Page 26. " the improved breech-block of their new field-gun "

Breech of the 105MM Howitzer
Creative Commons AttributionBreech of the 105MM Howitzer - Credit: Juan23for

A breechblock is a metal shutter that closes the breech (where the projectile is loaded) of a gun when it fires. A field gun is a large gun or cannon that can be moved around the battle field. Mr Verloc’s career as a secret agent began during his time in the French artillery, a combat unit that uses cannons and field guns. One of his tasks was to obtain the design of this part of the gun to give an advantage to the enemy side. The reference is slightly anachronistic. The French artillery brought out a new field gun (the canon de modele 1897) in 1898 after five years of secret tests and trials. Conrad may have had this in his mind when thinking about Verloc's early career. 

Page 26. " Cherchez la femme "

Alexandre Dumas
Public DomainAlexandre Dumas
Literally “look for the woman” in French. The phrase describes the uncharacteristic behaviour or confusion that a man may exhibit when he is trying to cover up an affair or is  distracted by a woman. The phrase was coined by Alexandre Dumas in his 1854 novel The Mohicans of Paris


Page 29. " Vox et... "

Mr Vladimir begins to quote the Latin phrase “vox et praeterea nihil” (a voice and nothing more: fine words without substance) but stops, realising that the Latin will be lost on Mr Verloc.

Page 30. " You give yourself for an agent provocateur "

An agent provocateur is a person employed to stir up trouble.  

Page 31. " excursions into the field of American humour "

This may be a reference to Charles Dudley Warner’s sketch “Plumbers”, which was published in Mark Twain's Library of Humour in 1888. It made a joke of the tendency of plumbers to take their time over work.

Page 34. " cock-and-bull stories "
The signs of the Cock and the Bull inns
GNU Free Documentation LicenseThe signs of the Cock and the Bull inns - Credit: Cnyborg
Nonsense stories or lies. The phrase is thought to have originated at Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire, England. An important stopping off point for coaches in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the town boasted two main coaching inns: The Cock and the Bull. The rivalry between the two inns and the travellers who stayed there is thought to have given rise to tall tales.
Page 34. " wooden-faced panjandrum "

A panjandrum is a pompous official. The term comes from a ridiculous character in Samuel Foote’s nonsense play, the Grand Panjandrum, which was published in 1755.

Page 35. " the National Gallery "

The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square
Creative Commons AttributionThe National Gallery in Trafalgar Square - Credit: Wootang01

The National Gallery houses a permanent national art collection. 

The collection came into being with bequests of paintings by John Julius Angerstein in 1823 and Sir George Beaumont in 1826, which were at first displayed in Pall Mall.  The permanent building in Trafalgar Square opened in 1838. 


Page 37. " The whole civilized world has heard of Greenwich "

Greenwich is the location of the prime meridian, the longitudinal line from which all measurements of time are taken. The location of the line was agreed at an International Conference in Milan in 1884, two years before the book is set.

Google Map
Page 37. " The very boot-blacks in the basement of Charing Cross Station "

The London Bootblack by Jules Bastien-Lepage
Creative Commons AttributionThe London Bootblack by Jules Bastien-Lepage - Credit: freeparking

Boot-blacks worked cleaning shoes, a poorly paid, unskilled job for which no education was necessary. Mr Vladimir uses the idea of this group knowing about Greenwich as proof of the universality of the information. Charing Cross Station sits on the Strand near Trafalgar Square. 


Page 38. " ticket-of-leave apostle "

A ticket-of-leave was a discharge given to a convict or soldier, which carried certain conditions – usually, in the case of a convict, it required him to remain in a certain area and follow certain occupations. As Michaelis was imprisoned for life and then paroled, the ticket-of-leave could well be taken in this sense. However, Conrad allows for a double-meaning by throwing in the word apostle, implying that Michaelis is on leave from saintly duties, an idea reinforced by other descriptions of him throughout the book.

Page 38. " That cock won’t fight "

That argument won’t work. Cockfighting was a popular spot in the nineteenth century.

The Cock Fight by Jean Leon Gerome (1847)
Public DomainThe Cock Fight by Jean Leon Gerome (1847)


Page 38. " It would be apostasy "

Apostasy means turning away from or compromising your creed. Mr Vladimir implies that the doctrine of anarchy and the institution of marriage are mutually exclusive and it would be impossible for Mr Verloc to be true to both.

Page 41. " Visions of a workhouse infirmary "

Workhouses were institutions built to house and employ the destitute. They were hard, cruel places with huge social stigma attached to them. The infirmary was the hospital wing in which mentally or physically ill inmates were nursed. 


Page 44. " Comrade Ossipon "

The term "comrade" is strongly associated with communist and socialist regimes, and its use expresses Alexander Ossipon’s desire to be seen to be involved with the revolutionary philosophies the group is discussing. As the description that follows it and the later events of the book show, the term is more than a little ironic: Ossipon’s allegiance to socialist principles is skin deep, and he certainly turns out to be no "comrade" to Mr Verloc.

Page 46. " If you read Lombroso - "

Cesare Lombroso
Public DomainCesare Lombroso

Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909), an Italian psychiatrist and criminologist who argued that criminality could be recognised by measuring physical features. His most famous work was Criminal Man, which was published in 1876 and translated into English in 1911.