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The Age of Outrage
Aesthetics of Outrage

Narratives Under Attack: Outrage and Reaction in Early 20th Century Espionage Novels

Outrage et réaction : le récit dynamité dans deux romans d’espionnage du début du XXe siècle
Élodie Raimbault


Au début du siècle, l’anarchiste, figure de l’ennemi intérieur, peuplait les romans policiers et la presse. Dans The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), Chesterton renverse les stéréotypes sur les anarchistes et les policiers, sapant la doxa sur la menace anarchiste et la physiognomonie. The Secret Agent (1907) de Conrad, centré sur une réécriture de l’attentat de Greenwich de 1894, fait lui aussi la satire des typologies criminologiques. Alors que « outrage » désigne péjorativement l’attentat à la bombe, le portrait satirique fait par Conrad du petit milieu anarchiste londonien contraste avec la radicalité morale de certains personnages, imparfaitement héroïques, qui incarnent la vraie révolte. Le récit policier ou d’espionnage fait formellement appel à des stratégies réactionnaires, mais les actions des personnages s’originent dans des théories militantes : action et réaction entrent ainsi en collision dans des récits qui passent les canons victoriens au crible de la modernité. L’ironie et la parodie fonctionnent comme des bombes textuelles ; cette analogie nous permet de mettre en lumière la nature paradoxale de l’outrage, générant à la fois le détachement et la révolte.

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  • 1 Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876) used the phrase in his ‘Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis (1 (...)

1At the end of the 1870s, the concept of ‘propaganda by the deed’ was theorized by European anarchists, including Mikhail Bakunin and Paul Brousse,1 advocating spectacular outrages (in the sense of attentats in French) on reactionary authorities and capitalists, intended to encourage the oppressed populations towards revolution. In the last two decades of the 19th century, a series of anarchist-inspired terrorist attacks hit many European countries. One of the earliest and most spectacular ones was the bomb assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander in 1881.

2Although Britain remained relatively unaffected, an attempt at a bomb outrage happened in Greenwich, in 1894, when a bomb carried by the anarchist Martial Bourdin blew off unexpectedly, leaving the Observatory untouched and the bomb carrier fatally wounded. Although he was immediately identified as an anarchist in the British press, his motives remained enigmatic, especially his choice of the Observatory as a target. The mysterious, unexplainable quality of this singular event is the first element Conrad claimed to have focused on when choosing this subject for his 1907 novel The Secret Agent, as he explained in his author’s note:

We recalled the already old story of the attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory; a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought. For perverse unreason has its own logical processes. But 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 bits for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other. (Conrad X)

  • 2 According to David French, ‘stories like these soon began to leak into the letter columns of the pr (...)

3In this context of an ‘age of bomb outrages’, of diplomatic tensions between nation-states, and of a large number of terrorist assassinations, the motif of the enemy within, often embodied by the character of the anarchist and that of the foreign agent, was present in crime literature as well as in the newspapers. The figure of the German spy was inaugurated by Erskine Childers in 1903 in the first spy novel The Riddle of the Sands. In William Le Queux’s 1906 bestselling novel The Invasion of 1910, an army of secret German spies is planning a large-scale invasion of Britain, disguised as clerks, craftsmen and workers on British territory. As David French explained, the British press also played at the time on the thin distinction between fact and fiction and contributed to spreading the stock-character of the spy.2 Most of the spy narratives by Le Queux, Childers and later by John Buchan presented highly realistic settings and, far from resting only on the strategies of romance, aimed explicitly at raising the public’s awareness concerning the diverse foreign threats against Britain, including that of anarchism.

4Two novels dealing with anarchism however stood apart in this context where journalism, literature and patriotic propaganda were often mixed in very popular publications. Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) and G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) distanced themselves from their main subject and proceeded from a strong reaction against the apparent seriousness of the anarchist position. Both novels challenged some fundamental social myths about terrorism and safety, anarchists and policemen, as well as some narrative techniques: the form of the detective story and that of the spy narrative necessarily enact reactionary tactics, whereas the characters’ actions are formed—and distorted—out of activist theories. The Secret Agent and The Man Who Was Thursday, each in a very different mode, deliberately impacted their contemporaries with tales of anarchism, of outrage and of failure and both used innovative narrative techniques to force these images upon their readers. The notion of outrage reveals both the thematic insecurities of detective narratives, by introducing idealistic rebels and anarchists among the characters, and their formal modernity, readers being shell-shocked by their outrageous debunking of known genres. Outrage is an attack against the canonical spy story but it also leads to a paradoxical implosion of its own revolutionary value, by way of highly ironic narratives. By highlighting the absurd nature of human action, they paved the way for new narrative strategies which forego the canonical linearity of adventure tales and spy narratives and give way to parallelisms, fragmentations or circular motifs.

Challenging Elusive Typologies and Archetypes

  • 3 The narratives by Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle are the best examples of this generic chara (...)
  • 4 ‘Toute singularité est donc ainsi présentée comme un crime en puissance, c’est-à-dire non seulement (...)

5As Luc Boltanski argues in his book Énigmes et complots, both the detective novel and the spy narrative are originally conservative genres, because they take sides with law enforcement and social order—thus, they hinge on the clear distinction between the agents defending the state and those attacking it and between legality and transgression, with a narrative line starting from disorder and returning to normalcy.3 Normalcy and disorder are categories used in medical and psychological discourse so as to identify illness, and also in legal and police discourse to identify crime. These fields of knowledge are combined here, and both rely on typologies, because ‘any singularity is presented as a potential crime, that is to say not only as the sign or symptom of a crime, but as already criminal in itself’.4 The generic forms of the spy narrative and the detection narrative provide the general frame of the plots but they are constantly disrupted as the reader fails to identify at once the policemen and the criminals. The archetypes are debunked and the typologies challenged.

  • 5 In Schopenhauer, for instance, Lombroso detects ‘an insane and neurotic hereditary tendency’ and th (...)

6In Conrad’s novel, numerous references to Cesare Lombroso’s phrenology and physiognomy are made by Ossipon. This anarchist, who advocates propaganda by the word, not by the deed, uses Lombroso’s typologies to identify criminal and pathological human types, notably defining Stevie as a perfect type of the degenerate: ‘That’s what he may be called scientifically. Very good type, too, altogether, of that sort of degenerate. It’s enough to glance at the lobes of his ears. If you read Lombroso—’ (Conrad 46–47). Ossipon has certainly read Lombroso’s The Man of Genius, published in English in 1891, where the ears are one of the favoured objects of study in criminal anthropology.5 His interpretation of physical features in terms of psychological, moral and intellectual qualities is similar to some means of characterisation used in detective narratives, where clues and symptoms are often difficult to differentiate. The way Conrad uses it here is obviously ironic: Ossipon’s judgement on Stevie is dismissed at once by the other anarchists who assert that ‘Lombroso is an ass’ (Conrad 47), and by the narrator whose description of Ossipon’s face fits Lombroso’s representation of the criminal type as an atavism stemming from the African type: ‘red, freckled face, with a flattened nose and prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the negro type’ (Conrad 44). Conrad here presents this typology as fitting only the one who believes in it.

7Chesterton’s essay ‘A Criminal Head’ scathingly derides criminologists and sociologists who use such typologies, through the example of the study of Charlotte Corday’s skull:

Some famous and foolish professor measured the skull of Charlotte Corday to ascertain the criminal type; he had not historical knowledge enough to know that if there is any ‘criminal type’, certainly Charlotte Corday had not got it. The skull, I believe, afterwards turned out not to be Charlotte Corday’s at all; but that is another story. The point is that the poor old man was trying to match Charlotte Corday’s mind with her skull without knowing anything whatever about her mind. (Chesterton 1910a, 46–47)

8The choice of the assassination of Marat by Corday as an example is interesting because it raises the question of ambiguity and doubt, for Corday’s action has been interpreted diversely according to the political stand of the commentators. By seeing her action as a reaction to Marat’s own outrage, Chesterton presents it as acceptable and less criminal. Further on in his essay, he criticizes Lombroso’s typologies more widely, pretending to have used the scientific method to prove they are not scientific themselves but defined only by social prejudice:

The physical peculiarity seems to vary infinitely; sometimes it is the remarkable square head, sometimes it is the unmistakable round head; sometimes the learned draw attention to the abnormal development, sometimes to the striking deficiency of the back of the head. I have tried to discover what is the invariable factor, the one permanent mark of the scientific criminal type; after exhaustive classification I have to come to the conclusion that it consists in being poor. (Chesterton 1910a, 47)

9Chesterton’s attack against social prejudice also appears in The Man Who Was Thursday, when one of the police officers reveals to the others that the great majority of dangerous anarchists are powerful and wealthy aristocrats who manipulate the sincere poor rebels like Lucian Gabriel. Most of the characters in both novels are indeed not what they seem. In Chesterton’s novel, the policeman’s motive for action is his ‘rebellion against rebellion’ (Chesterton 1908, 39) and he looks like the typical anarchist: ‘there was no anarchist with a bomb in his pocket so savage or so solitary as [Syme]’ (Chesterton 1908, 40). Conversely, Gabriel, the true anarchist, is highly respectful of the ‘formalities’ and the hierarchy of his secret council.

10In both novels, the archetypes of serious anarchists and of heroic policemen also become elusive. Several of Conrad’s anarchists, including Michaelis and Verloc, are physically doubtful both as anarchists and as potential heroes. They are too fat, too weak, too unhealthy and too apathetic to meet the standards of the spy or the secret agent imagined by a reader who would have read William Le Queux. Verloc embodies the antithesis of the anarchist who is conventionally ascetic, and more generally he is the opposite of a hero, who should be athletic and energetic: ‘His idleness was not hygienic, but it suited him very well. He was in a manner devoted to it with a sort of inert fanaticism, or perhaps rather with a fanatical inertness’ (Conrad 12). In the second chapter, Verloc is described by the Russian instigator of the outrage, Mr Vladimir, in surprising terms: ‘What do you mean by getting out of condition like this? You haven’t got even the physique of your profession. You—a member of a starving proletariat—never! You—a desperate socialist or anarchist—which is it?’ (Conrad 21) Verloc does not even manage to stay fully awake while Vladimir explains the planned bombing:

For sometime already Mr Verloc’s immobility by the side of the arm-chair resembled a state of collapsed coma—a sort of passive insensibility interrupted by slight convulsive starts, such as may be observed in the domestic dog having a nightmare on the hearthrug. (Conrad 34)

11Indeed, Verloc is perfectly disguised as an almost ordinary shop keeper, but more importantly, he is not only an anarchist but also a police informer. His physical transgression of the anarchist archetype is the sign of his moral transgression of the anarchist ideal.

  • 6 They wanted someone to dress up as a dynamiter, and they all swore by blazes that I could never lo (...)

12In Chesterton’s novel, the duplicity of the anarchists and policemen is the central motif. After being elected as Thursday in the anarchist council, Syme discovers that the other members are like him, disguised policemen. His first impression is that each carries an anomalous feature which he interprets as being typical of the criminal type: ‘Each man had something about him, perceived perhaps at the tenth or twentieth glance, which was not normal, and which seemed hardly human’ (Chesterton 1908, 56). In each instance of disclosure, there is an outrageously repetitive comic effect of iteration from one chapter to the next. The first perception of Bull was that his spectacles ‘took away the key to the face’ and that ‘his eyes might be covered up because they were too frightful to see’ (Chesterton 1908, 58). Yet, they are really covered with smoked spectacles because Scotland Yard decided they were too pleasant to see, not anarchist enough.6 Disguise is used by Chesterton in a theatrical and farcical manner, but the motif of deception also brings about a doubt concerning the morality of the characters and, more importantly, the reliability of the story-teller. The peak of doubt is reached when the group of policemen is pursued by a masked army through the French countryside:

The ex-Marquis had pulled the old straw hat over his eyes, and the black shade of the brim cut his face so squarely in two that it seemed to be wearing one of the black half-masks of their pursuers. The fancy tinted Syme’s overwhelming sense of wonder. Was he wearing a mask? Was anyone wearing a mask? This wood of witchery, in which men’s faces turned black and white by turns, in which their figures first swelled into sunlight and then faded into formless night, this mere chaos of chiaroscuro (after the clear daylight outside) seemed to Syme a perfect symbol of the world in which he had been moving for three days, this world where men took off their beards and their spectacles and their noses, and turned into other people. (Chesterton 1908, 124–125)

13The vertigo provoked by Chesterton’s novel is also kept up by the ever-increasing rapidity of the narration, granting the reader no pause to distance himself from the narrator’s authoritative narrative. The common point between anarchists and policemen in this novel is their agency, their ability to act incessantly. This is a topos of all adventure tales, once again taken to the limits of realism by Chesterton, but it also appears as highly complex in Conrad’s novel where all actions seem to be reactions rather than the true expression of the characters’ agency.

Outrage and Sabotage—Two Modes of Agency

14Despite a collection of ridiculous, lazy, inactive anarchists, Conrad provides two characters who embody the anarchist agency and are able to carry out an outrage: the Professor and Stevie. The Professor is described as the perfect anarchist, his ascetic physical appearance fits perfectly both the type and his severe intellect:

The extreme, almost ascetic purity of his thought, combined with an astounding ignorance of worldly conditions, had set before him a goal of power and prestige to be attained without the medium of arts, graces, tact, wealth—by sheer weight of merit alone. (Conrad 80)

  • 7 The conversation between the Professor and Ossipon starts with a challenging remark by the former: (...)

15The Professor always carries a bomb, threatening an imminent explosion which would also kill him instantly. This figure of extreme radicalism sets him apart from Ossipon who distinguishes between heroism and recklessness7 and who prefers to classify, whereas the Professor does not even acknowledge the concept of criminality. He appears as the pure embodiment of agency, trusting the mechanism of his portable bomb and indifferent as to the consequences of his act on him or others, as is made clear in the last paragraph of the novel:

And the incorruptible Professor walked too, averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind. He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men. (Conrad 311)

16His incorruptible character and his purity are the conventional qualities of the heroic policeman, but he is ironically their best embodiment, proving at once their power and the danger they represent.

17The other real agent is Stevie: the young man is deficient intellectually but not emotionally; his sense of outrage and indignation is the keenest in the whole novel. Conrad presents a complex character who is misunderstood because he cannot express himself clearly. The physical signs of his pathology are not easily interpretable and no diagnosis can be established, despite what Ossipon thinks. Neither the doctors nor the criminologists can determine what Stevie’s singularity is. Stevie, however, belongs to the heroic canon because of his ‘innocent but pitiless rage’ and his outrageous, inordinate passions. He commits one initial outrage, a childish use of fireworks inside an office building, by which he expresses his strong sense of injustice following a conversation with some office boys. He is the one who commits the Greenwich bomb outrage, prompted by Verloc, although this is a discredited version of what his passion would have produced. He is a chivalric and impotent hero, an abstract will, the figure of an ideal anarchism completely opposed to that of Ossipon or Verloc and perverted by the latter.

18The other mode of agency in the novel is that of sabotage and reaction. The aim of propaganda by deed is to incite the reaction of the oppressed. In The Fiction of Geopolitics, Christopher GoGwilt studies the meaning of sabotage as a revolutionary tactic in working-class revolt, theorized by Bertrand Russel and Thorstein Veblen. The social activism method of attacking machinery or stalling work efficiency started to be called sabotage around the time of publication of the two novels, in the first decade of the century. In his plan of outrage, Mr Vladimir explains the aim is to destroy a symbol of science. Blowing up the Observatory is meant to bring about a stronger reaction than blowing up an administrative or corporate landmark because it would be perceived as unmitigated with class hate or political opposition. Vladimir explains: ‘Go for the first meridian. You don’t know the middle classes as well as I do. Their sensibilities are jaded. The first meridian’ (Conrad 37).

  • 8 In Action et réaction, vie et aventure d’un couple Jean Starobinski puts the historical evolution o (...)
  • 9 ‘Parce qu’elle remet en question le principe selon lequel les mêmes causes produisent les mêmes eff (...)

19Vladimir’s plan of outraging the meridian fails and turns into a more classic form of outrage, involving death, blood and gruesome images. But what is crucial is that the initial plan of sabotage was a sham aiming not at popular revolt but at a surge in police reaction against anarchists. The very instigator of the outrage perverted it by giving it a reactionary purpose. The terms reaction and reactionary refer to a political stance opposed to anarchist activism, but they are also used in philosophy, physics, chemistry, medicine and psychology. They have been extensively analysed by Jean Starobinski,8 showing the specificity of the pair of concepts action and reaction. Far from a simple antagonism, an action provokes a reaction, through a specular relationship. Starobinski sees these two notions as a pair at once opposed and reconciled, evoking ideas of simple symmetry and even mirror-like reflection. This dynamic association highlights the idea of a chain of consequences linked to any event and of a linear deployment of consequences. As in Conrad’s novel, an anarchist outrage can paradoxically result in a reactionary episode. This mechanistic interpretation of causality results in a further debunking of the anarchist ideal, and sabotage is presented as a reactionary form of agency. In a further unsettling reversal of categories, the very notion of causality is disrupted in the novel, as Véronique Pauly explains by linking Conrad’s tale to the contemporary scientific discoveries on chaos and uncertainty: with the Observatory bomb outrage, Conrad proves that order can generate chaos and that chaos can create order, which leads to the impossibility to fathom the world, morally or intellectually.9

Blowing Up Form with Technological and Ironic Weapons

20Both Chesterton and Conrad said they sometimes sympathised with their anarchist characters while writing, more specifically with those expressing true popular revolt. In Conrad’s novel, the character of Stevie represents an ideal of outrage which is not acted and which contrasts which the blunted sense of anger of the other anarchists, while Chesterton presents a moveable boundary between anarchy and police work. Their novels however strongly question the legitimacy of bomb outrages. The confrontation of a human body and a bomb is outrageous in itself, as is shown when Stevie’s body is found scattered around the park and a shovel is needed to collect him. The action of the bomb destroyed the form of his body: ‘He’s all here, every bit of him’ (Conrad 87). The images of discontinuity abound in the passage concerning Stevie’s body which has become ‘a heap of nameless fragments’ (Conrad 87) as well as the Chief Inspector’s agency: his surveillance of the anarchists is supposed to be uninterrupted but ‘there occur unexpected solutions of continuity, sudden holes in space and time’ (Conrad 85).

21Technological implements directly cause the outrage but they also play a dual narrative role. On the one hand, they ground spy novels in a modern context and define a thrilling background by way of explosives, trains, motorcars, pistols, telegraphs and telephones. On the other hand, their automatic and mechanical quality influences human actions, which become fragmented and meaningless. In Chesterton’s novel, chapters 10 to 15 present ever more machines—a train, a motorcar, a telegraph and a balloon—so that even the human body makes machine-like motions: one of the detectives fleeing the army of masked men is so confused that ‘[he] can’t trust [his] own bodily machinery. [He feels] as if [his] hand might fly up and strike [him]’ (Chesterton 1908, 146). Another has very good vision, and his eyes are said to be ‘almost telescopic’; the pursuers ‘moved with a sort of dreadful and wicked woodenness, like a staring army of automatons’ and even everyday conversation is reduced to ‘fragmentary phrases of courtesy’ (Chesterton 1908, 128–129). In The Secret Agent, the Professor’s bomb becomes a part of his body, with its brown tube hidden in the brown clothing, and a part of his mind, with its perfect, intelligent detonator, supposed to adapt itself to the circumstances. The radical Professor is a mechanized automaton, as well as Verloc who appears to be in a state of shock which dehumanizes him completely: ‘Mr Verloc obeyed woodenly, stony-eyed, and like an automaton whose face had been painted red. And this resemblance with a mechanical figure went so far that he had an automaton’s absurd air of being aware of the machinery inside of him’ (Conrad 197). The absurdity of the automaton’s self-consciousness deprives the characters of their last human attribute, their will.

22In a move towards the issue of representation, images of technological weapons of destruction are explicitly linked to the cinematographic medium in chapter 11 of The Man Who Was Thursday:

The inside of the wood was full of shattered sunlight and shaken shadows. They made a sort of shuddering veil, almost recalling the dizziness of a cinematograph. Even the solid figures walking with him Syme could hardly see for the patterns of the sun and shade that danced upon them. (Chesterton 1908, 124)

23Not only are the bodies looking like machinery, but the perception of the world by the characters is fragmentary, the images come up one after the other in a solution of continuity expressing their difficulty to interpret the world, the absurdity of it all. In Conrad’s text, the term ‘fragments’ refer to Stevie’s blown up body, but the image is also applied to Verloc’s perception of his own murder: ‘He was lying on his back and staring upwards. He saw partly on the ceiling and partly on the wall the moving shadow of an arm with a clenched hand holding a carving knife. It flickered up and down’ (Conrad 262). A projected shadow and a flickering movement refer to cinematographic images. Verloc passively witnesses his own death, as if in slow motion: ‘Its movements were leisurely. They were leisurely enough for Mr Verloc to recognise the limb and the weapon. They were leisurely enough for him to take in the full meaning of the portent, and to taste the flavour of death rising in his gorge. His wife had gone raving mad—murdering mad’ (Conrad 262). All human actions and forms thus become discontinuous, and the text distances itself from the event, from the outrage. Such detachment is in itself an outrage against the canonical spy narratives, in which climaxes are generally enhanced, not subdued.

24Irony is prevalent in Conrad’s novel, whereas The Man Who Was Thursday relies more on parody, humour and comedy. Parody and irony both present an idea in an unsuitable tone; by changing the mode from familiarity to solemnity, or vice versa, they degrade the original idea. In each case, these modes of detachment are expressed through laughter. Laughter is often produced by the sight of a human body acting mechanically because it is perceived as comical, as when ‘Mr Vladimir burst into a laugh on seeing the policeman spin round as if prodded by a sharp instrument’ (Conrad 24), which reminds the reader of such cinematographic burlesque scenes. Laughter also results from a sense of revolt: as Christopher GoGwilt explains, ‘laughter, which for Bergson signals “superficial revolts . . . on the surface of life,” for Conrad constitutes an after effect of the deepest, most problematic and unresolvable problem of political agency and revolt’ (GoGwilt 180). The emblematic scene in this respect is the confrontation between the perfect anarchist carrying his bomb and the Chief Inspector who is looking for someone else:

‘You are not wanted, I tell you’, he repeated.
The anarchist did not stir. An inward laugh of derision uncovered not only his teeth but his gums as well, shook him all over, without the slightest sound. Chief Inspector Heat was led to add, against his better judgment:
‘Not yet. When I want you I will know where to find you.’
Those were perfectly proper words, within the tradition and suitable to his character of a police officer addressing one of his special flock. But the reception they got departed from tradition and propriety. It was outrageous. (Conrad 93)

25The anarchist’s violent and excessive laugh of derision is perceived as an outrage, because the traditional play of actions and reactions happening between the policeman and the criminal is not respected. In this respect, the perfect anarchist really comes up to his title, by disrespecting all traditions and formalities. His laughter is a prefiguration of his bomb. In Chesterton’s novel, the characters laugh increasingly often as they are faced with the absurdity of their situation, to the point of nonsensical hilarity when ‘five bewildered but hilarious people took the boat for Dover’ (Chesterton 1908, 149), but more strikingly, Sunday’s laughter is blown out of proportion as it is likened to an earthquake by the Secretary:

I poured out my most passionate appeals, and asked my most eloquent questions. Then, after a long silence, the Thing began to shake, and I thought it was shaken by some secret malady. It shook like a loathsome and living jelly. It reminded me of everything I had ever read about the base bodies that are the origin of life—the deep sea lumps and protoplasm. It seemed like the final form of matter, the most shapeless and the most shameful. I could only tell myself, from its shudderings, that it was something at least that such a monster could be miserable. And then it broke upon me that the bestial mountain was shaking with a lonely laughter, and the laughter was at me. Do you ask me to forgive him that? It is no small thing to be laughed at by something at once lower and stronger than oneself. (Chesterton 1908, 164–165)

26Sunday is represented as a formless being which has regressed from humanity, far from Lombroso’s idea of the criminal man of genius. Shaken by laughter, this indefinite and unhealthy body is deprived of language and it endangers the narrator’s sense of biological hierarchy, as well as it ridicules his dignity. Laughter understood as outrage implies an ironic operative system: like laughter, outrage is both the expression of revolt in the one who performs it and a source of revolt in the one who witnesses it.

27The similarity between laughter and bombs is revealed in the texts, as they both result from a sense of indignation and are simultaneously the cause of further indignations in their wake. Both novels can be interpreted in the perspective of this conflagration of outrages: by using the genres of the detective and spy novels in a parodic manner, they aim at unsettling the reader by placing him/her in the position of the witness of an outrage. Not only are the usual categories of characterization challenged, but the very notions of action, reaction, outrage and sabotage are displaced and the narrative structure is mutilated. Chesterton’s novel is outrageous in its refusal to present a plausible narrative, and in its nightmarish circular structure, leaving the reader of spy narratives frustrated. In Conrad’s self-proclaimed ‘simple tale’, the core of the plot remains untold, the whole structure of the novel rotates around the narrative void of Stevie’s death. This means of detachment is what Conrad terms ‘the ironic method’: ‘ironic treatment alone would enable me to say all I felt I would have to say in scorn as well as in pity’ (Conrad XIII). Both novelists had to defend their work against critical attacks and misinterpretations after publication: Chesterton claimed to have fought pessimism by instilling doubt, and Conrad to have written impulsively and innocently, not intending to ‘commit a gratuitous outrage on the feelings of mankind’ (Conrad XV), thus acknowledging the possible comparison between his novel to the bombing itself.

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1 Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876) used the phrase in his ‘Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis (1870)’, published in French by the historian and activist Jean Guillaume: ‘Maintenant nous devons nous embarquer tous ensemble sur l’océan révolutionnaire, et désormais nous devons propager nos principes non plus par des paroles, mais par des faits—car c'est la plus populaire, la plus puissante et la plus irrésistible des propagandes’ (Bakounine 227). The phrase ‘propaganda by the deed’ was popularized by the French anarchist Paul Brousse (1844–1912) in 1877 in an analysis of the 1871 Paris Commune.

2 According to David French, ‘stories like these soon began to leak into the letter columns of the press, perhaps an indication that a gullible public was beginning to mistake fiction for fact. On 6 May 1907 the Morning Post published a letter claiming that 90,000 German reservists and spies were in Britain, and that arms for them were stored in every major city’ (French 365). The fact that foreign agents were generally called ‘spies’ is significant, whereas British agents were merely ‘secret agents’, which is a less derogatory phrase. The figure of the German spy will be taken up with a vengeance during the Great War by John Buchan in The 39 steps (1915) and Greenmantle (1916), among others.

3 The narratives by Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle are the best examples of this generic characteristic.

4 ‘Toute singularité est donc ainsi présentée comme un crime en puissance, c’est-à-dire non seulement comme le signe ou le symptôme d’un crime, mais déjà, en elle-même, comme de l’ordre du crime’ (Boltanski 82, my translation).

5 In Schopenhauer, for instance, Lombroso detects ‘an insane and neurotic hereditary tendency’ and the shape of his ears is the first element in the list of his ‘various characters of degeneration’ (Lombroso 148).

6 They wanted someone to dress up as a dynamiter, and they all swore by blazes that I could never look like a dynamiter. They said my walk was very respectable, and that seen from behind I looked like the British Constitution. They said I looked too healthy and too optimistic, and too reliable and benevolent; they called me all sorts of names at Scotland Yard. . . . “Look at him now; he looks like an angelic office boy. Put him on a pair of smoked spectacles, and children will scream at the sight of him”’ (Chesterton 1908, 102).

7 The conversation between the Professor and Ossipon starts with a challenging remark by the former: ‘“To deal with a man like me you require sheer, naked, inglorious heroism.” Again his lips closed with a self-confident snap. Ossipon repressed a movement of impatience. “Or recklessness—or simply ignorance,” he retorted’ (Conrad 65).

8 In Action et réaction, vie et aventure d’un couple Jean Starobinski puts the historical evolution of the terms into perspective and focuses on the building up of their relationship in different fields of knowledge.

9 ‘Parce qu’elle remet en question le principe selon lequel les mêmes causes produisent les mêmes effets, l’idée que l’ordre puisse être à l’origine du chaos, et que le chaos puisse être facteur d’ordre, constitue une première atteinte à l’intelligibilité du monde et entraîne une série de renversements qui feront, cinquante ans plus tard, les grandes heures de la guerre froide, et les ressorts principaux du roman d’espionnage, dont Conrad est ici le précurseur’ (Pauly 49).

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Élodie Raimbault, « Narratives Under Attack: Outrage and Reaction in Early 20th Century Espionage Novels »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 45 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2013, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Élodie Raimbault

Université Grenoble Alpes — CEMRA
Élodie Raimbault est agrégée d’anglais et maître de conférences à l’université Stendhal — Grenoble 3. Elle est l’auteur d’une thèse de doctorat, soutenue en 2009 à l’université Sorbonne Nouvelle — Paris 3, intitulée « Figures de l’espace et de la frontière dans la fiction de Rudyard Kipling » (à paraître). Elle a publié plusieurs articles sur la relation entre l’espace littéraire et l’imaginaire de la machine chez Kipling. Ses recherches actuelles portent sur la littérature populaire, policière et d’aventures des périodes victorienne et édouardienne, sur les dimensions cartographique, politique et géopoétique des représentations des territoires coloniaux et sur la place des sciences et technologies chez ces auteurs, notamment Kipling, Rider Haggard, Conrad, Wells et Conan Doyle. Dans ce domaine, elle a récemment publié sur les métaphores de la pathologie dans les romans d’aventures et d’espionnage de Kipling, Conrad et John Buchan.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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