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  • Unreliable Heterodiegesis and Scientific Racism in Conrad's Secret Agent

Few aspects of Conrad's oeuvre disturb contemporary readers more than his embarrassing employment of scientific racist discourses. Though these discourses consistently appear alongside their critiques, their inclusion potentially signals more than a set of passing references to contemporary cultural life. Allusions to criminal anthropology, phrenological statistics, cultural and physical degeneration, eugenic theories of racial coherence, and the so-called "atavistic stigmata" first popularized by Augustin Morel crop up in Conrad's works with a high enough frequency to prompt worries that the author himself may have subscribed to them to some degree, notwithstanding his status in England as a foreign-born ethnic Pole who ranked considerably lower on the racist totem pole than the English and the other "Nordics." Compounding the problem, Conrad's modernist reticence to explicate an authorial stance on racist discourses in particular and cultural norms in general only begets further consternation, since no way of parsing true belief from skeptical incredulity seems readily available.

Conrad's The Secret Agent (1908) is the high water mark of these discourses. Other texts exhibit a few hallmarks of scientific racism (Jim in Lord Jim and James Wait in The Nigger of the "Narcissus" both exhibit forms of degeneracy; the company doctor's offer to measure Marlow's cranium with calipers in Heart of Darkness is an example of phrenology), but his London novel incorporates them all, even going so far as to single out the "criminal anthropologist" Cesare Lombroso by name for special contempt. The Secret Agent reenacts a historical bomb scare at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park that took place in 1885, [End Page 645] and the anarchist characters that populate its storyworld exhibit a variety of the traits Lombroso studied in his imprisoned test subjects: overlarge nose and ears (Yundt), sloping forehead (the Professor), indolent sloth (Verloc), absence of marital fidelity (Winnie), emotional instability and intellectual debility (Stevie), and morbid, irremediable obesity (Michaelis). Tom Ossipon, a fellow-traveling adherent of Lombroso's, is mocked by the narrator throughout by the appellation "Comrade"; he ironically displays the atavistic stigmata despite (or perhaps because of) his faith in its proof of inherent criminality: "A bush of crinkly yellow hair topped his red, freckled face, with a flattened nose and prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the negro type. His almond-shaped eyes leered languidly over the high cheek-bones."1

Presiding over this cynical representation of 1880s-London desuetude is an authorial narrator who operates as an agent of the novel's pervasive irony, an irony that separates the novel's aberrant characters and deviant acts from the threatened status quo of its (presumably bourgeois) contemporary readership. The narrator intriguingly combines evaluative reticence and diagnostic intrusion. He extrapolates thought report from external physiognomic description of characters, seemingly allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions after hearing the facts of the case. But all of those facts have been marshaled in service of the aprioristic assumption that physical appearance is directly related to inherent moral susceptibility—that the nose, ears, eyes, and skull (not to mention race) make the criminal. The narrator subscribes to scientific racism and tells his story under the naturalist assumption that readers will wish to hear these characters physically described as a shortcut to diagnosing their roles in the narrative as normative heroes or degenerate villains.

Nearly all commentaries on the novel notice its pervasive ironies and blackly comic pessimism, but those willing to opine are polarized between readers like Frank Kermode and Ian Watt, who approve of Conrad's unblinking assessment of human cruelty and moral susceptibility, and those who, like Robert Greenslade and Mark Wollaeger, recoil from Conrad's bleak determinism and conservative despair.2 Both poles seize on the absence of character narration to conflate the author and the narrator because of the implied author's modernist reticence to discipline the wayward narrating voice.3 But recent theoretical arguments about omniscience have convincingly shown that even heterodiegetic narrators are not always reliable objective storytellers; some selection process occurs in the presentation of any finite narrative, and behind that process resides an active...


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