Stevie Verloc: The Anarchist with a Complete Morality in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent
Morality is generally understood to be a code of conduct put forth by society, but in Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Secret Agent, two conflicting societies have different interpretations of what that means. While government agencies strive to maintain law, order and preserve their power, the anarchists’ mission is to upset governmental order by way of chaos, moving mankind toward enlightenment and individual freedom. The self-proclaimed anarchists in Conrad’s novel may collectively embody aspects of that ideal, yet each of them lacks some key element, whether it be identification with or analyzing the plight of the common man, or the ability to act out against convention. Surprisingly, it is the incompetent and unlikely Stevie who fully realizes these inherent anarchic virtues. It is he who has, as the narrator states, a “complete morality” (126).
Conrad uses image and appearance as an important component to define the ironic shortcomings of his anarchist characters. Mr. Vladimir conveys this significance of appearance to the corpulent Mr. Verloc when he scolds, “You haven’t even got the physique of your profession. You ‘a member of a starving proletariat’ never!” (16). To live like the proletariat is to understand the plight of the common man. Mr. Verloc’s obesity symbolizes his ties to the convention of the lazy bourgeoisie and also to his lack of productivity, in particular his inability to provoke change. Michaelis can be accused of the same as he comes “out of a highly hygienic prison round like a tub” (31) and is sent to Marienbad by a wealthy woman for three seasons (31). Michaelis enjoys the conventions of the bourgeoisie. This is evident by way of his bulk, the mention of his wealthy, dietary benefactor and his relationship with the Assistant Commissioner. Karl Yundt, being frail and toothless, is portrayed as a man whose bark is worse than his bite. “His enunciation would have been almost totally unintelligible to a stranger” (32). The only people who understand what he’s saying are those who already know his point, rendering him ineffectual to change the minds of those who do not. In the grand scheme of the novel, not one of these images exemplifies the attributes of a true anarchist.
Conversely, Stevie’s appearance projects anarchy in every aspect. He is described as “delicate, and in a frail way, good-looking too, except for the vacant droop of his lower lip” (7). This boy is thin, fragile and, unlike Mr. Verloc or Michaelis, more representative of the proletariat. His lower lip symbolizes his intense compassion. It droops even further when he witnesses the unjust treatment of any living being. When frustrated with “the poor cabman beating the poor horse in the name of, as it were, of his poor kids at home” (126), “a magnanimous indignation swelled his frail chest to bursting” (124). This image of Stevie’s chest about to burst is not unlike that of a bomb about to explode. Stevie is the bomb, a true instrument of change. While Stevie’s physical expression is telling of his character, the images he creates on paper also illustrate his pure anarchist qualities. If one circle represents the ideal, Stevie’s drawings of consecutive circles become directly representative of chaos beyond what any anarchist propaganda can achieve. It is obvious that Stevie is unable to discuss the principles of anarchy as do the others in their meetings, but he speaks volumes with his actions and reactions.
Anarchists believe that property and ownership is an oppressive crime of the bourgeoisie. Still, throughout the novel, the anarchists remain tied to the convention of money because this very system they fight against is one that they must also function within. Mr. Verloc is rattled to his core at the threat of Mr. Vladimir cutting off his paycheck, reacting “with all the force of his will against that sensation of faintness running down one’s legs” (20). Ossipon, while considering the demise of his publication, concerns himself with where his next paycheck will come from. Surprisingly, the Professor, one of the most credible anarchists in his willingness to detonate himself for change, also shows this vulnerability to convention. Once Mr. Verloc is dead and Comrade Ossipon asks the Professor what he should do next, the Professor replies, “Fasten yourself upon the woman for all she’s worth” (59). Following this instruction to attain Winnie’s money, Ossipon reveals his desire for power, to govern Winnie in place of Mr. Verloc and to assume her possessions. Neither the Professor nor Ossipon has achieved their goal of living free. Instead, they are jockeying for ownership, money and power as much as those they fight against.
Dissimilarly, Stevie is not bound by the rules of ownership and money. Provided for by his family and free from financial burden, Stevie gives all he has to the poor. In the case of Mrs. Neale, a woman who does housework at the Verloc’s, she repeatedly presents to Stevie a story about her poor, infant children. This is done to manipulate Stevie’s emotions until he offers Mrs. Neale a shilling on their behalf. “In the normal evolution of his sympathy Stevie had become angry on discovering that he had no shilling in his pocket. In his inability to relieve at once Mrs. Neale’s ‘little ‘uns’ privations, he felt that someone should be made to suffer for it” (137). Stevie then strikes the table with his fist, angry over the plight of Mrs. Neale’s children. He is selfless in motive and unaware of the injustice preying upon him, only wishing to help those in need. In this situation, Stevie’s detachment from his own money combines with his explosive reaction toward the unjust oppression of the poor and his anger over the inability to initiate change.
Another shortcoming of the anarchists is the willingness to analyze what is happening directly in front of them. Neither Mr. Verloc nor Winnie likes to scratch below the surface of circumstance until Stevie becomes a catalyst for this behavior. Their marriage, in Mr. Verloc’s mind, is one based on Winnie’s love for him and his admiration of her. Oddly, even after Mr. Verloc sends Stevie off with the bomb and the boy is killed, he still believes he is “loved for himself” (191). In truth, Winnie always acts the role of dutiful wife and would have continued that role had Stevie not been a part of the chaos that rattled her foundation. She merely tolerates Mr. Verloc until the moment she despises him for murdering her brother. Not until that moment does she finally admit to herself that this union is a marriage of convenience, simply a way to keep her mother and Stevie safely with her. She explains this to Comrade Ossipon, saying of Mr. Verloc, “He seemed kind. He wanted me, anyhow. What was I to do with mother and that poor boy?” (202). Winnie suddenly realizes that she is no longer responsible for Stevie’s needs and is subsequently free from Mr. Verloc. Without the catalyst of Stevie’s death, Mr. Verloc and Winnie may have indefinitely gone on looking solely at the surface of things.
Stevie, by comparison, is an analyst. He looks at the world around him and is distraught by the injustice he sees. As early as age fourteen, on his first job, Stevie sets off fireworks in his office building and is fired. This is not a naughty prank. It is eventually discovered that this is a reaction to the other office boys “working upon his feelings by tales of injustice and oppression til they had wrought his compassion to the pitch of frenzy” (7). This type of reaction resurfaces when Stevie sees the starved horse and poor cabbie as he walks Winnie across the street. Without the language to articulate his feelings, all he can explosively stammer is “Poor! Poor!” and “Shame!” (125). While his external expression is extremely simple, a great deal more is going on internally. “Jostled, but obstinate, he would remain there, trying to express the view newly opened to his sympathies of the human and equine misery in close association” (125). Stevie sees injustice without shying away. He faces it directly on an emotional level and then explodes.
Stevie is not an anarchist of intellectual words like those anarchists who write and sell propaganda in the novel. For him, this is not an intellectual journey open to debate. Stevie’s anarchism stems from the core of his being and clearly shines through his actions, whether apparent in his physical appearance, his outbursts, or his art. In small, unplanned events, he reacts to the disorder of oppression in a way that, in itself, upsets the order of things. Stevie is chaos. It is this principle that makes him a true anarchist without self declaration. It is this everyday embodiment of anarchy that attracts Mr. Verloc, who draws upon Stevie as a resource to detonate his bomb. Although the effect was not as intended, Stevie, in his “complete morality” ultimately becomes the instrument of change.