Debra Romanick Baldwin, Constantin College
"A New Afterword"
In the Author's Words
This new Afterword to the Signet Edition of The Secret Agent challenges the claim that Conrad’s novel about anarchy in nineteenth-century London
itself offers a bleak and nihilistic ethics. Rather, I argue, the narrative invites us early on—and explicitly—to distinguish an empty abyss from
a substantive depth, moving us towards the “inwardness” of individuals and politics.
Instead of undermining moral concerns, the novel’s disorienting narrative features—its irony,
chronological jumps, and shifting points of view—work to guide us towards deeper understanding both on an individual and political level. The narrative develops Winnie Verloc’s
individual ethical dilemma by gradually revealing her violent and vulnerable experience
while parodying the scientific determinism indifferent to it. Politically, the novel
reflects a Montesquieuan understanding of political culture and the salient differences
between regimes: by contrasting how Mr. Verloc (the beneficiary of law) and Mr. Vladimir
(the ambassador of autocracy) each respond differently to the prospect of being arrested,
the narrative suggests that substantive political choices depend upon what citizens
assume about their own recourse to the process of law. At the same time, Conrad does
not let us rest smugly in this political distinction. If the novel leads us to consider that the rule of law ends
where a culture of fear begins, it does so not just as a foreign affair, but also
as an internal peril. In this way, the novel’s insights do not preclude mystery in
the deepest sense, a depth which is not empty, but full. The Secret Agent thus invites—as Conrad’s unsettling endings ever invite—not a moral or political
abyss, but grounded reflection upon
the palpable choices and complex truths that might lie beneath the surfaces of the
texts and human beings we encounter.
Baldwin, Debra Romanick. "A New Afterword." The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. The Signet Classics Edition. New York: Signet/Penguin, 2015.
Faculty Profile: Debra Romanick Baldwin