“Poor Stevie”: The Element of the Grotesque and Identity in Conrad’s The Secret Agent

Stevie’s death in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent is undoubtedly one of the most baffling and violent moments in literature. It is certainly a tragic incident in the novel, but when pursuing a more clear definition of its distinct grotesque quality we begin to uncover a multifaceted correlation between each character and their sense of identity. With particular focus on Chief Inspector Heat, we can see that in exposing each successive layer of this correlation morality and social aesthetic become increasingly arbitrary. Thus, it is the element of the grotesque which destabilizes any sense of a singular, unified identity.

It seems the human psyche, no matter how morally resolute, will always be guilty of a voyeuristic infatuation with destruction. This is entirely natural. Take for example a moment from another of Conrad’s works, Under Western Eyes, when the “excited crowd” assembles “round the sledge” of the Minister-President after the first bomb explodes (Under Western Eyes 59). The crowd immediately gathers and it is only after witnessing the awe of destruction that they offer aid to the coachmen and the Minister-President. It’s as if the sight of destruction demands an audience. For what is destruction if not gazed upon and contemplated? To Chief Inspector Heat in The Secret Agent, the fleshy scraps collected from the site of the bombing that are displayed upon the hospital table are just such a sight to be witnessed, investigated, and marveled at. He stoops “guardedly over the table” of the indistinguishable remains (The Secret Agent 70), but what is to be “guarded”? Simply being near the remains, he feels he is in the presence of a “shattering violence of destruction” which threatens to turn he too into “a heap of nameless fragments” with “ruthless cruelty.” He is deeply mortified at the thought of experiencing the violence of having his own body shredded by a fiery bomb blast; it is ironic then that his name is “Heat.” This is a moment for him to ponder his own death, face its inevitability, and he realizes it is consistent with and inextricable from one of the most basic definitions of the human condition– pain. His “calm face” conceals his inner consternation as he peers at the table like a shopper “bending over what may be called the by-products of a butcher’s shop with a view to an inexpensive Sunday dinner” (70). The image of the butcher shop uses the allegory of the meat packing industry to affirm the sentiment of the moment: an insignificant animal is raised for the sole purpose of slaughter and will inevitably face the cold, apathetic forces of commerce in the form of its complete dismemberment. We get the sense that the manner of Stevie’s death is also inevitable and equally dispassionate for he is subject to the forces of ideological, political, and socioeconomic maneuvering.

This dismemberment greatly affects Inspector Heat because of his instinct to empathize, or his attempt to imagine himself in Stevie’s position. He imagines himself being destroyed by the blast of a bomb:

It seemed impossible to believe that a human body could have reached that state of disintegration without passing through the pangs of inconceivable agony. No physiologist, and still less of a metaphysician, Chief Inspector Heat rose by the force of sympathy, which is a form of fear, above the vulgar conception of time. 

Sympathy as a “form of fear” is key to understanding the grotesqueness of the image. The human body itself is arguably the most grotesque object to us for many reasons. There is a primordial aspect about our concept of all objects foreign to our bodies, such as rocks, chemicals, and especially things that are biological like predators or even fungi. This primordial aspect– fear. That is, we assess a foreign object as something to be frightened of according to the level of physical harm it may effect upon our fragile bodies. Rocks are solid and rigid in contrast to our soft flesh, chemicals are associated with burns, predators maul and devour, and fungi decompose, reminding us that the antithesis of life is not death, but the absence of a body’s homeostasis. The body is the only tool we have, or the only frame of reference by which we relate and quantify consequences caused by objective forces to our self-awareness– our identity. In other words, we identify ourselves as living, breathing, thinking, feeling, and this sense of identity depends upon our body’s homeostasis, or its amalgamated and sustained health. Grotesque occurs when the body is pressed beyond its physical limits. We might press those limits via a delusion that the body is infinite in its faculties, but in doing so, we discover that the body is, in fact, flawed and imperfect. This thought of imperfection, or the failure of homeostasis, induces a fear that is “at once underlined and contained by the defamiliarizing of the human” (Phillips 44). In other words, if the physical human body is deconstructed there is no unified identity and there remains instead only unrelated parts which no longer signify a whole. For example, the ball joint of the femur does not make sense without the socket of the hipbone. Much the same, a clump of flesh does not independently signify the whole of Stevie’s body.

This defamiliarizing is consistent with Conrad’s “discomfort with reducing a group of individuals as a ‘public’” because this “results, in [his] imagination, not in a unified, unbroken body but a mass of mismatched undifferentiated features” (Oliver 210). The word “grotesque” is itself “a storage-space for the outcasts of language, entities for which there is no appropriate noun” (Harpham xxi). This is where a “sense of formal disorder” arises in things we perceive to be grotesque and where “ontological, generic or logical categories are illegitimately jumbled together.” As an “outcast of language,” the word grotesque is linked to anarchy in that they both defy definition. Things that are grotesque are thus made up of indescribable parts. For example, while being essentially made up of countless drops of water, a puddle still has a form and is situated in one local, but the rain which formed that puddle is chaotic and difficult to quantify. Originating from visual art, the grotesque is then primarily concerned “with the beholder and the beholder’s attempt to define and categorize” every aspect of human life  according to social norms or moral statutes “to which the grotesque may be regarded as resistant, hence the predominantly negative view of it held during the eighteenth century” (Phillips 42-43). Because Conrad was determined to expand the reader’s experience of his work, this may be why the grotesque is so evident in the novel.

In The Secret Agent, these “mismatched” and “undifferentiated features” become the visceral, unforgettable image of Stevie’s remains. Conrad might have used the element of the grotesque, in this case, as a “strategy for fragmenting rather than unifying his reading public” who, as suggested by the singular word “public,” are otherwise considered to share universally the same experience of reading his novel (Oliver 210). Instead, fragmentation, or the grotesque image of the remains of Stevie’s body, “favors multiplicity and uncertainty” (211). Thus, the definition of identity expands beyond the physical boundaries of the body and begins to test the limits of the psyche. Upon witnessing Stevie’s remains, Inspector Heat first empathizes with Stevie’s pain, then enters the foyer of the existential question– the meaning of life. In that instant of grotesque destruction, where lies the “inexplicable mysteries of conscious existence,” Heat sees a vast expanse of time and human experience (The Secret Agent 70). He sees “long and terrifying dreams” and an “atrocious pain and mental torture” that is “contained between two successive winks of an eye”. He comes to understand that the single most significant element that distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is the knowledge of mortality. To ponder one’s own finitude of his or her lifetime in relation to the infinitude of time and space is quite possibly the only acceptable meaning of life, albeit horrific. What’s more, the conclusions drawn from this internal struggle yield no further insight into the nature of identity. Inspector Heat can not even identify the bomber which means that his empathy for the deceased is displaced, and therefore in his attempt to identify with the deceased by imagining himself in the latter’s place he too becomes “mismatched,” formless, indistinguishable, and without identity.

Through his investigation of the bombing, Inspector Heat thus comes to discover that its grotesque aspect signifies a violence almost infinitely deep because it exposes and threatens to destabilize the core of human identity. He is ultimately able to cope with the grim sight of Stevie’s remains because shortly thereafter he discover’s the only psychological weapon to counteract the grotesque. This weapon is not the body– which is fragile and finite –but comedy, or humor. After being awestruck by the remains in the hospital he says “grimly” to the constable on duty, “‘The coroner’s jury will have a treat’,” the irony being that there is so little of the body for the coroner to examine much less make a report on which would add anything not already apparent in the case (79). While comedy may be equally hazardous as the grotesque, it is a great equalizer that renders the profound and the horrific as arbitrary, for “hazard has such accuracies” (208).


Works Cited

Danow, David K.. The Spirit of Carnival: Magical Realism and the Grotesque. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995. Print.

Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent. NY: Penguin Classics, 2007. Print.

––– Under Wester Eyes. NY: Penguin Group, 1989. Print.

Harpham, Geoffrey. On the Grotesque. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982. Print.

Meindl, Dieter. American Fiction and the Metaphysics of the Grotesque. Coumbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1996. Print.

Oliver, Matthew. “Conrad’s Grotesque Public: Pornography and the Politics of Reading in The Secret Agent.” Twentieth-Century Literature 55.2 (2009): 209-231. Print.

Owens, Margaret E.. Stages of Dismemberment: The Fragmented Body in Late Medieval and Early Modern Drama. Cranbury, NJ: Rosement Publishing & Printing Corp., 2005. Print.

Phillips, Terry. “A Study in Grotesques: Transformations of the Human in the Writing of Liam O’Flaherty.” Gothic Studies 7.1 (2005): 41-52. Print.