7. and the Urban

7.1 The representation of

In his “Author’s Note” to The Secret Agent Conrad claims that part of his inspiration to write the novel was

the vision of an enormous town […], of a monstrous town more populous than some continents and in its man-made might as if indifferent to heaven’s frowns and smiles, a cruel devourer of the world’s light. There was room enough there to place any story, depth enough there for any passion, variety enough there for any setting, darkness enough to bury five million of lives. (6)

This paragraph anticipates the kind of London portrayed in The Secret Agent, a place much more than mere setting. In his “Note” the author stresses the town’s immensity, its teeming population, and its infinite variety. He introduces the contradiction between the city’s “man-made might” and its inhuman monstrosity, suggesting that even though human beings have built London, it has slipped from their control. The town’s characteristic Conrad most insists upon, however, is its darkness; indeed, it devours “the world’s light.” That the city’s salient quality should be darkness does, however, not just remind us, by way of contrast, of the comparative brightness of or of the tales of the sea but also of the setting of the frame tale of . From his location in the , the primary narrator repeatedly notes the “brooding” and “mournful gloom” (HD 45) over “the place of the monstrous town” (HD 48) some miles off and Marlow famously remarks that “this [i.e. London] also […] has been one of the dark places of the earth” (HD 48). When, in The Secret Agent, we move directly into “the very centre of the Empire on which the sun never sets” (SA 162), we find that it is still a place of darkness. At its heart we find the Verlocs’ household in Soho, which is “hidden in the shades of [a] sordid street seldom touched by the sun” (SA 34). This is the perfect environment for Verloc and his professions: he is “a seller of shady wares” (SA 11), i.e. pornography, and derives additional income from being a secret agent, an occupation also associated with night. Even in the few scenes set during daytime the “peculiarly London sun” (SA 15) is fighting a losing battle against the urban 200 Free Will and Determinism in ’s Major Novels darkness. The sun is never bright but – at the most – “bloodshot” (SA 15) or “rusty” (SA 26). When it does manage to “struggl[e] clear of the London mist,” it only produces “a lukewarm brightness” (SA 26). Although the novel’s main action is set during “early spring,” the sky is “grimy” and the day “gloomy” (SA 65), “choked in raw fog to begin with, and [then] drowned in cold rain” (SA 80). Michael Whitworth has therefore claimed that there is a “general sense of the sun’s decay” (44) in The Secret Agent, which invokes the contemporary idea of entropy and reinforces the novel’s theme of degeneration. It is poignant to note that the primary narrator in Heart of Darkness also credits London with the capacity to put out the sun. He fears that it will be “stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men” (HD 46). Darkness, therefore, provides a link between such seemingly disparate novels as Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent. By suggesting that the ‘heart of darkness’ might be located in London and not in the so-called ‘Dark Continent’ both narratives subvert binary oppositions, such as civilization/savagery, morality/immorality, decency/indecency, or progress/degeneration. As Rebecca Stott has pointed out (cf. 202), the idea to “superimpose” Africa and all it stood for in the European imagination on London was not unique in fin-de-siècle writing. In his In Darkest England and the Way Out William Booth, for instance, claimed that if “the stony streets of London” could speak, they would “tell of tragedies as awful, of ruin as complete, of ravishments as horrible, as if we were in Central Africa; only the ghastly devastation is covered, corpse-like, with the artificialities and hypocrisies of modern civilisation” (quoted in Gill 26). The notion that London’s ‘nether world’ mirrors the “colonial Otherworld” (Stott 202) was facilitated by the way the discourses of evolution, anthropology, and race, which had been used to justify imperialist expansion, were combined with criminology and theories of degeneration to identify so-called ‘evolutionary throwbacks’ among the city’s underclass. Indeed, as I will show later on, The Secret Agent is peopled with a great number of characters that could be labelled degenerates so that the city, in Harrington’s words, emerges as “an evolutionary laboratory in which “the fittest” survive” (63). The urban environment in The Secret Agent is often given organic or anthropomorphic qualities so that it fulfils a similar thematic function to nature in Heart of Darkness and Nostromo. For instance, in the streets of Soho, the Assistant Commissioner, whose career has indeed “begun in a tropical colony” (SA 79), feels as if “ambushed all alone in a jungle many thousands of miles away from departmental desks and official inkstands” (SA