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Domestic Violence: The Simple Tale within The Secret Agent Wendy Moffat Dickinson College This abode of her married life appeared to her as lonely and unsafe as though it had been situated in the midst of a forest. —The Secret Agent AT THE HEART of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907) is, as the subtitle promises, "a simple tale."1 It goes like this: because her father beat her and her younger brother, a young attractive woman turns down a love match in favor of a man who seems temperamentally least likely to replicate the terrors of her childhood. Her husband is lazy, undemanding, and often away from home on "business." He leaves her in control of the household, arrives promptly for meals, and allows her mother and younger brother to live with her. After her mother leaves for a pensioner's home, the woman and her brother and husband comprise a peculiar nuclear family for a short time. But when her husband accidentally kills her brother, the woman murders him and then kills herself. On this level The Secret Agent is indeed a simple tale of domestic violence. But critics have paid most attention to the public aspects of the novel rather than to Winnie Verloc's private story of family violence. In part this is a reflection of the circumstances of the public tale. The subject of secret agents and hidden plots, of internal politics and conflicts within the police department has a lurid appeal. The spy story which the title implies invites readers to witness an exotic, alien world, in a form which proposes a mythic opposition between forces of order and anarchy.2 Furthermore, looking to the public rather than to the private world is a habit of ours. As Peter Brooks notes, assumptions about what constitutes a legitimate form of narrative reflect both epistemology and social values.3 Even critics who believe that social history provides a crucial 465 ELT 37:4 1994 context for understanding Conrad find their projects defined by their conception of the historical subject. So Norman Sherry's study Conrad's Western World perceives "the world" in public events: he relates the novel to the anarchist and Fenian dynamite campaigns of the 1880s, and searches for the identity of public figures who might have served as Conrad's models for the male characters in the novel.4 To accord a separate status to family violence probably would have seemed strange to Conrad and his contemporaries. Apreoccupation with privacy and the idealization of family life conditioned Victorian attitudes ; domestic violence was not recognized as a distinct category of crime. As the legal and moral head of their households, men were expected to govern and discipline subordinates, and corporal punishment was considered an acceptable, even a necessary, part of such discipline.5 Except in extreme circumstances—when it ended in death, or became a public nuisance—family violence was not considered criminal . Judicial and police records did not chronicle the family status of victims of violence.6 Moreover, as Margaret May observes, "the observations of middle-class investigators were inevitably colored by their own preconceptions of family life and their definitions of 'violence' were highly subjective and variable."7 Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that the Victorians were not concerned with family violence.8 Linda Gordon notes that public societies for the prevention of cruelty to wives and children were organized and gained political force in England beginning in the 1870s.9 Increasingly, the condition of the family was seen as a potent metaphor for the condition of England. Conrad wrote The Secret Agent at a time when many "supposed that they were witnessing a 'crisis of the family* that threatened, unless successfully tackled and resolved, to undermine the entire fabric of society and to sweep the nation into turbulent, uncharted, and perilous times of chaos and anarchy."10 If "domestic violence" is an anachronism when applied to the Victorian era, its current use in social science is too narrow for my purpose here. While neologisms such as "child-abuse" and "elder-abuse" have emerged for special sub-categories of family violence, the term "domestic violence" in the literature is...


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