Feminist Reading of a passage from Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’

In pages 130-131 of ‘The Secret Agent’, Conrad’s description of the female protagonist Winnie Verloc provides the reader with an insight into the generally contemptuous attitude towards women of the Victorian era. In the extract, Conrad presents Winnie as somewhat politically and intellectually ignorant – a notion which was carried by the patriarchal society of the late 19th century. The passage also alludes to the expectations of women to fulfill their purpose as wives and mothers, as Winnie is said to be obeying an internal ‘instinct’, therefore suggesting that her sole motivation is to serve her husband and son. However, Conrad implies that rather than providing her with a sense of fulfillment, Mrs Verloc’s marital position only creates a void in her life. Winnie ultimately comes to represent the Victorian woman; in Conrad’s words, ‘equable’, ‘motionless’, ‘placid’ (p.130). The passage therefore allows the reader to consider the passive nature of women such as Mrs Verloc, and how they are influenced by societal expectations.

In the extract, Conrad reflects the parochial attitude of Victorian society as he addresses political participation in relation to gender, implying that women are politically inept and valueless in terms of the state. Conrad builds on this idea by portraying Winnie as somewhat obtuse, stating that ‘She felt profoundly that things do not stand much looking into’ (p.130). This notion is reinforced at the end of the extract, as Conrad repeats ‘She was rather confirmed in her belief that things did not stand being looked into’ (p.131). This idea of matters being ‘looked into’ hints at the shallow nature of women, who during Conrad’s lifetime, were largely viewed as politically irrelevant – and for this reason, those such as Winnie showed very little interest in diplomatic occurrences. The use of the strong word ‘profoundly’ contributes to the image of women as helplessly obstinate beings, as Conrad suggests that Winnie is blindingly naive to the importance of the country’s political situation, seeing as her lack of depth is something in which she herself believes in immensely. This concept is explored by critic Stephanie Brown as she states ‘It is hard to imagine a character less politically inclined than Winnie Verloc’; building on Conrad’s presentation of women being innately dependent and simply unable to meet the means for political consent. Brown maintains that “the novel draws on gendered criteria for citizenship in order to designate appropriate political actors and forms of political participation”. This hints at Conrad’s choice to utilize Winnie as a symbol for women, as her political naivety acts as a reflection of the stereotypical societal beliefs. Brown goes on to discuss how an ideal political community is generated by excluding attitudes and types of people deemed ‘unhealthy’ with regards to their influence on England’s political life – Winnie therefore represents the exclusion of women from the perfect polis. In the extract Conrad also discusses how Winnie makes ‘her force and her wisdom of that instinct’ (p.130). This statement is somewhat unusual as it implies that strangely, Winnie’s power as a woman supposedly comes from the fact that she is lacking in political depth; it is suggested to the reader that she utilizes her ignorance in order to establish control. Although this appears somewhat backward and technically in-cohesive, when evaluating the significance of the passage in relation to the rest of the novel, it is worth noting that Winnie’s unexpected actions of Verloc’s murder support this statement to an extent. This description of the female protagonist serves as a device of subtle foreshadowing, as the reader is led to consider the ways in which a character as seemingly powerless and benighted as Winnie, can exercise her stereotypical image to aid her.

Another way in which Conrad addresses feminism in the passage, is via his portrayal of Winnie as a mother and wife. Throughout the extract, he embeds multiple phrases that hint at her subservient nature, suggesting that her predominant purpose as a woman is to simply adopt a maternal and marital role. For example, the first words spoken by Mrs Verloc are simply “You’ll catch a cold walking about in your socks like this” (p. 130), thus demonstrating that her automatic response as a woman is to tend to Verloc – as her husband and superior. Conrad intensifies the significance of her submissive nature by following her speech with the statement ‘This speech becoming the solicitude of the wife and the prudence of the woman’ (p.130). Here Conrad informs the reader of how Winnie is almost subconsciously driven by her compulsions as a wife – to the extent of which she can barely act without this influencing her. Similarly, Brown discusses how Winnie fashions a fulfilling role for herself as Stevie’s mother and sister, yet this dependence on Stevie to give her life purpose only contributes to the novel’s assessment of her unfitness as a political actor. The almost robotic nature of Mrs Verloc as a mother and wife is exemplified in the statement ‘Practical and subtle in her way’ (p.131), as Conrad presents her as somewhat detached. The choice of the word ‘practical’ highlights Winnie’s functional nature as a woman, rather than one of emotional value. Further on in the extract Conrad refers to Winnie’s ‘instinct’ for a second time, stating that ‘The singleness of purpose had the unerring nature and the force of an instinct’ (p.131). Here the words ‘purpose’, ‘nature’, ‘force’ and ‘instinct’ are particularly resonant as they each relate to the responsibility of Winnie as a woman deeply motivated by her marital position. Despite the purpose granted to Mrs Verloc as a wife, in the passage Conrad also conveys a sense of isolation, as he reveals that Winnie feels ‘an acute pang of loneliness’ (p.131). Here the reader is led to sympathise with the female protagonist, as the use of the words ‘acute’ and ‘pang’ creates a sense of severe agony – ‘pang’ is almost onomatopoeic, producing a sharp, somewhat jarring effect to reflect the concept of pain. The pathos employed by Conrad therefore marks the suffering endured by Winnie as a result of her womanhood and her loyalty to her husband Verloc. Here Conrad implies that Mrs Verloc’s loneliness is triggered by her marriage – it has come to obstruct her ability to construct her own identity; instead she has become shaped by men. This is referred to by critic John Palmer, who states that Winnie is one of ‘Verloc’s essential victims’. This is represented through Conrad’s description of her being ‘Under her husband’s expressionless stare’ (p.130), which conveys a sense of ownership, hinting as Winnie’s lack of independence as a Victorian wife. The use of the word ‘under’ is significant, as it implies that Winnie is not only subject to Verloc’s gaze, but him as a being – being under him in terms of social authority. The word ‘stare’ also hints at the treatment of Winnie and women as a social group in the late 19th century, as it suggests that her husband is constantly surveying her behaviour due to the expectations and pressures of society. This is discussed by Brown, as she addresses Winnie’s incapacity to attain independence due to the fact that Conrad presents her as a woman who cannot even properly consent to her own marriage – stating that the portrayal of Winnie demonstrates how female consent is merely shaped by ‘fragile familial and economic bonds’. This is suggesting that as a woman, Winnie’s reasons for marriage are by no means romantic, simply practical – a matter touched upon by critic Franklin Mitchell, as he refers to marriage as ‘another meaningless social construct’.

When considering the relevance of this passage in relation to the text as a whole, it is evident that Conrad’s portrayal of Mrs Verloc has been adapted in order to reflect the contemporary treatment of women in terms of politics and marriage. Despite Winnie’s presentation as a rather fragile character in the passage – a weak woman who had ‘never been parted from her mother before’ (p.130), these two pages subtly foreshadow the actions of the protagonist towards the end of the novel, as Conrad begins to inform the reader of the volatility of her character. For this reason, it is to be noted that Conrad himself speaks of the tale as ‘Mrs Verloc’s Story’.

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