- Conrad’s Pornography Shop
In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.—Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces”
Home! Four idiots and a corpse.—Joseph Conrad, “The Idiots” (1897)
More than once, Joseph Conrad wrote about running away from home. Of course, we could think of the adventure genre itself, and Conrad’s work in it, as such a flight. But Conrad was interested in domestic scenarios as well—some quite lurid.
Imagine these scenes. First, a couple of French peasants have four children together, each of whom is an idiot. The husband is furious. One night, he swaggers with shirt unbuttoned towards his wife, demands she have sex with him, and receives from her a fatal stabbing. She runs through the fields, wildly exclaiming “‘I want to live. To live alone—’” (“The Idiots” 81), and throws herself over a cliff into the ocean. Second, a middle-class business man finds out that his wife is having an affair. The husband seems to feel so claustrophobic at the thought of asking “what does a woman want?” that he rushes out of [End Page 319] the house just after his wife “pants” “‘I’ve a right—a right to—to—myself. . .’” (“The Return” 169). The final lines of the story are “He never returned” (“The Return” 170).
Now, a third. A woman murders her husband, a spy, with a kitchen knife, because he has caused the death of her younger brother. She rushes out into the street and gets picked up by another man. When he abandons her, she throws herself off a boat (or so it is reported in the press). 1
This last vignette tells the story, in capsule form, of Winnie Verloc, the wife in The Secret Agent, which was serialized in 1906 in the American magazine Ridgways: A Militant Weekly for God and Country. The other scenarios—from “The Idiots” and “The Return”—were collected, appropriately enough, as Tales of Unrest (1898). One could add to this set the hasty departure of the eponymous Amy Foster, whose husband is a shipwrecked immigrant. When they have a child and her husband teaches the child a foreign language, Amy turns violent. All of these scenarios give us a melodramatic Conrad, one who imagines the squalid affairs of home. 2 Home isn’t where the heart is; it’s the scene of the crime. The Secret Agent is not the only fiction in which Conrad explored the topic of domestic violence—indeed, domesticity as violence—but that novel is his most extended, as well as his most famous, inquiry into the melodramatic and scenic potential of home. 3
Conrad’s interest in the terrain of strange homes reaches an apotheosis in The Secret Agent, which takes place in the capital city, where the nation and home coincide. This essay argues that The Secret Agent is a key work in the history of espionage fiction, and as such, it illuminates that genre’s foundation in fears about disruptive women (infiltrators of the proper home) and foreigners (infiltrators of the proper capital city). It is a critical commonplace that the espionage genre emerged in the context of Edwardian Britain’s unstable political climate, with its spy fever and fears of invasion. 4 I want to suggest that Conrad’s novel extends consideration of the genre’s origins to peculiar, violent homes.
While designating The Secret Agent as an example of the espionage genre would seem to place it squarely in the category of the mass cultural narrative, my aim in this essay is to take up the Jamesonian claim that Conrad marks “a strategic fault line in the emergence of contemporary narrative, a place from which the structure of twentieth-century [End Page 320] literary and cultural institutions becomes visible” (206). The key word here is “visible.” After all, if modernism has an origin, Conrad is arguably it. Michael Levenson begins A Genealogy of Modernism with the oft-quoted lines from the preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, in which Conrad defines art as “a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to...