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Feminism, Winnie Verloc and Conrad's The Secret Agent

Conrad once described “The Secret Agent” as the story of Winnie Verloc.  The novel, though, is seldom thought of as the story of a woman.  Conrad, in fact, is often dismissed as a sexist.  His women characters are usually thought of as one-dimensional and passive.

None of the adaptations of “The Secret Agent” (and I have now watched four of them) really make this the story of Winnie Verloc.  So, even after four adaptations (covering a span of 70 years), we still are waiting for one to fully express this as a woman’s story.

One of the most curious things about all the adaptations is the portrayal of Winnie and the relationship between Winnie and Mr. Verloc.  Conrad makes it clear that this is a marriage of convenience.  Winnie has married Mr. Verloc because he is willing and able to assure the security not only of Winnie, but of her mother and her disabled brother, Stevie. 

Conrad even includes a narrative of a previous love of Winnie’s who was both coveted and of a more appropriate age than Mr. Verloc.  But, Winnie broke off the relationship because the boy’s father was not willing to transfer money to him if he took on a woman with an infirm mother and a simple-minded brother.

So, while Winnie is not portrayed as hating Mr. Verloc or even actively resenting him, the two certainly have a distant relationship and both she and her mother fear displeasing Verloc.  Winnie’s mother moves out of the house she shares with them because she fears that Mr. Verloc might tire of supporting all of them.

Winnie’s marriage to Mr. Verloc did not come without a price to her psychologically.  Conrad is careful to describe Winnie as someone who has closed herself off emotionally.  She is variously described as “steady-eyed,” and “placid.”  Conrad says she has “preserved an air of unfathomable indifference…” 

When Winnie’s mother tells her she is moving out, Winnie is said to have received the “shock” such as to “make her depart from that distant and uninquiring acceptance of facts which was her force and her safeguard in life.”

Winnie is described over and over as “confirmed in her instinctive conviction that things don’t bear looking into very much.”  Facts don’t “bear looking into,” Mr. Verloc doesn’t bear looking into and the relationship itself doesn’t bear looking into.  Winnie’s detachment and unwillingness to look into things makes the relationship with Mr. Verloc, a secret agent, possible.

Conrad writes that “Winnie’s philosophy consisted in not taking notice of the inside of facts…”  In another quote, Conrad notes that “Mrs Verloc wasted no portion of this transient life in seeking for fundamental information. This is a sort of economy having all the appearances and some of the advantages of prudence. Obviously, it may be good for one not to know too much. And such a view accords very well with constitutional indolence.”
Even when the Chief Inspector Heat, a policeman, comes to the shop and talks with Winnie alone, he is impressed by her “detachment” and her “coolness.”  He describes Winnie’s action even when handed the label of Stevie’s coat as mechanical.
Conrad describes Winnie listening to Heat “listlessly” with “inert eyes.”  Even when she speaks, she is said to have “murmured.”

When Heat tries to get information out of her, she “simply turned her face from right to left in sign of negation.”  After this a “languid baffling silence reigned” in the shop.
Chief Inspector Heat is said to feel “provoked” in response to Winnie’s placidity.  This foreshadows Verloc’s own provocation in the face of Winnie’s closed response to him very soon afterward in the story.

But, even with all the work Conrad does to lay the foundation for the distance in the relationship, a distance which is crucial to making Winnie’s release after Stevie’s death meaningful and her murder of Verloc more explicable, none of the adaptations explore this part of the narrative.  They all to varying degrees try to portray the marriage as at least friendly.  Three of the adaptations present a loving relationship.  I find this inexplicable.
I would give my right arm to direct the filming of the scenes leading up to Verloc’s murder.  I hope I live to see another adaptation done by a woman who is interested in exploring the feminism inherent in “The Secret Agent.”

I would love to hear your reactions.  This quarter’s Novel/Movie Series is Hitchcock: Before and After Hollywood.  We will be discussing Hitchcock, the 39 Steps, Sabotage, Rebecca, and Dial M for Murder.

You can join the discussion by joining our Facebook page “St. Simons Library Novel and Movie Series.”  You can sign up for the mailing list by emailing me at  I also post the articles on and
Christina johns, lylajean (912) 399-8481

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