Ideas for essays

1. What is the importance of Stevie in The Secret Agent?

Winnie's "delicate brother", blond and "in a frail way, good looking, too, except for the vacant droop of his lower lip" is inveigled into anarchistic activities and becomes a "heap of rags, scorched and bloodstained". The reader's recognition of his death unfolds over the course several chapters, and consequences of it continue until the suicide of Winnie, after which his sacrifice is made even more poignant by being forgotten and in vain, an "unpenetrable mystery". The fate of Stevie is central to the plot of the novel: he is a manipulated altruist, an unwilling catalyst, and a victim of hypocrisy. The sacrifice of Stevie symbolizes the destruction of our liking for humanity. By describing him in such acidic terms as "like an expensive Sunday dinner", Conrad only ruffles our outraged abhorrence for the cowardly 'anarchist' who exploited Stevie's good intentions.

Stevie is a figure that contributes to the novel's satire of anarchism, in that he displays more revolutionary altruism than any of the professionals, yet has no capability as a terrorist. Several episodes illustrate his misguided benevolence, beginning with Stevie's calamity at work, when "Two office boys in the building had worked upon his feelings by tales of injustice and oppression till they had wrought his compassion to a pitch of frenzy..." until Stevie sets off fireworks on the stairs of his office building, and is duly landed in trouble. This is a microcosm of the main story, and proleptic in that it foreshadows his fate, and is an authorial device for giving the early warning signs of tragedy. Stevie's reaction to the "cab of death" that takes his mother to the almshouse is one of extreme sympathy, and backfires in that when he tries to get off the cab his mother, sister and the cabbie are all displeased with him. Stevie's "innocent but pitiless rage" is thus a danger to himself, and by contrast to the peripheral characters' self-interestedness (the Professor, making bombs to boost his sense of power; the Assistant Commissioner, backstabbing Heat to make himself seem less culpable; Ossipon, chasing girls for their money etc) his extreme selflessness appears half as a beacon to which to aspire, and half like a mental deficiency.

See The Fragmentation of Sympathy in The Secret Agent by Aaron Fogel for more information and ideas on this topic.

2. What is the flaw in Winnie Verloc's character?

Winnie Verloc is a key player in The Secret Agent, and is both refreshing and realistic character. She strikes a sharp contrast to the verbose anarchists by being largely silent ("Mrs Verloc was a woman of singularly few words, either for public or private use") or vocally inexpressive ("full of deep purpose, speaking only in the tones of the shallowest indifference"). Unlike the detatched Lady Patroness, the ineffectual mother-in-law, and the servile women used by Michaelis and Ossipon, Winnie may not easily be dismissed as a stereotype or sketch. When referring to Winnie, Conrad's tone becomes devoid of sarcasm and he is singularly sincere when describing her "maternal vigilence". The authorial voice, and consequently the reader, sympathise with Winnie despite her shortcomings.

Winnie's flaw is signalled early: on page two, she is given "an air of unfathomable indifference", setting her up as an incurious and self-sufficient character. This means that when Verloc is troubled in Chapter Three, Winnie does not question her husband, instead first exploiting her femininity - offering him "the usual remedies", and then remaining silent and switching out the light - leaving herself in the dark, metaphorically as well as literally. Likewise, Winnie misunderstands her mother's motivations for moving because she does not examine them. Her opinion that "things do not bear looking into" is however most destructive when she fails to question the new bond between Verloc and Stevie; her realisation of what has happened to her brother is worsened by her memories of the clues that she should have picked up on: "Might have been father and son" she murmurs to herself as she remembers how overly trusting and complacent she was. Like a character in a Greek drama, Winnie is a tragic figure not because she has committed a crime but because of an inherent flaw: her deep and "philosophical reserve" that allows her to distance herself from the appalling events around her. In this sense she is the reader's representative in the novel, ignoring the truth until she becomes entangled in the problem itself by not reacting.
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