- Cosmic Chaos in The Secret Agent and Graham Greene’s It’s a Battlefield
Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) possesses some of the features of the hunted-man novel as written by writers such as Graham Greene. In The Secret Agent, Conrad dramatizes the tension between public time and individual freedom. Some of the malaise engendered by the new dimension of time can be found in this “tale of the nineteenth century,” as his dedication calls it (Secret). The key event of It’s a Battlefield (1934) is the disbanding of a Communist demonstration during which a policeman is inadvertently killed by Jim Drover, a bus driver, followed by the latter’s subsequent death sentence. The Communist leader, ironically named Mr. Surrogate, demands that Jim be hanged so that he can be used as a martyr for the Communist cause. Greene shows the reactions of a number of people to the event. Conrad Drover, Jim’s brother, and Milly, the latter’s wife, strive to help Jim, but in the end, betray the man they love. Conrad Drover becomes, like Winnie, tormented, guilt-ridden, and looks at the world from his own darkness and isolation. Gradually, as in The Secret Agent, guilt and hatred become a state of mind, and people seldom get justice because London—the center of Empire—has become the city of lost illusions. Both Conrad and Greene treat of the theme of the arbitrariness of justice or, as Greene has it, of “the injustice of men’s justice” (Battlefield 62).
Conrad and Greene depict societies in which modern man is crushed beneath the fear of a political power that engenders social injustice, and the perverse effects these inequities can have on the different members of society. The issue, in both novels, is no longer how justice can be made but rather how it can survive in a world ruled by [End Page 179] unreason. In Conrad’s novel, the Professor, the paragon of perverse unreason, has suffered revolting injustice in prison, his resentment increasing his hatred of mankind so much that universal destruction becomes his sole purpose.
Furthermore, there is an overlapping of identities in Conrad’s novel. Like Chief Inspector Heat, the Assistant Commissioner at times has similarities with the criminal classes. Hence terrorism and law enforcement become simply two sides of the same coin. The lapsing of law enforcement into illegality blurs the boundaries between the “healthy” and the “diseased.” The lack of communication among men increases mutual suspicion. Usually regarded as a fair man, Heat is nonetheless happy with loopholes in justice. Therefore in order to protect Adolf Verloc, he prefers to incriminate Michaelis. Inspector Heat of the Special Crimes thinks that “it would be stupid not to take advantage of legal facilities” (Secret 90). Ironically the police and administration investigation of the attack on Greenwich Observatory is focused on the fragment from Stevie’s coat found just by accident after the explosion, while the real culprit—the Professor—is left free by tacit assent of the police. The anarchists and the police are indeed accomplices, says the Professor: “Like to like. The terrorist and the policeman both come from the same basket. Revolution, legality countermoves in the same game; forms of idleness at bottom identical” (Secret 67).
Such anomalies in the operations of law and justice are also found in Greene’s It’s a Battlefield. This world is inhabited by men engaged in battle, yet this “army” remains ignorant of the neighbor’s battle. The action and the setting are again reminiscent of The Secret Agent. Verloc’s counterpart is Mr. Surrogate, the Fabian Economist, who is indeed “nothing but social contradiction in [seeming] action” (Battlefield 44). Though he advocates social improvement and equality of opportunities, and though he feels compassion for the unfortunate, he actually withdraws from any real contact with human beings. He advocates sacrifice and yet is unable to put it into practice. He conceals his true nature behind the mask of Communism just as Verloc hides behind his work for the Embassy. Only Mrs. Surrogate knew her husband well. “The portrait of the Lady,” which hangs over his bed, is a...