In The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, No. 32 Brett Street is residence to four people related through blood or marriage who experience nothing more intimate than one-sided relationships. In mere coexistence, Mr. Verloc, his wife Winnie, Winnie’s mother and brother Stevie are completely alone in their own thoughts, disengaged from each other without any meaningful communication. Winnie, in particular, is unwilling to investigate further into anything which lies beneath the surface, serving her own interests without full observation of the circumstances surrounding her or collaboration from the others.
Family life for Winnie holds no intimacy. She and Mr. Verloc produce no children after seven years of marriage. Although Mr. Verloc often admires her from afar, Winnie prides herself on being a good wife in the sense that she provides her husband good meals, a clean home, and her share of responsibility at the shop. She knows she is to be kind to Mr. Verloc’s political friends, a group of anarchists, which she tolerates by allowing their conversations to roll off her, unless they upset Stevie. At best, to her, this is a business relationship, one that ensures shelter for her mother and brother from the streets or a charity house. The only detail that consistently lends credence to the “goodness” of Mr. Verloc is his acceptance of her family in his house. Beyond that, she knows very little about him.
Mr. Verloc’s shop is positioned at the very front of the house, where pictures of scantily clad women and flimsy yellow envelopes known for camouflaging contraception are distributed. In the selling of pornography and condoms, Mr. Verloc directly promotes more one-sided relationships for the patrons who enter. The shop patrons are generally men who do not want to be seen or known intimately, especially when Winnie answers the bell. Oddly, it is Winnie who does not seem to mind the wares or the patrons. In fact, nothing about the shop gives her cause for question. She manages, daily, not to notice that this small, ineffectual business could never fully support her household. Never questioning Mr. Verloc as to where the subsequent funds originate, she knows only that she and her husband appear to be able to care for themselves as well as her mother and brother financially. Winnie seems willing accept that this end justifies any unknown means.
Without children of her own, Winnie’s brother Stevie acts as her surrogate son. It is Winnie who understands him better than anybody, and yet, this too is one sided. She cannot convey to him the enormity of her devotion, He can only conceptualize the safety of her protecting him from his abusive father in her bed when they were children. He cannot show her love beyond the simple action of proudly escorting her through the street. Unable to articulate his negative emotions beyond acting out aggressively, Stevie’s actions are often misunderstood. There is only one occasion when Winnie presses Stevie for the reason why he set off of fireworks at work but, more often than not, she fills in the blanks with what she believes to be true, unwilling to delve into the intricacy of his thoughts. Inevitably, Winnie simplifies Stevie’s intolerance of social injustice with the word “sensitive.” His thoughts are not the object of her devotion. By keeping him productive and in line as best she can, Winnie hopes that Mr. Verloc will, some day, act the role of his father.
Winnie’s mother is “taken over with the furniture” when the family joins Mr. Verloc on Brett Street. Oddly, for never being without each other, it becomes clear that Winnie and her mother never share anything of substance. First, Winnie’s mother observes that Winnie’s suitor, the butcher’s son, drifts out of the picture without explanation only to be replaced shortly after by Mr. Verloc. Winnie’s mother thinks this is odd but they never discuss it. This relationship is one sided in both directions as, next, Winnie’s mother never shares her motives with Winnie about leaving Brett Street for the charity house. They only address the chronological details at length, never asking or answering why. Unbeknownst to each of them, their motivation is the same. Each one wants to ensure the security of the family, Winnie through marrying a provider, and her mother by keeping Stevie dependant upon Winnie and Mr. Verloc.
In the end, Winnie is as much a secret agent as her husband. She enters into this loveless marriage for the sake of her family, acting the role of wife to provide for them all. Unfortunately, unwilling to look beneath the surface of the world around her, she cannot successfully achieve her goal of protecting Stevie. Without knowing the true nature of Mr. Verloc, Winnie unwittingly sends Stevie into harms way.