Under Western Eyes

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For the 1996 Israeli film, see Under Western Eyes (film).
Under Western Eyes
Author Joseph Conrad
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Novel
Publication date
1911
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.[1] Indeed, while writing Under Western Eyes, Conrad suffered a weeks-long breakdown during which he conversed with the novel's characters in Polish.[2]

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,[3] 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.

Plot summary[edit]

As in many of Conrad's stories, the first-person narrator is somewhat removed from the action of the story; in this case, it is an old English professor of languages residing in Geneva, who has received the personal record of a young orphaned Russian student named Razumov. Razumov is a studious and career-motivated young man who keeps himself largely aloof from his peers. One day when he returns home, he finds a student acquaintance named Victor Haldin hiding in his apartment. Haldin informs Razumov that he has just committed a political assassination (which Conrad modeled after the real-life assassination of Vyacheslav von Plehve) and evaded the police. This news causes the single-minded Razumov to panic, as he has no sympathy for Haldin's actions and feels that all he has worked for is slipping away.

Haldin requests Razumov to contact someone named Ziemianitch, who may be able to help Haldin escape successfully. Razumov is panic-stricken, but after much soul-searching agrees to help Haldin—primarily with the intention of getting him out of his apartment. When Razumov finds Ziemianitch in a drunken stupor and unable to assist Haldin he temporarily snaps. Then, in a panic stricken state of confusion, Razumov proceeds to go to the one person that may be able to assist him, his sponsor at the university. They decide to betray Haldin. Accordingly, they go to the chief of police, General T (whom Conrad modeled after real-life Petersburg police chief Fyodor Trepov). Subsequently a trap is laid for Haldin, and Razumov finds himself taking the first step to becoming a secret agent, although at this time he has no such intention.

The narrative then shifts to Geneva where Natalia Haldin, the sister of the executed revolutionary, receives the tragic news via the professor of languages, who has become her tutor and friend and who reads of Victor Haldin's demise in the English newspaper. In his last correspondence to his sister, Victor Haldin mentioned a certain serious young man named Razumov who was kind to him. Nathalie soon learns that Razumov is scheduled to arrive in Switzerland, and she impatiently awaits the arrival of her late brother's final friend.

Razumov comes distressed to Geneva, though he is received warmly by the Russian revolutionist community there, who are planning an insurgency in the Baltic regions. No one knows that Razumov betrayed Haldin, and that he has been sent as a secret agent of the Tsarist regime. Though he is supposed to be penetrating the revolutionary colony in order to access its secrets, Razumov is unable to contain his fits of aggression and sneering toward the left-wing leaders, who are puzzled but continue to trust the young man. It is ultimately revealed that the cause of Razumov's outbursts is his love for Natalie Haldin, who he sees on her daily walks. Never having experienced any kind of warmth or affection from another person, he is long unable to recognize the emotion in himself; when he finally does, he reveals the truth to Natalie and to the revolutionaries, and suffers the consequences for his betrayal. (When Conrad began writing, he planned to have Razumov marry Natalie, have a child, and finally confess years later.[4])

Narration[edit]

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.

References[edit]

  1. ^ G. Adelman, Retelling Dostoyevsky, p.89, see also A.M. Matin, Introduction to "Heart of Darkness", p. xxvii
  2. ^ Adelman, op cit, p.244
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Panichas, Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision, p.80

External links[edit]