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"The Manner of Exploding": Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent and Men at Home

From: Conradiana
Volume 42, Number 3, Fall 2010
pp. 17-44 | 10.1353/cnd.2010.0018

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The Secret Agent is difficult to classify. Is it a spy story, about politics, anarchists, and bombs? Or is it a melodrama, about a home, a family, a son who is blown up? The generic confusion points to the confusing world that is its setting: England as imperial certainties faltered and, with them, British men's familiar means of defining themselves as men. The novel's spy story-melodrama hybrid points to the failure of one such method, one that relied on a clear delineation of public and private. In line with the realities of its time and place, The Secret Agent shows the impossibility of either a pure politics or a pure home which is a refuge from them; the presumably public and the purportedly private are entangled, troubling constructions of masculinity and male sexual fantasy predicated on their separation.

Connecting The Secret Agent with its historical moment is, of course, not new. Critics have often seen the novel as either engaged, consciously or unconsciously, with political issues facing late-Empire Britain, or as a novel concerned with family life in the same period. The first set of critics tend to see the novel's domestic component—the married life of Winnie and Adolf Verloc—as metaphorically tied to the national political crises that are the novel's principal concern. For example, Graham McMaster, taking a cue from a reading by Fredric Jameson, elides state politics with the familial and the sexual: "Jameson's discussion of the comedy of impotence in La Vielle Fille suggests that the sexual works as a 'blind or subterfuge' to conceal the banal facts of political and social life which are the real objects of management. The sexual disorder which is the most easily available layer of meaning is not primary but metaphorical" (240). David Mulry, in tracing the increasing focus on the domestic that he notes in revisions to the manuscript of The Secret Agent, concludes that "the inevitable implication that we draw from the convergence of the familial drama and the political crisis in the revised draft is that they are somehow twinned [. . .] substituting for, and reinforcing one another" (50). Mulry notes that Conrad distanced himself from political readings of the novel, and views a metonymic connection linking the two plot lines as the means by which Conrad smuggles political content into the novel, using Winnie, who "proves herself the most dangerous anarchist of the lot" (50, 54); "[t]he political dimensions of this tale are framed, and indeed given substance, by the domestic arena" (Mulry 57). Mulry implies, particularly when he claims that Conrad uses the domestic plot in place of an expressly political polemic, that the familial stands for the national, and that they are mutually illuminating because they operate by homologous processes and within analogous structures (suggesting that he means metaphoric more than metonymic). Mulry does not go on to explain how the metonymy he identifies functions, which may stem not only from his article's focus on Conrad's revisions, but from the fact that the metonymy—if it can be called this—cannot be neatly parsed. Metaphorical and allegorical readings like these simultaneously reinscribe an assumed boundary between private and public, and obscure the ways in which the particular histories and dynamics of familial and national life both intersect and diverge.

The second set of critics tend to see the national and traditionally political issues the novel raises—the anarchists with whom Verloc associates, the unnamed embassy that employs him—as window dressing for the central issue, which revolves around a domestic melodrama. For instance, Rishona Zimring argues that in The Secret Agent "nation and home coincide," and Conrad figures "domesticity as violence" (320): his novel is an attempt to establish "a masculine domesticity which involves the repurification of the nation-as-home" (Zimring 338). In her reading, women—wayward women like Winnie—are the preeminent national problem. Geoffrey Harpham traces a direct line from the Home Secretary to the Verloc home, and, having followed this line, announces that family dynamics lie at the heart of the novel (99). Wendy Moffat sees domestic violence as the " simple tale" at the heart of The Secret Agent (37). Bev...



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