Jump to page content
The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

New Blog

Twitter @alibrown18

New Essay

Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

The Language of Time in The Secret Agent


In The Secret Agent, Conrad shows how language has a necessary capacity to manipulate time as an empirical force, making the events of several months seem to take place in a few hours reading or performance time. Conrad combines this experience of the temporal performance of fiction with the events of 1884 and the Greenwich bomb plot of February 1894, showing that language is charged in connection with time as a conceptual entity, one which, as a concept rather than an empirical property, is subject to symbolic manipulation for political effect.


In a postcolonial reading of Heart of Darkness, the trope of "darkness" is often read either metaphorically or literally in correlation with two geographical spaces. For example, the overcast landscape of the Thames can be interpreted as a physical quality of light and, although it reflects on the fact that, culturally speaking, "this also...has been one of the dark places of the earth" (18), the physical darkness is a revealing negative image of the culturally enlightened status of London, a quality not shared by the African continent which is "dark," both physically and culturally. In contrast to the binary geography underlying Heart of Darkness, the narrative of The Secret Agent is compressed to a single metropolitan centre and, rather than being related to different spaces, in The Secret Agent the meaning of a piece of language often varies in relation to temporal contexts: past, present and future and, in particular, public and private versions of perceived time.1

That time was more manifold than the sequential and homogeneous version posited by Newton was a possibility being explored towards the end of the nineteenth century, both in scientific work (most importantly by Ernst Mach and Henrik Lorenz), and in non-mathematical forms. In the case of the latter, early modernist poets such as Verhaeren presented an image of time which appeared to speed up from the atomic perspective;2 the cinema was demonstrating a capacity to splice, pause or reverse the flow of time; a time which could be affected by circumstance was perceived in detective fiction, as Mrs. Verloc understands at the end of The Secret Agent, when she notes that the murderer's watch usually stops at the time of the murder in order to expose him (238).

Following on from these existing generic drives, it is tempting to see The Secret Agent of 1907 as responding directly to Einstein's 1905 theory of relativity, with its notion that even empirical time varies depending on perspective and context.

However, more important to Conrad's writing than the Einsteinian framework was the Victorian awareness of the inevitable "death of the sun," and the anxiety about the block a finite solar time-scale imposed on any progressive, civilising project on Earth.3 As with the end of Wells' The Time Machine, the start of Dickens' Bleak House, or Claude Monet's 1904 painting London Parliament in Breaking Fog, the weather of The Secret Agent is characterised by mud, rain, fog and dull light, an ironic meteorological fate for "the Empire on which the sun never sets" (198). In conjunction with this recurring vision of the end of the world, the Victorian desire to structure economies against the natural and inevitable run of time was symbolically evidenced by the establishment of a global standard time in 1884.4 Blowing up the meridian, the statutory co-ordinate for standard time, equated to an assault on this public form of time as it was authorised, even "fetishised" (66), by governments.

In The Secret Agent, Conrad shows how language has a necessary capacity to manipulate time as an empirical force, making the events of several months seem to take place in a few hours reading or performance time;

"Conrad shows how language has a necessary capacity to manipulate time as an empirical force, making the events of several months seem to take place in a few hours reading or performance time"
this in itself is not in itself a new concept, as the intervention of the chorus Time in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale evidences. Rather, Conrad's novelty is to combine this experience of the temporal performance of fiction with the events of 1884 and the Greenwich bomb plot of February 1894, showing that language is charged in connection with time as a conceptual entity, one which, as a concept rather than an empirical property, is subject to symbolic manipulation for political effect.5 In his preface added in 1920, Conrad commented on the terrorist act as:

...a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it is impossible to fathom its origin…that outrage could not be laid hold of mentally in any sort of way, so that one remained faced by the fact of a man blown to pieces for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other. (39)

The fact of the Greenwich plot provided Conrad with a model for satirising political forces, which were embodied by their control of public standard time, even as these agents were being simultaneously undermined by the flow of geological time itself towards the dissipation of the sun's energy.

The sense that manipulating public time for political ends is a futile project in the light of this inevitability is recreated in The Secret Agent through the ambiguous stylisation of the characters. In particular, the oxymoron – with the refusal of each of its elements to be pinned down except by reference to that other element which it is not – is exploited to show how coherent identity is continually deferred to a different time frame from that which the characters occupy. Verloc is characterised by an impossible "inert fanaticism, or perhaps rather with a fanatical inertness" (52) yet, at this point in the novel, he has done nothing remotely fanatical: his inertness (albeit fanatically pursued) belongs to the present, his fanaticism only to the future of the bomb plot. Like Verloc, the Professor possesses a bizarre form of "pedantic fanaticism" (102), whilst Ossipon is a picture of "eager indecision" (89). Styled with a Dickensian caricature, Sir Ethelred seems displaced in the modern age. Indeed, as the Assistant Commissioner discovers, the very public, oratorical mode in which this politician expects to be addressed seems to slow time down:

While he was speaking the hands on the face of the clock behind the great man's back - a heavy, glistening affair of massive scrolls in the same dark marble as the mantelpiece, and with a ghostly, evanescent tick - had moved through the space of seven minutes. He spoke with a studious fidelity to a parenthetical manner, into which every little fact - that is, every detail - fitted with delightful ease. Not a murmur nor even a movement hinted at interruption. The great Personage might have been the statue of one of his own princely ancestors stripped of a crusader's war harness, and put into an ill-fitting frock coat. (143)

Similarly out of synchrony with his conventional role, Inspector Heat, rather than restoring order after the heat of the bomb, is actually a source of energy himself, with the potential, in his delicate conflict with the trigger-finger of the Professor, to cause more disruption in the future than he resolves in the present.6 Mr. Vladimir, an expert in the stable historical aphorisms of Communist theory – "When you cease to be useful you shall cease to be employed" (64) – has as his pseudonym the triangle, mathematical symbol for change.7 These paradoxical plays with nomenclature and identity suggest the discrepancy between the role each character plays out in the present, and the past or future from which that individual originates or towards which they are heading; time therefore subverts the reality of the public image they attempt to portray.

The ironic, differential shifts in meaning which take place over time are emphasised by the darkly ironic polyseme which is positioned as the epitaph both for Mrs. Verloc and, metaphorically, for the novel. Mrs Verloc, terrified of her possible execution on the gallows, is fated after her death with the newspaper's conclusion that "An impenetrable mystery seems destined to hang forever over this act of madness or despair" (266). The verb "to hang" is extracted from one temporal context (Mrs. Verloc's forward-looking terror) to another: text comically reverses time, re-inscribing Mrs. Verloc's anticipatory fear into the historical record of her forever-to-be-mysterious status.

Indeed, more generally, the novel's relationship to the incontrovertible historical fact of the Greenwich bomb plot exposes the way in which an event known to have taken place in public, historical time has its effects distorted by the very acts of recording which preserve it in history.

"an event known to have taken place in public, historical time has its effects distorted by the very acts of recording which preserve it in history"
The fictional explosion makes little more than a coincidental dent in the flow of the novel, first casually entering into the conversation of Ossipon and the Professor who, in a perverse reversal of the expected order, appear to be discussing plans to make a detonator. The force of the explosion is limited by the newspapers, "soiled with printer's ink" (101), as if the words which report it are scattered on the page like dirt thrown from a blast:

Ah! Here it is. Bomb in Greenwich Park. There isn't much so far. Half past eleven. Foggy morning. Effects of explosion felt as far as Romney Road and Park Place. Enormous hole in the ground under a tree filled with smashed roots and broken branches. All round fragments of a man's body blown to pieces. That's all. The rest's mere newspaper gup. No doubt a wicked attempt to blow up the Observatory, they say. H'm. That's hardly credible. (94)

The cadence of the paragraph switches between subdued commentary and active description, high to low energy: "Bomb…There isn't much so far"; "Foggy morning…explosion"; "body blown to pieces. That's all." Rather than giving the impression of a bomb dispersing its energy rapidly outwards, the quick pace and high heat of the bomb is artificially slowed and dampened by "newspaper gup." For the public and for the reader, distanced physically from the event, the bomb explodes only through layers of text; private time, in which the bomb would have been experienced by those caught up in it as an instantaneous rush of heat and light (although the Inspector finds this difficult to imagine [107]), bears little relation to the bomb's velocity as it is rendered in the newspaper. Through the press, then, the full impact of the bomb is delayed in time and text, not dispersed until Verloc's confession to Heat. When it escapes, its effect is socio-political rather than material, destroying the informal bureaucratic trails which maintain social order:

The turn this affair was taking meant the disclosure of many things – the laying waste of fields of knowledge, which, cultivated by a capable man, had a distinct value for the individual and for the society. It was sorry, sorry meddling. It would leave Michaelis unscathed; it would drag to light the Professor's home industry; disorganise the whole system of supervision; make no end of a row in the papers, which, from that point of view, appeared to him by a sudden illumination as invariably written by fools for the reading of imbeciles. (197)

The clustering of conventional journalistic tropes for describing an explosion – "laying waste," "unscathed," "sudden illumination" – are displaced into this political monologue, contrasting with the rhythm with which the original story was related some hundred pages earlier. As Mr. Vladimir accurately predicts, "Every newspaper has ready-made phrases to explain such manifestations away" (66), and the conventional style of reportage such as that propagated by the popular The Daily Telegraph, which had a particularly prurient and sensationalist focus on crime stories in the nineteenth century, nullifies the shock-value of a terrifying event.8 The electric telegraph – another new Victorian system which seemed to contravene the natural pace of time – permitted news to be spread with greater speed and distribution, and at a lower cost, but the price of this increased popularity was that newspapers became political forces in their own right, able to accelerate and direct the impact of a particular event more broadly across society.

"The electric telegraph – another new Victorian system which seemed to contravene the natural pace of time – permitted news to be spread with greater speed and distribution"
The daily newspaper, with its stereotyped language, seemed to link people in different parts of the country with simultaneous and predictable experiences of the news, in contradiction of both time and distance. Yet in this case the heat of the bomb as experienced through newspapers becomes self-reflexive: spreading to those contacts with whom Heat works, the explosion and the explosive language causes, for Heat, a "sudden illumination" back on the limitations of their style and of the aspirations of those who consume it.

Of course, the newspaper report is a step removed from the level of narration experienced in the fictional novel. Yet also at this more direct level of representation time and language subvert one another. Most notably, in Chapter Eight, at a disjunctive period (before the explosion occurs in historical time but after it is encountered in the plot of the text), Mr. Verloc seems to drop out of the narrative vitality of the novel. Not mentioned for the duration of Mrs. Verloc's cab ride, when he does re-enter the text later in the chapter, he is constructed as a notable absence, the "very embodiment of silence" (171):

The figure of his brother-in-law remained imperceptible to him because of the morose thoughtfulness that lately had fallen like a veil between Mr Verloc and the appearances of the world of senses. He looked after his wife fixedly, without a word, as though she had been a phantom. His voice for home use was husky and placid, but now it was heard not at all. (170; emphasis added)

Throughout the chapter Verloc is described as immobile or silent, or continually disappearing, a vacancy. Even in the intimacy of the bedroom:

Mr Verloc, getting into bed on his own side, remained prone and mute behind Mrs Verloc's back. His thick arms rested abandoned on the outside of the counterpane like droppedweapons, like discarded tools. (174; emphasis added)

A speechless automaton, wraith-like, it is as if because the bomb has already been related in text it has, in the private time of the reader, although not in the public chronology of history, exploded and taken a victim. The sequential, uniform version of time initiated by the structure of the novel – its sequential pages, its chapters – is undermined by the self-conscious, overloaded use of the language of the supernatural in which it is written, which is able artificially to create the illusion that the hero is no longer there.

Thus fictional language can turn a character's existence into something anachronistic and out of joint. Because meaning changes depending on the temporal context to which it refers – as with Verloc's "inert fanaticism" or Mrs. Verloc's experience of the verb "to hang" – it is a tool which can provide only ambiguous and multivalent definitions. Likewise the language of the newspaper or the novel, by mediating an event through text, slows down the speed of the bomb, but spreads its impact in anachronistic and ironic ways, turning Verloc into a living ghost or illuminating the imbecility of their own readership. Just as in Heart of Darkness Conrad was alert to the prevailing colonial debates, and exposed the way in which a dominant racial metaphor such as "darkness" was asserted differently in different geographical contexts, in The Secret Agent Conrad is alive to scientific and artistic discussions over the nature of time, particularly the tension between the attempt to manipulate time through technology and politics, and the fact that such actions were also counterproductive. The metafictional qualities of The Secret Agent produce an experience of reading which is discomforting: even as language seems able to provide a lively and creative artistic experience in its ability to manipulate time, it also reminds that in the real, public world, such an authoritative command is not possible, that time's arrow points inevitably to an uncontrollable, sometimes chaotic and dissipatory, end.

Top of Page


  1. Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent, ed. Martin Seymour Smith (London: Penguin, 1984). [Back to text]

  2. Peter Nicholls, "Paths to the Future," Modernisms: A Literary Guide (Berkeley: U of California P, 1995) 75. [Back to text]

  3. Gillian Beer, "'The Death of the Sun': Victorian Solar Physics and Solar Myth," Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996) 219-241. [Back to text]

  4. Stephen Kern, "The Nature of Time," The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1983) 10-35. [Back to text]

  5. "Propaganda by Deed: The Greenwich Observatory Bomb of 1894," National Maritime Museum, 23 Nov. 2004 . [Back to text]

  6. Michael Whitworth, "Inspector Heat Inspected: The Secret Agent and the Meanings of Entropy," Review of English Studies 49.193 (1998): 40-59. [Back to text]

  7. "Math Symbols: A Whatis.com Definition," Whatis.com, 22 July 2004, 14 Jan. 2005 [Back to text]

  8. "Daily Telegraph," Spartacus Educational, 13 Jan. 2004 . [Back to text]

Top of Page

Works Cited

Top of Page

Your Comments on "The Language of Time in The Secret Agent"

To add your thoughts about this page, use the comment form below.

Top of Page

Top of Page

This page was published on January 14, 2005 | Keywords: Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, time, terrorism

The content of this website is Copyright © 2016 using a Creative Commons Licence. One term of this copyright policy is that plagiarism is theft. If you use information from this website in your own work, you should use the correct citation.

Valid XHTML 1.0. Link opens in a new browser window. Level A conformance icon, W3C-WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. Labelled with ICRA. Link opens in a new browser window.