Friday, July 17, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Secret Agent: Winnie's Ending, Part One

Another writing seminar on Conrad's The Secret Agent. I said last time that there's only one big event in the story, which is the explosion of the bomb. That's not precisely true. At the very end, after discovering Stevie's death and Verloc's role in it, Winnie kills him and then commits suicide. In an ordinary novel, this plot--a secret agent accidentally kills his mentally disabled brother-in-law by making him plant a bomb; when his wife finds out she goes mad, killing both him and herself--would be the main source of drama. But in this novel, these events are oddly anticlimactic. In the case of Winnie's demise, I also think they're just a little off, the only possibly false notes in this great story. But more about that next time.

To me, the most compelling drama of the whole book occurs just after Chief Inspector Heat has left the Verloc's home. Winnie now knows what happened to her brother, and she knows her husband caused it. Conrad slows the pace of the story to a crawl, as Winnie, over the course of many pages, sits in shock and Verloc tries to prod her out of it.

Mr Verloc walked behind the counter of the shop. His intention was not to overwhelm his wife with bitter reproaches. Mr Verloc felt no bitterness. The unexpected march of events had converted him to the doctrine of fatalism. Nothing could be helped now. He said:

“I didn’t mean any harm to come to the boy.”

Mrs Verloc shuddered at the sound of her husband’s voice. She did not uncover her face. The trusted secret agent of the late Baron Stott-Wartenheim looked at her for a time with a heavy, persistent, undiscerning glance. The torn evening paper was lying at her feet. It could not have told her much. Mr Verloc felt the need of talking to his wife.

“It’s that damned Heat—eh?” he said. “He upset you. He’s a brute, blurting it out like this to a woman. I made myself ill thinking how to break it to you. I sat for hours in the little parlour of Cheshire Cheese thinking over the best way. You understand I never meant any harm to come to that boy.”

Mr Verloc, the Secret Agent, was speaking the truth. It was his marital affection that had received the greatest shock from the premature explosion. He added:

“I didn’t feel particularly gay sitting there and thinking of you.”

He observed another slight shudder of his wife, which affected his sensibility. As she persisted in hiding her face in her hands, he thought he had better leave her alone for a while. On this delicate impulse Mr Verloc withdrew into the parlour again, where the gas jet purred like a contented cat. Mrs Verloc’s wifely forethought had left the cold beef on the table with carving knife and fork and half a loaf of bread for Mr Verloc’s supper. He noticed all these things now for the first time, and cutting himself a piece of bread and meat, began to eat.

There's something so ordinary about this scene. A not-so-bright husband has screwed up and now he's cajoling his angry wife to forgive him. He just wants it all to be over so things can go back to normal. Verloc goes so far as to make a few concessions to her anger; he displays and actually possesses a limited sympathy for her feelings. He is careful not to "overwhelm" her. Then, like an ordinary, not-so-bright husband, he slumps into self-pity. This is kind of Winnie's fault in a way, isn't it? Not completely, but kind of? Just before this passage, Verloc reminds himself that she's the one who sewed the address label into Stevie's coat, which is how the police identified his remains--"What did she mean by it? Spare him the trouble of keeping an anxious eye on Stevie? Most likely she had meant well. Only she ought to have told him of the precaution she had taken." Verloc magnanimously tries to forgive his wife's oversight. Then he blames her for making him feel bad at the Cheshire Cheese. This is some severe gallows humor, but it is funny. That's because Conrad takes the time to observe every nuance of the couple's interaction, which arises not just from the moment, but from their whole history together. You can imagine a similar one-sided conversation has happened many times before, over much more minor issues.

The impasse goes on and on.

“You might look at a fellow,” he observed after waiting a while.

As if forced through the hands covering Mrs Verloc’s face the answer came, deadened, almost pitiful.

“I don’t want to look at you as long as I live.”

“Eh? What!” Mr Verloc was merely startled by the superficial and literal meaning of this declaration. It was obviously unreasonable, the mere cry of exaggerated grief. He threw over it the mantle of his marital indulgence. The mind of Mr Verloc lacked profundity. Under the mistaken impression that the value of individuals consists in what they are in themselves, he could not possibly comprehend the value of Stevie in the eyes of Mrs Verloc. She was taking it confoundedly hard, he thought to himself. It was all the fault of that damned Heat. What did he want to upset the woman for? But she mustn’t be allowed, for her own good, to carry on so till she got quite beside herself.

“Look here! You can’t sit like this in the shop,” he said with affected severity, in which there was some real annoyance; for urgent practical matters must be talked over if they had to sit up all night. “Somebody might come in at any minute,” he added, and waited again. No effect was produced, and the idea of the finality of death occurred to Mr Verloc during the pause. He changed his tone. “Come. This won’t bring him back,” he said gently, feeling ready to take her in his arms and press her to his breast, where impatience and compassion dwelt side by side. But except for a short shudder Mrs Verloc remained apparently unaffected by the force of that terrible truism. It was Mr Verloc himself who was moved. He was moved in his simplicity to urge moderation by asserting the claims of his own personality.

As Verloc shifts from one failed strategy to the next, Conrad tracks every movement of his mediocre mind and spirit. Again, this attention to nuance in the face of overwhelming horror seems ridiculous; it almost (or does, in my case) makes you laugh. But that attention is what makes this scene so powerful. After awhile, there's a brief physical interaction, as Verloc pulls Winnie out of her chair and then (I can't help finding this funny, too) takes her seat. But nothing much comes of that, not right away. Winnie establishes herself in the kitchen. Verloc keeps wheedling, complaining about what a pain in the ass his supervisors in the anarchist movement are. Again, so ordinary--what a crappy day I had at the office; pity me! His boss doesn't appreciate him: “There isn’t a murdering plot for the last eleven years that I hadn’t my finger in at the risk of my life. There’s scores of these revolutionists I’ve sent off, with their bombs in their blamed pockets, to get themselves caught on the frontier. The old Baron knew what I was worth to his country...”

Shortly after that, still getting nowhere, Verloc falls back on the tried-and-true ploy of the ages: "You go to bed now. What you want is a good cry." And still, still, Winnie gives him no satisfaction; she does not go to bed. The dance goes on. We start to see more and more of Winnie's point of view, however.

There were several reasons why this comfort was denied him. There was a physical obstacle: Mrs Verloc had no sufficient command over her voice. She did not see any alternative between screaming and silence, and instinctively she chose the silence. Winnie Verloc was temperamentally a silent person. And there was the paralysing atrocity of the thought which occupied her. Her cheeks were blanched, her lips ashy, her immobility amazing. And she thought without looking at Mr Verloc: “This man took the boy away to murder him. He took the boy away from his home to murder him. He took the boy away from me to murder him!”

Mrs Verloc’s whole being was racked by that inconclusive and maddening thought. It was in her veins, in her bones, in the roots of her hair. Mentally she assumed the biblical attitude of mourning—the covered face, the rent garments; the sound of wailing and lamentation filled her head. But her teeth were violently clenched, and her tearless eyes were hot with rage, because she was not a submissive creature. The protection she had extended over her brother had been in its origin of a fierce an indignant complexion. She had to love him with a militant love. She had battled for him—even against herself. His loss had the bitterness of defeat, with the anguish of a baffled passion. It was not an ordinary stroke of death. Moreover, it was not death that took Stevie from her. It was Mr Verloc who took him away. She had seen him. She had watched him, without raising a hand, take the boy away. And she had let him go, like—like a fool—a blind fool. Then after he had murdered the boy he came home to her. Just came home like any other man would come home to his wife. . . .

So Winnie, too, is struck by strange ordinariness of the scene. And it's adding to her shock.

I could go on and on about this scene, which does lead up to Winnie stabbing Verloc. The murder is quite a stunning set piece. After that, something seems to go slightly wrong in the denoument...but I'll save that for next time, I think.

Anyway, the lesson for today: know when to drag things out. And, just as important, know how. A great strategy, as we've seen throughout this book, is to overlay the ordinary on the awful. In particular, you can overlay an ordinary history (like the history of a so-so marriage) on a dreadful one-time event. The tension arises not just from wondering what Winnie's finally going to do, but from the emotional complexity that builds up in the characters, and the reader, as well.

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