matches the feelings of the protagonists.
London, the centre of "the Empire on which the sun never sets" is ironically dark and shadowy. The gloom gives a sense of danger, of obscurity, of confusion and amorality. Conrad exploits all our natural reactions to darkness and uses it as a metaphor for all that is menacing. Yet he only achieves this so superbly because he contrasts the shade with light: we are continually made aware of the blackness due to references to small and insignificant lights. Good examples may be found in Chapter Twelve, where the "rusty little halo of mist" which surrounds every gas lamp is contrasted with the "black abyss" into which Winnie nearly falls. This feeble light only attracts attention to the ubiquitous darkness, and the symbolic value of light and dark is illustrated as the street lamp has an attribute of heaven and the dark river sounds like a Miltonic vision of hell.
Colour and light bear upon the demarcation of different social strata in the novel. The Lady Patroness' chambers are flooded with "the light of six tall windows" and furnished with "faded blue silk and gilt" These airy and heavenly colours contrast with the greys and "shadowy" hues of the less privileged. Colour is of great importance in subliminally creating atmosphere in the novel.
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