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Conrad: The Secret Agent

8. Sources VI: Naturalism, Zola and Ibsen

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About this Lecture


In this module, we consider the influence of Naturalism on The Secret Agent, thinking in particular about its scientific detachment in its description of violence, the idea of inherited violence, and the works of Émile Zola and Henrik Ibsen.


In this course, Professor Cedric Watts (University of Sussex) explores Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel, The Secret Agent. The course begins by thinking about Conrad's life – his upbringing in Poland, his early career as a merchant sailor, and his later work as a writer of novels. After that, we think about the development of the novel from a short story in Ridgway's Magazine to the publication of the full novel in 1907. In the following six modules, we think about some of the key influences on the novel: including historical events (such as the attempting bombing of Royal Observatory in Greenwich in 1894), contemporary social science (such as Cesare Lombroso's theory of anthropological criminality), and literary antecedents (such as Charles Dickens' Bleak House, and writers such as Émile Zola and Henrik Ibsen). In the final two modules, we think about the aftermath of The Secret Agent, first in terms of its literary influences, and then in terms of its prescience in anticipating the nature of terrorism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


Cedric Watts is an Emeritus Professor of English at Sussex University. He served in the Royal Navy before gaining a first class BA in English at Cambridge University. He has written six books on Conrad and his works: A Preface to Conrad, The Deceptive Text, Joseph Conrad, 'Heart of Darkness': A Critical and Contextual Discussion, Joseph Conrad: A Literary Life, and Joseph Conrad: 'Nostromo'(a Penguin critical study).

Cedric Watts's novel, Final Exam (written under the pseudonym 'Peter Green'), earned this tribute from Ian McEwan: 'I was fascinated and pleased by Final Exam - a stimulating blend of high-energy intellectual and sexual tease.'

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Watts, C. (2018, August 15). Conrad: The Secret Agent - Sources VI: Naturalism, Zola and Ibsen [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Watts, Cedric. "Conrad: The Secret Agent – Sources VI: Naturalism, Zola and Ibsen." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 15 Aug 2018,