The Secret Agent (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

The Secret Agent (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)


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The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad, is part of the Barnes & Noble Classics series, which offers quality editions at affordable prices to the student and the general reader, including new scholarship, thoughtful design, and pages of carefully crafted extras. Here are some of the remarkable features of Barnes & Noble Classics:
  • New introductions commissioned from today's top writers and scholars
  • Biographies of the authors
  • Chronologies of contemporary historical, biographical, and cultural events
  • Footnotes and endnotes
  • Selective discussions of imitations, parodies, poems, books, plays, paintings, operas, statuary, and films inspired by the work
  • Comments by other famous authors
  • Study questions to challenge the reader's viewpoints and expectations
  • Bibliographies for further reading
  • Indices & Glossaries, when appropriate
All editions are beautifully designed and are printed to superior specifications; some include illustrations of historical interest. Barnes & Noble Classics pulls together a constellation of influences—biographical, historical, and literary—to enrich each reader's understanding of these enduring works.

Set in early twentieth-century London and inspired by an actual attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, The Secret Agent is a complex exploration of motivation and morality. The title character, Adolf Verloc, is obviously no James Bond. In fact, he and his circle of misfit saboteurs are not spies but terrorists, driven less by political ideals than by their unruly emotions and irrational hatreds.

Verloc has settled into an apparent marriage of convenience. Family life gives him a respectable cover, while his wife hopes to get help in handling her halfwit brother, Stevie. Instead Verloc involves Stevie in one of his explosive schemes, an act that leads to violence, murder, and revenge.

Darkly comic, the novel is also obliquely autobiographical: Joseph Conrad’s parents were involved in the radical politics of their time, and their early deaths left him profoundly distrustful of any sort of political action.

Steven Marcus is Professor of English and Comparative Literature and George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, and a specialist in nineteenth-century literature and culture. He is the author of more than 200 publications.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781593083052
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 03/01/2007
Series: Barnes & Noble Classics Series
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 102,170
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.96(d)

About the Author

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) grew up amid political unrest in Russian-occupied Poland. After twenty years at sea with the French and British merchant navies, he settled in England in 1894. Over the next three decades he revolutionized the English novel with books such as Typhoon, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and especially Heart of Darkness, his best-known and most influential work.

Date of Birth:

December 3, 1857

Date of Death:

August 3, 1924

Place of Birth:

Berdiczew, Podolia, Russia

Place of Death:

Bishopsbourne, Kent, England


Tutored in Switzerland. Self-taught in classical literature. Attended maritime school in Marseilles, France

Read an Excerpt

From Steven Marcus’s Introduction to The Secret Agent

Ever since the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center in September 2001, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent has figured prominently as an object of exemplary reference. In the incessant stream of published commentary, analysis, opinion, and moralizing reflection that such a devastating event inevitably brings forth, Conrad’s novel has been repeatedly annexed as both illustration and in support of a wide range of interpretative perspectives. For the most part, journalistic commentary has focused upon the figure of the Professor, and has included incidental references to the more bloodthirsty utterances of the other anarchist characters. In 1906–1907, so this line of discussion goes, Conrad had clairvoyantly perceived the catastrophic consequences that the European traditions of radical and revolutionary political theory, ideology, and practice were to bring about, and The Secret Agent is to be understood by us today as in this sense both prophetic and minatory.

Other readings of a more “centrist” persuasion stress the symbiotic relation between the police and the terrorists, that they often “come from the same basket.” The elaborate “game” in which continuous surveillance by the police authorities and toleration of radical political dissent are simultaneously played off against one another creates a situation of stress and conflict in which government, imperfect enough as it is, tends to over-respond on the side of security. In doing so the state violates the liberties of freedom of opinion and expression that it has also been mandated to sustain and that the radical dissenters claim as rights belonging to them as equal members of a democratic, liberal society. Encroachment on or invasion of such rights serves chiefly to expose the substantial elements of untruth and hypocrisy in liberal ideology, reinforces dissident and radical fixed opinion as to the wholesale illegitimacy of prevailing political and social institutions, and prompts those already in opposition to further measures of “resistance.”

A bit further along on the spectrum of interpretation is the contention that the political society attacked and wounded by the terrorists is itself in considerable part responsible for the destruction brought down on its head—this may be called the chickens have come home to roost hypothesis. Finally, there are a number of far-out or advanced readings. There is, first, the inference that the entire scenario was masterminded by the host-victim itself or by one of its surrogates. Just as the scheme against the Greenwich Observatory is the brainchild of the First Secretary of the Russian Embassy, so too the “non-appearance” of Jewish employees at the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11 clearly points to . . . etc. And in addition, exactly as the scenario in Conrad was deliberately cooked up to inspire repressive official action against the anarchists, so too in our time the subsequent administration fantasy of weapons of mass destruction was part of a concerted authoritarian effort to bamboozle the public and justify aggressive military intervention in Iraq.

Such diverse readings—most of them containing at least a few granules of insight—suggest both the force and complexity of Conrad’s imaginative vision along with the force and complexity of the events of recent history, as well as the urgency that actuates our responses to both. In point of fact, ever since its first appearance The Secret Agent has acted as a special screen for the projection by readers of varying interpretations of the modern world. As culture and society change, and the minds and sensibilities of readers change in some inexact but correlated dimension, so too, apparently, do great works of art. That is one crude and incomplete way of describing how it is that such works both require and sustain continuous and repeated new interpretations.

But of course terrorism, being as it is a form of political behavior and not an ideology or political theory or set of doctrines, can occur almost anywhere—wherever or whenever a group of conditions that include both personal and transpersonal (that is, social, cultural, political, economic, religious) components, circumstances, and motives coincide. Here in the United States, one recalls such disparate and relatively recent phenomena as the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Unabomber. The last of these, Theodore Kaczynski, holed up in his cabin in Montana, kept a copy of The Secret Agent handy to his bedside.

Moreover, terrorism has a long history and is protean in the forms of its occurrence. The historian Walter Laqueur regards it as an “insurrectional strategy that can be used by people of very different political convictions,” and at the same time asserts that “a comprehensive definition of terrorism” does not exist and is not, at least for the foreseeable future, likely to be found. He does not mean that terrorism cannot be analyzed or understood. What he implies is that terrorism exists in too many shapes and occurs in too many dissimilar contexts for it to be adequately or usefully captured in a single universal description. It follows from this consideration that apart from certain very general features, it tends to be characterized by particular and changing constellations of causal influences and intricate, unstable correlations of circumstances and motives.

The kind of terrorism that Conrad dramatizes in The Secret Agent was affiliated with the anarchist movement in European and American political life and thought. This movement found its origins in the after-consequences of the French Revolution. From about 1840 and for a century thereafter, it existed as part of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century radical and revolutionary political and cultural universes. And anarchism itself, in common with other historical revolutionary tendencies, was anything but uniform or unitary. A movement that includes at one end desperate conspirators and terrorists and at the other pacifists, or at yet a third boundary extreme collectivists and communitarians and at a fourth rabid egoists and individualist libertarians seems to have found a means of stretching ideological consensus out of reasonable recognition. And indeed anarchists divided into schisms, factions, and groupuscules as readily and obsessively as other radical political sects. Like other messianic conventicles, they often dedicated as much energy and aggressiveness to internal and intramural disputes as they did in opposition to the great, oppressive arrays of capitalism and the state against which they had originally recruited themselves. In compact, concise strokes, Conrad in The Secret Agent manages distinctively to suggest the rancor and sourness of atmosphere and discourse that were frequently characteristic of such small, splintered, oppositional, and minority groups.

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Secret Agent (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 39 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A couple small critiques before I heap praise onto Conrad's The Secret Agent. First, Steven Marcus (the writer of the Introduction and Endnotes) appears to do too much work within this. Over 90 pages of introductory material that give away key plot points, it's best if it is skipped and then read afterwards, if you wish. The endnotes are also much more numerous than necessary; in fact, quite a few of them refer to knowledge that may be common to yourself. They also often refer back to the introduction, which suckers readers into perusing it for more information. Second, Conrad (to paraphrase a review found in the rear of the book) lengthens a short story. This is a novel that could easily be 70 pages long, if not for the over-descriptive text in-between conversations describing characters emotions hanging on every statement. But there is a catch-22. This is necessary, though not at the time. Conrad plays up simple conversations which enhances some foreshadowing by attempting to create dramatic tension in seemingly normal conversations. By doing so, he lengthens a story, which the reader realizes is running on far too long about half-way through it, when a simple two-minute conversation is stretched out over 20 or so pages through Conrad's flowery descriptions of the inner-workings of the character's minds. This is all annoying to the audience, but we find out it is necessary during the novel's climax, in which (avoiding spoilers while describing as best I can here) Conrad finally enchants us with the back-and-forth mind-readings of a psychological breakdown and the blissfully unaware victim. If Conrad does not prepare us properly for this descriptive scene, we are feeling that the climax is aggressively drawn out, and thus seems unreal. By stretching out the novel, he allows the plot to simmer slowly, instead of microwaving his soup. For readers who can afford to plow through intricately sowed fields of plot, the payoff is one that provides a couple of excellently played twists at the end. For those that are impatient, this novel is one they should pass up; but they do so at their own spoils.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This comment is specific to the eBook version I recently received. There are a number of places where a line (or more) of text is missing. Other times, there is a portion of a paragraph inserted in a place where it clearly does not flow. The galley proof should be checked more carefully before production.
MeganAndJustin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this for a class. Not to say that I don't love classics, because I do, but if I hadn't needed to finish this for credit I probably never would have gotten around to it. The writing is gorgeous. The atmosphere is well developed and multi-layered. However, none of the characters are sympathetic. It's hard to care about what happens when I don't care about any of the characters.
BooksForDinner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The first great spy thriller; the granddaddy of George Smiley and the like. Great! Could have done without the film with Bob Hoskins and Robin Williams, however. :)
nesum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very interesting read. Conrad's style meanders around the plot beautifully, following one character to another, and around until it finally reaches the point. In a story about anarchists, the flow of the book works very well. In the hands of a lesser writer, I would complain that the book was too long for such a simple tale, but Conrad handles the leangth quite well, and I have no such complaint.
MelmoththeLost on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The blurb on the back of this book speaks of "ruthless irony" and "black satire", and it's not wrong. When I first read it last year I wasn't too impressed, being, perhaps, not in the mood to appreciate the said "ruthless irony" and "black satire". I'm pleased, therefore, that I put it aside for a future re-read instead of just releasing it at the time.Conrad's portraits and depictions of his motley group of anarchists and revolutionaries are devastating. Verloc, supposedly a ruthless terrorist but in reality is a double-agent, is motivated above all with protecting his domestic comfort but succeeds only in blowing it, along with his half-witted brother-in-law, to smithereens.The Professor, a walking bomb filled with contempt and venom for all and sundry and forever declaiming the need to kill and destroy anything and everything, is a pathetic, lonely, bitter little man who will never do anything except fulminate and sneer.Ossipon, seducer and swindler of women and dedicated to living off others like any other social parasite, an opportunist whose too late discovery of the ghost of a conscience leaves him fighting off incipient madness.Michaelis, possibly the most humble and self-effacing revolutionary ever (if that's OK by you), flabby in mind and body and in effect a pacifist.Ironically only the repressed hysteric Winnie Verloc, utterly focused since childhood on protecting and mothering the half-witted Stevie and convinced that "things do not bear looking into", proves capable of deliberately killing another human being and it is precisely that repressed hysteria which triggers the act of killing which also causes her to immediately collapse in a paralysis of terror.
Ryan Mihalak More than 1 year ago
I would have given it 5 stars except for the idiotic and long intro (80 pages, really?) included. I read to escape the reality of the world, if only for a few minutes. I don't need 1/4 of a book (literally) comprised of an intro, written by a liberal hack. I bought this book for Conrad's writing, not Steven Marcus (if I wanted to read his writings, I'd search out his published works). Not sure I'll ever buy a B&N classics book again - I'll try to find an out of print copy or alternative means. Secondly, he gives away the book in his intro. For such an "esteemed" writer, you'd think he'd know how an intro should be penned.
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Manirul More than 1 year ago
Lovely...! beautiful.....!.... Just enjoy it.....!
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Gtg be on tomorrow
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Same here. My wifi is being totes irregs. [Totally irregular] so... bye
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