February 15, 1894, was the most interesting afternoon in the otherwise dreary history of Greenwich Observatory. Earlier in the day, Martial Bourdin, a skinny anarchist, traveled by train from Westminster to Greenwich, concealing a small bomb. As he ominously ambled through Greenwich Park, towards the Observatory, something happened - no one knows exactly what - and he blew most of himself to shreds. The British, who loved to quantify in the late nineteenth century, noted that the explosion spread bits of flesh over a distance of sixty yards. Martial Bourdin remained alive for another half hour, but gave no hint as to the reason for his choice of such a bizarre target for a terrorist act (National Maritime Museum). To the chagrin of all anarchists, as Joseph Conrad observed, "the outer wall of the Observatory, it did not show as much as the faintest crack" (9). The British populace was outraged at this attack upon their cultured and refined society. London, which had been a center of many quasi-Utopian anarchist groups, soon began deporting various anarchists.
Martial Bourdin's failed bombing attempt and the international anarchist movement in London set the stage for Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel The Secret Agent. At the time period of this work, anarchism was in its early stages of development. Anarchists saw many problems in society, but rarely offered practical solutions to improve anyone's living conditions. This discrepancy lends itself naturally to irony, and did not go unnoticed by contemporary intellectuals. As most critics observe, Conrad's extremely ironic tone throughout The Secret Agent emphasizes a pessimistic attitude towards society a...
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"The Condition of England" in Victorian Literature: 1830-1900. Ed. Dorothy Mermin, and Herbert Tucker. Accessed on 3 Nov. 2003.
Tillyard, E. M. W. "The Secret Agent Reconsidered." Conrad: A Collection of Critical Essays. Comp. Marvin Mudrick. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966. 103-110.
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Wollaeger, Mark A. Joseph Conrad and the Fictions of Skepticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.
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