- Winnie Verloc:A Case of "Female Malady" in The Secret Agent
A woman with a masculine mind is not a being of superior efficiency; she is simply a phenomenon of imperfect differentiation—interestingly barren and without importance. Dona Emilia's intelligence being feminine led her to achieve the conquest of Sulaco, simply by lighting the way for her unselfishness and sympathy. She could converse charmingly, but she was not talkative. […] A woman's true tenderness, like the true virility of man, is expressed in action of a conquering kind. The ladies of Sulaco adored Mrs. Gould. "They still look upon me as something of a monster," Mrs. Gould had said pleasantly to one of the three gentlemen from San Francisco she had to entertain in her new Sulaco house just about a year after her marriage.—Joseph Conrad, Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard (55)
Conradian scholar Johan Adam Warodell has noted a correlation between an ink-sketch of a veiled woman found in Conrad's collection and his character Winnie Verloc, whose story takes on momentous psychological undertones as the plot of The Secret Agent (1907) reaches its climax when, in a moment of immense sorrow and total desperation, she murders her husband, Adolf Verloc, whose anarchist plot to bomb the Greenwich Observatory had led to the death of her mentally-challenged brother, Stevie. As Warodell observes, despite the presence of other veiled characters in Conrad's work, including "Mrs. Haldin, Mrs. Almayer, Mrs. Travers, Flora de Barral, and, in The Arrow of Gold, Rose—Mrs. Verloc is most conspicuously recognized as a veiled woman: the word 'veil' is mentioned twenty-two times to identify her" (455). Like the narrator of his seafaring voyages, Marlow, to whom "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside" (Heart 9), Conrad himself attaches particular significance to the external characteristics that provide a hint at the interior, if not the inner workings of the mind. Winnie Verloc's veiled aspect, which gains dominance as the plot nears its climax and then in the wake of her [End Page 315] self-inflicted state of widowhood, unsurprisingly proves contiguous with her initial description as possessing an air of "unfathomable indifference" (SA 10). Despite the tendency to analyze The Secret Agent within the context of its depictions of anarchy, and by extension terrorism, especially in light of the prevailing Zeitgeist, discussions of Winnie Verloc's seemingly atavistic act of revenge, vividly described as "a simple ferocity of the age of caverns" (SA 197), have also garnered some currency as of late. For example, Ellen Burton Harrington delves into feminist readings of the text in light of Victorian values of an ideal domestic life, while Bev Soane juxtaposes the microcosm of the domestic space of the Verlocs' home against the imperial space at large.1 An investigation of Winnie Verloc, however, deserves more attention than it has previously received, especially since in his notes on the novel, Conrad termed it the "story of Winnie Verloc" (SA 7). This paper seeks to unveil the mysterious character of Winnie Verloc in light of the multiplicity of readings that the complexity of Conrad's characters invites, including the examination of elements within Winnie's character that mark her as an embodiment of what Elaine Showalter has called the "female malady." Winnie Verloc displays characteristics that align her with a "document of madness" that comes to the fore in the masculinist web of power/knowledge dominating the story and, along with it, the desire to label her in negative ways, including the use of terms such as "she-devil" (SA 183) and "raving mad" (SA 197), instead of reading into her "mysteriousness" (SA 138). Madness serves as Winnie's sole means of staging a rebellion, a means to which many women in similar circumstances have found themselves bound to resort, particularly in the constraining Victorian Age. One could question, however, how far we have actually moved away from the gender-specific strictures moulding that era.2
What transpires at the heart of The Secret Agent is the frenzied unravelling of Winnie Verloc, the wife of Adolf Verloc, who, underneath the unassuming façade of...