Under Western Eyes
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Preceded by||The Secret Sharer|
|Followed by||Freya of the Seven Isles|
Under Western Eyes (1911) is a novel by Joseph Conrad. The novel takes place in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Geneva, Switzerland, and is viewed as Conrad's response to the themes explored in Crime and Punishment; Conrad was reputed to have detested Dostoevsky. It is also, some say, Conrad's response to his own early life; his father was a famous revolutionary imprisoned by the Russians, but, instead of following in his father's footsteps, at the age of sixteen Conrad left his native land forever. Indeed, while writing Under Western Eyes, Conrad suffered a weeks-long breakdown during which he conversed with the novel's characters in Polish.
This novel is considered to be one of Conrad's major works and is close in subject matter to The Secret Agent. It is full of cynicism and conflict about the historical failures of revolutionary movements and ideals. Conrad remarks in this book, as well as others, on the irrationality of life, the opacity of character, the unfairness with which suffering is inflicted upon the innocent and poor, and the careless disregard for the lives of those with whom we share existence.
The narrator, an English teacher of languages living in Geneva, is narrating the personal record of Kirilo Sidorovitch Razumov. Razumov is a student in the University of St. Petersburg in the early 1910s. He never knew his parents and thus has no family tradition. He is trusted by his fellow students, many of who hold revolutionary views, however he takes no clear positions in the great questions of his time because he considers all of Russia his family.
Mr. de P—, the brutal Minister of State, is assassinated by a team of two although the bombs used claim the lives of the first assassin, the footman of Mr. de P—and a number of bystanders.
Razumov enters his rooms where he finds Victor Haldin, a fellow student. Halding informs him that he was the one who murdered Mr. de P--, however, he and his accomplice did not make a proper escape plan. He requests Razumov’s help because he trusts him even though he realises that they do not quite belong in the same camp. Razumov agrees to help if only to get Haldin out of his flat. Haldin tasks him with finding Zemianitch, who was supposed to help Haldin escape. Haldin’s request launches Razumov into a deep identity crisis as he feels that his life will be destroyed by the authorities simply out of association with Haldin. Consequently, he becomes intensely aware of his social isolation and lack of family ties. Harbouring no sympathy for Haldin’s actions nor his ideals, Razumov is brought closer to conservatism out of simple fear for survival. He seeks Ziemianitch and when he finds him drunk and incapacitated, beats him. Afterwards he makes up his mind to betray Haldin so he can save his own life and turns to his university sponsor, Prince K. They go to the chief of police, General T--. A trap is laid for Haldin.
Razumov returns to his apartment and attempts to explain his predicament to Haldin while concealing the fact that he has just betrayed him. Haldin leaves and later that night is caught. Razumov is distressed for days after Haldin’s capture. Finally he receives a summons to the police headquarters and meets Privy Councillor Mikulin. In a scene reminiscent of Crime and Punishment, Razumov is highly paranoid that Mikulin suspects him of being a revolutionary. Mikulin reveals that Haldin was interrogated, sentenced and hanged the same day, without implicating Razumov. Mikulin also reveals that he supervised a search Razumov’s quarters and is interested in Razumov’s future plans.
The narrative shifts to Haldin’s sister, Natalia and their mother, Mrs Haldin, who live in Switzerland after Haldin persuaded them to sell their house in Russia and move. Having lived in Zurich for a while, they settled in Geneva which has a vibrant Russian community. There, they wait for Haldin. Natalia has been friendly with the narrator for some time from whom she receives English lessons. One day the narrator chances upon the news of Haldin’s arrest and execution in an English newspaper and tells Natalia and her mother. Natalia takes the news stoically while her mother is deeply distressed. Peter Ivanovitch, a leader in the revolutionary movement, having learnt of Haldin’s execution meets with Natalia and attempts to recruit her, although Natalia is sceptical and non-committal. He also tells her that Razumov is about to arrive in Geneva, which excites Natalia as Haldin had described him in glowing terms in his letters.
Natalia is invited to the Chateau Borel, a big, neglected house Madame de S—rents from the widow of an Italian banker and meets Tekla, the abused servant of Madame de S— and secretary to Peter Ivanovitch. Tekla recounts her life story. Afterwards they come upon Peter Inavovitch and Razumov. Peter Ivanovitch leaves and Natalia introduces herself to Razumov.
The narrative shifts to a few weeks prior and describes how Razumov arrived in Geneva, having first stayed in Zurich for three days with Sophia Antonovna, the right hand of Peter Ivanovitch. Razumov did not further seek Peter Ivanovitch after their first meeting, but instead took long walks with Natalia, where she took him into her confidence and asked about her brother’s last hours, to which Razumov gave no definite answer. Razumov is abrasive towards the narrator who detects a deep distress under Razumov’s exterior. He is invited to the Chateau Borel, where he is received on friendly terms as Madame de S—and Peter Inanovitch think that he was a collaborator of Haldin’s. In fact Razumov he has gone to Geneva working as a spy for the Russian government. His taciturnity and reserve are interpreted by each character in their own way. The revolutionaries reveal some of their plans to Razumov and he is given his first assignment: to bring Natalia to Peter Ivanovitch so he can convert her, as Peter Ivanovitch cherishes female followers above everything else.
Razumov then meets Sophia Antonovna, who he comes to realise is his most dangerous adversary due to her single-mindedness and perception. Suppressing his distress, he manages to deceive her. Sophia Antonovna reveals that Zemianitch hanged himself soon after Haldin’s execution which makes the revolutionaries believe that he was the one who betrayed Haldin.
The narrative shifts back to Razumov’s initial interview with Mikulin. Mikulin admits having read Razumov’s private notes but reassures him that he is not suspicious of him. After telling Razumov that some of the best Russian minds ultimately returned to them (referring to Dostoevsky, Gogol and Aksakov) he lets him go. Razumov spends the next few weeks in an increasing state of malaise where he alienates his fellow students and professors. In the meantime, Mikulin has received a promotion and sees an opportunity to use Razumov. He summons him to further interviews where he recruits him, with Prince’s K. blessings, to act as a secret agent for the Czarist authorities.
The narrative shifts to Geneva where Razumov is writing his first report to Mikulin. On his way to the post office, the narrator comes upon him, although Razumov takes no notice of him. The narrator goes to Natalia’s flat, only to learn that Natalia must find Razumov urgently and bring him to her dying mother, as she needs to meet the only friend of Haldin’s she was aware of. The professor and Natalia go to the Chateau Borel to ask Peter Ivanovitch of Razumov’s place of stay. There they find the revolutionaries preparing an insurgency in the Baltic provinces. They return to their quarters where Razumov unexpectedly visits them. After a long conversation with Natalia where Razumov makes several obscure and cryptic remarks and Natalia asks how her brother spent his last hours, he implies that he was the one who betrayed him.
Razumov retires to his quarters where he writes his record. Explaining to Natalia that he fell in love with her as soon as she took him into her confidence and never having been shown any kind of love before, he felt he had betrayed himself by having betrayed her brother. He mails the record to Natalia and goes to the house of Julius Laspara where a social gathering of revolutionaries is taking place. Razumov declares to the crowd that Zemianitch was innocent and only partially explaining his motives, confesses that he was the one who gave up Haldin. Some revolutionaries led by Necator attack him and smash his eardrums. A deaf Razumov is trampled by a tramcar and crippled. Tekla finds him and stays by his side at the hospital.
A few months pass. Mrs Haldin has died. Natalia has returned to Russia to devote herself to charity work and gave Razumov’s record to the narrator. Tekla has taken the invalid Razumov to the Russian countryside where she looks after him.
- Kirilo Sidorovitch Razumov: Razumov is a student in the University of St. Petersburg, a hotbed of revolutionary activity at the time. He is described as a serious young man, studious and hard working. He survives on a modest allowance provided by Prince K., his sponsor. Having known no family, he considers all of Russia his family. Handsome and aristocratic in appearance he inspires trust in people by his obliging manner and attentive listening. His ultimate ambition before de P—‘s assassination was to become a professor, or a Privy Councillor. Deeply aware of the fact that he has no meaningful connections to anyone, he relies on his hard work as a means of advancement. Razumov is held in high esteem by the Geneva revolutionaries because they think he was a collaborator of Haldin’s. In fact, after Haldin’s arrest, Razumov is nerve-wracked and paranoid. He holds the revolutionaries in contempt and often makes sarcastic sneers, something that confuses them. He falls for Natalia Haldin but having never known neither love nor family before, his identity crumbles and he finally confesses to her that he betrayed her brother.
- Victor Victorovich Haldin: A fellow student of Razumov’s, he assassinates Mr de P., although several innocent bystanders are killed as well. With this escape plan compromised he breaks into Razumov’s rooms and asks for his help. Haldin is highly idealistic but has mistaken Razumov’s studiousness and thoughtfulness for trustworthiness. He does not realise that placing Razumov into an impossible situation can have unpredictable consequences for him. Haldin says that he took after an uncle of his that was executed under Nicholas I.
- Natalia Victorovich Haldin: The independent-minded and sincere sister of Victor Haldin, she is not impressed by Peter Ivanovitch. She is described as “full-figured” with “trustful eyes”. She has a confident manner and a reputation for liberalism. She was educated in an institute for women (women were not easily allowed to study at university) where she was looked upon unfavourably due to her views. Both mother and daughter were later placed under surveillance in their country place. Natalia thinks that by befriending Razumov she will stay faithful to the spirit of her brother, as he had described Razumov in his letters as possessing a “lofty, unstained and solitary” existence. She is suspicious of the circumstances of Haldin’s capture, as she thinks he would have had an escape plan.
- Peter Ivanovitch: The bombastic leader of the revolutionaries, Peter Inanovitch served in the Guards when he was young. He is very popular in Russia, but lives in Geneva sponsored by Madame de S--- who he constantly flatters. In his autobiography he recounts how he was imprisoned in Russia and made a dramatic escape to the Pacific coast with the help of a woman. He is considered a revolutionary feminist, even though he regularly mistreats Tekla, and is a profligate author of numerous books. In the end, Peter Ivanovitch is portrayed as ineffectual having allowed not one but two informers in his circle. When Madame de S— dies, she leaves none of her fortune to Peter Ivanovitch, who marries a peasant girl and moves back to Russia, although he is still deeply admired by his believers. Peter Ivanovitch is mainly based on Mikhail Bakunin, while his feminist theories seem inspired from Fyodor Dostoevsky (in his "Notes from the Underground" (1864), part 2, chapter 1, there is a reference to this name). Also in Tolstoi´s "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" (1886) there is a character with the same name, referred since the first page. Actually there was a Russian ambassador for the US, from 1817 to 1822, named Pyotr Ivanovich (1778–1849).
- Sophia Antononva: The right hand of Peter Ivanovitch, Sophia Antonovna is an old revolutionary who is held in high regard due to being trusted by Peter Ivanovitch with carrying out “certain most important things”. She is the daughter of a clever but unlucky artisan who was brutally exploited by his masters and died at fifty years old. Sophia Antonovna therefore became a revolutionary at a young age. She is quick to see that Razumov is not particularly impressed with them. Razumov views her as “the true spirit of destructive revolution” because she is devoid of the mysticism and rhetoric of Peter Ivanovitch. Therefore he makes serious efforts in deceiving her and takes pleasure when he succeeds. In the end, Sophia Antonovna admits to the narrator that she bears a grudging respect for Razumov because he confessed of his own volition and from a position of safety.
- Tekla: The dame de compagnie of Madame de S— , Tekla was the daughter of a clerk in the Finance Ministry. Distressed by seeing her family living on a government salary when half of Russia was starving, she left them at a young age to live with revolutionaries where she went through great hardship. As a result she has sustained a hatred of Finance Ministries and has done odd jobs for revolutionaries. She takes dictation from Peter Ivanovitch who is psychologically abusive towards her. Razumov notes that Tekla is perpetually terrified in the presence of Madame de S—and Peter Ivanovitch. In the end of the novel she takes a crippled Razumov back to Russia and looks after him. It has been suggested that Conrad was influenced by the legend of Saint Thecla to create Tekla.
- The narrator: A passive, obscure teacher of languages. Conrad often uses his as a device for elaborate on his views on Russia. He is in love with and wishes to advise Natalia but due to being old and a Westerner he feels the gap between them is too big for Natalia to listen to him.
- Mrs Haldin: The world-weary old mother of Victor and Natalia, she becomes suspicious when she does not receive news of Victor for some time after Mr. de P--‘s assassination. After she learns of his execution, she falls ill. When she learns of Razumov she wants to meet him. In the end of the novel, she dies. She is described as having had a fine, lucid intellect in her youth.
- Prince K.: A Russian aristocrat and ex-Guardsman who acts as Razumov’s sponsor, it is also implied he is Razumov’s father. Before P’s assassination Razumov had met him only once, when he was summoned to the office of an obscure attorney, where Prince K encouraged him to do well in his studies and shook his hand. He is married to an aristocratic lady, who has a temper and is rumoured to beat him. Razumov turns to Prince K for help after he finds Haldin in his room, having no other person to rely on. Prince K is angry and at first but afterwards takes Razumov to General T-- to who he makes clear that Razumov is not involved in revolutionary activity.
- Privy Councillor Gregory Gregorevitch/Matvievitch Mikulin: The subtle Head of Department at the Secretariat General, he is the right hand of General T--. He subjects Razumov to several interviews with a view to recruiting him to act as an informer for the Czarist authorities against the revolutionaries, which he eventually achieves. He does this partly for his own reasons, as he views Razumov as a tool he can use after he receives a promotion to general supervisor over European operations. A hedonistic and greatly influential official he meets his end a few years after the events of the novel after a State trial.
- General T—: Modelled after Fyodor Trepov, General T— is a high official in the Secretariat General of the Ministry of Interior of the police secretariat, to whom Razumov betrays Haldin’s escape plan. General T is initially suspicious of Razumov but his mind is set at ease by Prince K, who vouches for Razumov’s character. He believes that the structure of society is based on fidelity to institutions and has a deep hatred of revolutionaries that he describes as natural
- Mr de P—: The brutal and repressive Minister of State in the Czarist government. Fanatical and single minded he imprisoned, exiled or condemned to execution revolutionaries of every age and gender. He does not believe in liberty and justifies this using religion. He is assassinated by Victor Haldin in a scene based on the real-life assassination of Vyacheslav von Plehve.
- Baroness Eleanora Maximovna de S—: The pretentious window a Russian diplomat, she left Russia some years before the events of the novel, because she was suspected of having had foreknowledge of the assassination of Emperor Alexander. She is an ardent believer in Peter Ivanovich who he met when he was serving in the Guards as a young man and supports him financially in Geneva. Razumov describes her as looking like a “galvanised corpse”. She is described as greedy, avaricious and unscrupulous by the narrator.
- Nikita Necator: A brutal revolutionary assassin, Necator is responsible for numerous murders and has a fearsome reputation. Fat to the point of obesity, he is greatly excited by violence. He cripples Razumov near the end of the novel by smashing his eardrums. In the end, Councillor Mikunin informs Peter Ivanovitch in a chance meeting in Russia that Necator had been a double agent all along, providing information to the Russian authorities. Razumov was apparently aware of this as he taunted Necator before he was attacked.
Conrad's use of an unreliable narrator is particularly interesting. The "teacher of languages" claims to be translating Razumov's private journal, as well as narrating what he himself has witnessed, but his account of his sources of information is unconvincing from the beginning. He tries to establish his bona fides by saying that he lacks the imagination to have made the story up and immediately undercuts his claim to be telling a true story by asserting that words are the enemy of reality. The device of the diary is reminiscent of the manuscript in James's "The Turn of the Screw" where the governess's story comes from a manuscript of obscure origin. As in James's story, we have no reason to think that that Razumov's diary, if it ever existed, was an objective account, or that its purported translator has presented it accurately. What we have, when it's boiled down, is an account by Conrad, an adopted Englishman who suffered under Russian tyranny, of an English language teacher's reaction to a story about Russian revolutionaries that the language teacher may or may not have—wholly or partly—made up, but that Conrad certainly did. This ambiguous narration, especially given the book's title, invites the reader to consider the novel as story not just about Russia and Russians, but about an Englishman's reaction to Russia and Russians.
- G. Adelman, Retelling Dostoyevsky, p.89, see also A.M. Matin, Introduction to "Heart of Darkness", p. xxvii
- Adelman, op cit, p.244
- Yann Tholoniat, "'Calculated outbursts': exploding the concept of character in Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes". Hommage à Sylvère Monod, Montpellier, Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2007: 443-460.
- Under Western Eyes at Project Gutenberg
- Under Western Eyes, available as a printer-ready PDF from Ria Press.