To what extent does The Secret Agent operate in a grey rather than a black and white moral universe?.
When creating a work of fiction that is based on a specific historical time and place the author must neccesarily invite moral comparisons between the world they have created and the society it represents, thus making a black and white moral interpretation seem difficult, if not impossible, due to morality's cultural specifity. In this respect to discover the colouring of The Secret Agent's moral universe the reader must explore the attitude that Conrad takes to the society he represents in the text by means of his authorial interventions as an impersonal narrator, by his treatment of the consequences of each of his character's actions and by the descriptive sybolism of the world he creates, the interplay of these factors resulting in some kind of moral conclusion. Although The Secret Agent seems to be populated with immoral or amoral characters Conrad's choice of the ironic ad satiric mode suggests that he aims centrally at some kind of moral insight, whether it may exist explicitly in the text or is implied by contrast to the world he creates.
Throughout The Secret Agent Conrad uses the ironic mode, a fact he was conscious about and satisfied with its success. He tells us "ironic treatment alone would enable me to say all I felt I would have to say in scorn as well as pity" (Conrad: p41). The use of irony often takes the form of a narration that has the tone of as a "tolerantly patronizing man of the world" (Berthoud: p5) For example, on Mr Verloc's hat after his murder:.
"It seemed an extraordinary thing, an ominous object, a sign. Black and rim upward, it lay on the floor before the couch as if prepared to receive the contributions of pence from people who would come presently to behold Mr Verloc in the fullness of his domestic ease" (Conrad: p13).
As Tillyard points out the use of irony in this case creates a humorous tone by the comparison of incongruous objects, namely a beggar's and a dead man's hat, and appearances (death and snoozing).