Thursday, July 23, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Secret Agent: Winnie's Ending, Part 2

I think this will be our last week on The Secret Agent. Up until this point, I've been feeling like it is an almost perfect book. I've been thinking--maybe if I just rewrite the story and set it in Cleveland or Redwood City, and change all the names...why make all this extra work for myself by thinking up my own plots and characters? Besides, this book is public domain... the very end, Winnie's demise does not seem quite right. I actually don't know why, so I'm going to frame this whole post as a question--is the problem me, or is it Conrad? (And if you don't have time to read this whole thing, you might as well assume it's me.)

One very cool aspect of Winnie is that she's a kind of analog of the Professor. Although Winnie is good and the Professor evil, both are black-box characters. They're impenetrable. About Winnie, we're told repeatedly that she believes things do not bear very much "looking into." She is incurious. And, as Conrad explains, "Curiosity being one of the forms of self-revelation,—a systematically incurious person remains always partly mysterious." Winnie's mysteriousness helps build the terrific suspense in the scene after she learns that her husband has killed her brother. But at the very end, Conrad is forced to reveal some other qualities of Winnie's character, in order, it seems, to wrap up the novel. These qualities turn out to be strangely disappointing, at least to me. Maybe because any revelation destroys Winnie's mysteriousness, which was so appealing in the first place.

First, Winnie stabs and kills Verloc. As a plot point this is melodramatic, a tad Gothic, and predictable. But it's redeemed by Conrad's dark humor.

He saw partly on the ceiling and partly on the wall the moving shadow of an arm with a clenched hand holding a carving knife. It flickered up and down. Its movements were leisurely. They were leisurely enough for Mr Verloc to recognise the limb and the weapon.

They were leisurely enough for him to take in the full meaning of the portent, and to taste the flavour of death rising in his gorge. His wife had gone raving mad—murdering mad. They were leisurely enough for the first paralysing effect of this discovery to pass away before a resolute determination to come out victorious from the ghastly struggle with that armed lunatic. They were leisurely enough for Mr Verloc to elaborate a plan of defence involving a dash behind the table, and the felling of the woman to the ground with a heavy wooden chair. But they were not leisurely enough to allow Mr Verloc the time to move either hand or foot. The knife was already planted in his breast. It met no resistance on its way. Hazard has such accuracies. Into that plunging blow, delivered over the side of the couch, Mrs Verloc had put all the inheritance of her immemorial and obscure descent, the simple ferocity of the age of caverns, and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of bar-rooms. Mr Verloc, the Secret Agent, turning slightly on his side with the force of the blow, expired without stirring a limb, in the muttered sound of the word “Don’t” by way of protest.

Verloc is indolent, even after death:

After listening for some time Mrs Verloc lowered her gaze deliberately on her husband’s body. Its attitude of repose was so home-like and familiar that she could do so without feeling embarrassed by any pronounced novelty in the phenomena of her home life. Mr Verloc was taking his habitual ease. He looked comfortable.

But then Conrad undercuts Winnie's role as righteous avenger:

It had been an obscurely prompted blow. The blood trickling on the floor off the handle of the knife had turned it into an extremely plain case of murder. Mrs Verloc, who always refrained from looking deep into things, was compelled to look into the very bottom of this thing. She saw there no haunting face, no reproachful shade, no vision of remorse, no sort of ideal conception. She saw there an object. That object was the gallows. Mrs Verloc was afraid of the gallows.

She was terrified of them ideally. Having never set eyes on that last argument of men’s justice except in illustrative woodcuts to a certain type of tales, she first saw them erect against a black and stormy background, festooned with chains and human bones, circled about by birds that peck at dead men’s eyes. This was frightful enough, but Mrs Verloc, though not a well-informed woman, had a sufficient knowledge of the institutions of her country to know that gallows are no longer erected romantically on the banks of dismal rivers or on wind-swept headlands, but in the yards of jails. There within four high walls, as if into a pit, at dawn of day, the murderer was brought out to be executed, with a horrible quietness and, as the reports in the newspapers always said, “in the presence of the authorities.” With her eyes staring on the floor, her nostrils quivering with anguish and shame, she imagined herself all alone amongst a lot of strange gentlemen in silk hats who were calmly proceeding about the business of hanging her by the neck. That—never! Never! And how was it done? The impossibility of imagining the details of such quiet execution added something maddening to her abstract terror. The newspapers never gave any details except one, but that one with some affectation was always there at the end of a meagre report. Mrs Verloc remembered its nature. It came with a cruel burning pain into her head, as if the words “The drop given was fourteen feet” had been scratched on her brain with a hot needle. “The drop given was fourteen feet.”

I certainly believe she'd be afraid of the gallows. I also believe she'd be unhinged at this point. But for the rest of the novel, Winnie is driven solely by her fear of hanging. It's that fear that throws her into Ossipon's oily, unhelpful arms: "'You will save me, Tom,' she broke out, recoiling, but still keeping her hold on him by the two lapels of his damp coat. “Save me. Hide me. Don’t let them have me. You must kill me first. I couldn’t do it myself—I couldn’t, I couldn’t—not even for what I am afraid of.'" Too afraid for his own skin, Ossipon eventually ditches her, and she throws herself--as we learn from another conversation between Ossipon and the Professor--from the cross-channel boat.

I don't know. Winnie's ending is exciting; it's believable from a psychological standpoint. It almost seems like a cliche, though, like something out of "popular publications"--which, then again, could be intentional. I guess I somehow expected more from Winnie. Maybe I was taken in by her mysteriousness, combined with the one unmistakeable quality she had: her love for Stevie. Not that I want her to be perfect, a symbol of decency, or fearless. Maybe it makes sense that all the sudden chaos of her life would coalesce into this one, driving terror--which is a very realistic one. But I miss the black-box Winnie, the one who might have done something more unexpected, or inexplicable, in the face of all this horror. Instead, she just becomes part of it.

I guess we can't have two black boxes at the end; and, as I've said before, the Professor plays that role.

And the incorruptible Professor walked too, averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind. He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.

Anyway, I'm so in awe of this book that I keep thinking I must be missing the real truth to be found in Winnie's last hours. Maybe her inability to rise to some kind of heroism is that truth. I'm still not sure why I want something else for her. Could it be that her?

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