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The Secret Agent

Arguably one of Joseph Conrad's finest novels, The Secret Agent (published 1907)  was inspired by the possibly first terrorist international incident in Great Britain, anarchist Martial Bourdin's 1894 death while apparently attempting to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian anarchist, believed in order to gather a larger following, “We must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda.” (source). Conrad took this story to a whole new level, adding saboteurs, violence and mystery to thicken the plot. "Murder is always with us. It is almost an institution." (34) The role of terrorism & anarchy is important in the novel. Conrad lets the reader understand the bombing before the main characters, therefore letting the readers have a greater sense of what was happening, even as he leaves us hanging on many unanswered questions (How is Winnie going to react? Is Verloc truly responsible?) Starting off slowly, the novel slowly built tension and intrigue, and Winnie (as eloquently described, "She was death itself - the companion of life."(235)) developed into my favorite character in the novel. As the New York Times book review from 1907 writes, "the story is a sombre one. There is death in it, despair, revenge...and there are Anarchists, human but freakish, each after his kind..." This novel was written during the first great terrorist wave (perpetrated by anarchists, with casualties including an assassination of an American President). As the NYT hailed The Secret Agent in 2005 as "the most brilliant novelistic study of terrorism," it strikes me as extremely to this new age of terrorism we're living in. In the aftermath of 9/11, The Secret Agent became one of the three most quoted pieces of literature in the American media. As a Slate article discusses, the media wasn't getting it wrong. They were taking the book at face value - comparing al Qaeda terrorists to the anarchists who blew up the Observatory - when, in reality, it's the book itself that's demonstrating the principles of terrorism:
Conrad specifically compares his book to a work of terrorism—in a preface to The Secret Agent, he apologizes for its grim violence, then says, "I have not intended to commit a gratuitous outrage on the feelings of mankind." The idea Conrad sets out to blow up in the novel is modernism's sin of thinking abstractly about moral and human affairs...The anarchists think this way; the police do, too; and so do the government officials. Conrad dismisses them all. The only person who does not think this way is the secret agent's wife, Winnie Verloc.
(Again, reasons why Winnie is my favorite - she was the one true anarchist in the novel, very surprisingly so for reasons I won't disclose due to plot spoilers!) Stick with the novel if you chose to read it; beginning slowly, it introduces characters one by one and gives the reader a clear portrait of England in the 1890s before bringing the novel to the important action. Once the bombing occurs, the plot doesn't stop. It's thrilling and exciting and a lens through which we can view terrorism today. Rating: ★★★★★

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