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Under Western Eyes (1910) is a tale of two cities?St. Petersburg and Geneva?and of political and moral revolutions. It is one of Joseph Conrad?s most suspenseful works and his most politically and psychologically insightful. Set in 1904, it opens with an act Conrad calls ?characteristic of modern Russia?: the assassination of a high official of the autocratic tsarist regime. Under Western Eyes probes deeply into that repressive society where unremitting tyranny provokes revolutionary terrorism. Published ...
Under Western Eyes (1910) is a tale of two cities—St. Petersburg and Geneva—and of political and moral revolutions. It is one of Joseph Conrad’s most suspenseful works and his most politically and psychologically insightful. Set in 1904, it opens with an act Conrad calls “characteristic of modern Russia”: the assassination of a high official of the autocratic tsarist regime. Under Western Eyes probes deeply into that repressive society where unremitting tyranny provokes revolutionary terrorism. Published five years after Russia’s abortive 1905 Revolution, the novel clearly anticipates the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
Under Western Eyes (1910) is a tale of two cities—St. Petersburg and Geneva—and of political and moral revolutions. One of Joseph Conrad’s most suspenseful works, it is politically and psychologically insightful. The novel, set around 1904, opens with an act Conrad calls “characteristic of modern Russia”: the assassination of a high official of the autocratic tsarist regime. Under Western Eyes probes deeply into that repressive society where unremitting tyranny provokes revolutionary terrorism. Published five years after Russia’s abortive 1905 Revolution, the novel clearly anticipates the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, an event that deeply marked the twentieth century.
Unlike many of Conrad’s novels, Under Western Eyes is not based on incidents from his own life, although it is deeply influenced by his Polish background. He was born Józef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski in 1857 into a family of minor nobility in Russian-occupied Poland. His father was both a literary man and a leader of the Polish struggle for independence whose anti-Russian activities led to the family’s exile to northern Russia, where harsh conditions caused the death of his mother when Conrad was seven. His father died four years later and Conrad’s maternal uncle took him in and saw to his education.
Prompted by a longing for adventure and a desire to avoid service in the tsarist army, at seventeen Conrad left Poland for France to become a seaman. After four years in France, partly at sea and partly in the port of Marseilles, he joined a British ship and spent the next sixteen years in the British merchant marine. It was only then—at the age of twenty-one—that Conrad learned the English language in which he was to become a literary master. By twenty-nine he was a captain.
Three years later, in 1889, Conrad began his first novel, Almayer’s Folly (published in 1895). Eventually wearying of the sailor’s hard life, he gave up the sea entirely in 1894 and devoted himself to literature. Among his fourteen novels and scores of novellas, short stories, and essays, are Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Victory. Joseph Conrad died in 1924. He saw himself as “homo duplex,” the two-fold man: Pole and Englishman, Slav and Westerner, sailor and writer.
Conrad intended Under Western Eyes to probe “the very soul of things Russian.” While his analysis was always controversial, many observers of Russia then and now believe that he brilliantly interpreted the psychology of that Eastern autocracy for readers in the West. It was not a hopeful vision. Conrad focused on:
the moral corruption of an oppressed society where the noblest aspirations of humanity, the desire of freedom, an ardent patriotism, the love of justice, the sense of pity, and even the fidelity of simple minds are prostituted to the lusts of hate and fear, the inseparable companions of an uneasy despotism.
Fidelity and its opposite, betrayal, are prevalent themes in Conrad’s fiction. (There are over four hundred acts of betrayal in Conrad’s works.) In Under Western Eyes, the main character, Razumov, one of Conrad’s truly brilliant creations, finds his initial act of betrayal compounded by another and the possibility of a third. It is this tightly controlled Russian society, described by Churchill a generation later as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” that Conrad demystified for the West.
At the time he was writing Under Western Eyes, Russia was in crisis. Various socialist, nihilist, and anarchist groups conspired against the tsarist regime beginning in 1880. This movement of “revolutionary populism” comprised many unrelated groups, each with its own program. Virtually all the revolutionaries were members of the intelligentsia. In this novel, several of the revolutionaries safely domiciled in Geneva recapitulate those in The Secret Agent (an earlier Conrad novel set among revolutionaries that find sanctuary in another liberal democracy, England). Conrad’s fictional characters are based on actual Russian exiles like Mikhail Bakunin, Prince Peter Kropotkin, and especially Vladimir Lenin, who founded his revolutionary newspaper Iskra (The Spark) in Switzerland in 1900.
The Russian secret police, the Okhrana, repressed the revolutionary factions with exile, torture, and summary executions. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II by a bomb in 1881 and several subsequent political assassinations led the regime of Tsar Nicholas II to intensify the repression. It is against this backdrop that Conrad sets the events of Under Western Eyes. He cited the 1904 assassination of the hated Minister of the Interior, Vyacheslav von Plehve, as the inspiration for this novel.
Conrad had written about Russia before. In an essay titled Autocracy and War, written during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–5, he warned Britain of the aggressive intentions of Russia (which he called “a soulless autocracy” and “a monster”) and Germany.
Writing about Russia was extremely difficult for Conrad. Poland, though a Slavic nation, was an outpost of the Western tradition, and Poles were Roman Catholics rather than Eastern Orthodox. After eight hundred years as an independent nation, Poland had been divided among Russia (which claimed the largest share), Prussia, and Austria at the end of the eighteenth century. As the son of a romantic Polish nationalist who had given his life to the cause of Polish independence, Conrad eventually felt compelled to take on the case of Russia, historic oppressor of Poland and cause of the deaths of his parents. Because the tragedies of Poland and his own family were ever present for Conrad, Under Western Eyes was his most taxing composition and, as he wrote to a friend, his “most deeply meditated novel.”
Conrad detested the Russian autocracy—as much for its impact on the Russian people as on the Poles—but Under Western Eyes shows marked sympathy for the youth of Russia. In an author’s note written in 1920 for a collected edition of his works, Conrad writes of “senseless desperation provoked by senseless tyranny”—a remark that surely describes the bomb-thrower Victor Haldin but also applies to the novel’s principal character, Razumov. In this tumultuous era, Razumov—a man with no home and no family—tries only to carve out a solid career for himself without taking sides. When a desperate predicament is thrust upon him, Razumov (whose name suggests “reason” in Russian) is forced to choose between irreconcilable values.
Although Haldin’s sister, Nathalie, holds the hopeful view that “the future will be merciful to us all,” it is not merciful to Razumov. His attempt to create a life for himself without any of the advantages of family or position is abruptly thwarted when Haldin takes refuge in his room after having successfully assassinated a hated tyrant. But neither Razumov nor other young Russians have any reason to expect a comfortable life when:
Russia is and has been simply the negation of everything worth living for. She is not an empty void, she is a yawning chasm open between East and West; a bottomless abyss that has swallowed up every hope of mercy, every aspiration towards personal dignity, towards freedom, towards knowledge, every ennobling desire of the heart, every redeeming whisper of conscience.
Unable to avoid taking sides, Razumov makes an existential decision that shapes the rest of his life. The consequences of this decision are recorded in his diary, which eventually comes into the hands of the novel’s narrator.
The narrator of Under Western Eyes is both a character in the story and the author’s English mask. As a character, he is a reticent Englishman, a language teacher and solitary bachelor living in Geneva. He had, however, spent his childhood in St. Petersburg and his connections in Geneva are largely with the colony of Russian exiles. As Conrad’s mask, the language teacher is a man of the West who denies having any special insight into the Russian soul, which he finds altogether too cynical for his comprehension. Still, he provides Western eyes with a narrow window into the East.
The narrator is quite friendly with Haldin’s mother and sister, Nathalie (both of whom prudently left Russia before the assassination attempt). Although he will not admit to it, the language teacher’s affection for Nathalie goes beyond that of a teacher for a favorite pupil. He is also somewhat acquainted with the revolutionary cell centered on the Chateau de Borel. The Geneva entries in Razumov’s diary deal with Nathalie and with the revolutionaries.
The frame story in Under Western Eyes is looser than his novels Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. The language teacher can relate events he does not observe himself because he has Razumov’s diary. However, the narrator’s position in the novel is not stable. He does not at first tell us all that he knows, and eventually he tells us things he has no way of knowing.
The narrator’s excuse for keeping the reader in suspense is that “certain proprieties [are] to be observed for the sake of clearness and effect.” These allow him to conceal from the reader in part 2 and most of part 3 crucial information that he must know since he has already read Razumov’s diary. He also has knowledge of events or people’s thoughts that he could neither have observed personally nor found in the diary. For example, he knows what Razumov’s fellow students think of him and the details of events that occurred after the completion of the diary.
The narrator eventually learns how the principal characters are faring several years after the main action. Their fates strain credulity. It is just possible to imagine that the exiled revolutionaries might enter Russia from time to time, and it is even possible to imagine that they would find it worthwhile to visit Razumov, who has finally found his way into a community there. It is, however, hardly possible to believe that the most notorious revolutionary leader could be living in Russia, openly and unmolested.
Many commentators compare Under Western Eyes to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866). Conrad had read Dostoyevsky and dismissed him as “too Russian for me.” Both Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Razumov in Under Western Eyes are fatherless students with an exaggerated sense of their own superiority. Both have committed what they come to regard as crimes and, after failed attempts at rationalization, are devastated. Both are driven to confession through love; both are saved by women. There are many minor correlations as well. Razumov’s five-point conservative credo is very much in line with Dostoyevsky’s position in later life. Under Western Eyes is, in part, Conrad’s challenge to Dostoyevsky’s “fierce mouthings from prehistoric ages”: Russian nationalism, pan-Slavism, devotion to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, support for tsarist autocracy, and hatred of Poland.
Conrad described his motivation for writing the novel to his agent, James Pinker, as capturing “the very essence of things Russian . The subject has long haunted me. Now it must come out.” Come out it did, but slowly and painfully. Conrad first envisioned this work at the end of 1907 as a short story to be titled “Razumov.” He believed that he would complete it quickly since, as usual, he needed money.
Although he had published fourteen volumes in the twelve years following the publication of his first novel in 1895, Conrad was still far from an established writer. His health was chronically poor and he had to scramble to write magazine stories to support his family. From 1900 on, his finances depended mainly on advances from Pinker. He was under great pressure to finish this work, especially when he decided that the scope of the subject required a novel. He worked on it until January 1910. The novel appeared in several slightly different forms—a British serialization in The English Review and an American serialization in The North American Review (from December 1910 to October 1911) and in book form in both Britain and the United States in October 1911.
Looking back in 1920 in the author’s note, Conrad identified the principal reason for his difficulty:
My greatest anxiety was in being able to strike and sustain the note of scrupulous impartiality. The obligation of absolute fairness was imposed on me historically and hereditarily, by the peculiar experience of race and family . I had never been called before to a greater effort of detachment: detachment from all passions, prejudices, and even from personal memories.
Although he did achieve this objectivity—as Conrad pointed out in his author’s note, “nobody is exhibited as a monster here”—the effort required endless revisions and cost him both physical health and mental equilibrium. Upon completion of the novel, he had a complete breakdown that kept him bedridden for three months. His wife wrote to one of his editors, “Poor Conrad is very ill . There is the M.S. complete but uncorrected and his fierce refusal to let even I touch it. It lays on a table at the foot of his bed and he lives mixed up in the scenes and holds converse with the characters.” During his feverish delirium, she reported, Conrad “mumbled in Polish except for reciting portions of the English burial service as if he were presiding over his own funeral.”
It seems fair to assume that had Conrad not had a breakdown immediately upon completion of the novel, he would have tightened up the narration. However, the few anomalies in no way weaken this exceptionally perceptive work. Ford Maddox Ford, Conrad’s friend and sometime collaborator, considered it his masterpiece. In one of the earliest reviews, Edward Garnett, another friend of Conrad’s, wrote, “Many of [Conrad’s] pages may be placed by the side of notable passages in Turgenev and Dostoyevsky.” Despite the fact that this was a very positive review, Conrad did not appreciate the comparison. In 1920 Conrad wrote in his author’s note of his pleasure in learning that the novel had “found universal recognition in Russia.” Today, Under Western Eyes is generally regarded as one of the great English novels of the twentieth century.
David Greenstein is Director of Continuing Education and Public Programs at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College and wrote his Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University on Joseph Conrad.
IntroductionUnder Western Eyes (1910) is a tale of two cities—St. Petersburg and Geneva—and of political and moral revolutions. One of Joseph Conrad’s most suspenseful works, it is politically and psychologically insightful. The novel, set around 1904, opens with an act Conrad calls “characteristic of modern Russia”: the assassination of a high official of the autocratic tsarist regime. Under Western Eyes probes deeply into that repressive society where unremitting tyranny provokes revolutionary terrorism. Published five years after Russia’s abortive 1905 Revolution, the novel clearly anticipates the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, an event that deeply marked the twentieth century.
Posted March 22, 2000
Under Western Eyes contains the incite and commentary into revolt and human struggle that is usually only found in genuine russian novels of the previous generation. Although Conrad's 'The Secret Agent,' written on a similar theme, was cumbersome, Under Western Eyes has the same style that makes Lord Jim and other stories so enjoyable.
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Posted August 22, 2013
gets into the 'faux' thinking of a potential 'terrorists' brain/thinking
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Posted November 27, 2010
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Posted August 12, 2011
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Posted January 10, 2012
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Posted December 27, 2009
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Posted December 28, 2011
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