Scholars and critics widely consider The Secret Agent to be one of the first great espionage or spy novels of the 20th century and the inspiration for countless other espionage stories, novels and films that appeared throughout the 20th century.
Following the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks, critics and readers returned to Conrad’s The Secret Agent and came to regard it as an early study into the psychology of terrorists. What many critics and readers are struck and intrigued by is how the novel does not offer a simplistic portrait of terrorists or their motivations. Instead, the novel explore the complicated dynamics of terrorism and the terrorist mindset, a topic which is still quite pertinent in our world, as well as the mindset of those who support terrorists and those who pursue them.
While the novel was written a century ago, it foretells not only the advent of modern terrorism, but also the sort anarchistic political groups that would become very prominent throughout the world in the later 20th century, as well as the establishment of such spy organizations as the CIA, KGB and MI5. Conrad, in many respects, seems to be looking directly into the world that we live in now through this novel.
While the novel’s characters are complex and often unappealing, they are all quite realistic. Nearly all of us have probably encountered people like the disloyal Verloc, the confused and misguided Stevie, the betrayed Winnie, the obsessed Chief Inspector Heat, or such manipulative people as Vladimir or the Assistant Commissioner. Perhaps some of us have even felt as confused, torn and desperate as Verloc does, and can, despite his extreme actions, identify with his plight and desperation.
Adapted from James Fleming analysis of The Secret Agent