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Joseph Conrad: Under Western Eyes

For Malcolm Bradbury this novel surely is Conrad’s real masterpiece, even though it has obvious imperfections, enough to drive its author to a nervous breakdown after writing it. The novel is set in Russia, a country, like any good Pole, Conrad hated. It tells the story of Razumov, a philosophy student, who unwittingly gets caught up with revolutionary activities and, in particular, with an anarchist, called Haldin. Haldin is arrested and Razumov is brought before the inquisitor, Councillor Mikulin. To save himself, he agrees to spy on émigrés and is sent to Geneva to do so. He meets Haldin’s mother and sister, who are awaiting news of Haldin. Razumov does indeed insinuate himself into the revolutionary groups – and an unpleasant lot they are – but, more particularly, he insinuates himself into the affections of Mrs. and Miss Haldin. Of course, as this is a Conrad book, he has to pay for his crime of betrayal – he confesses and is beaten up.

One immediately thinks of Dostoevsky when reading this novel. The images of the poor student, the oppressive government, revolutionary activities, at least, on the surface, give the book a Dostoevskian flavor. Even the name Razumov, to a Westerner, makes one think of Raskolnikov. However, as the title makes clear, we should look at this book with Western eyes and not with Russian eyes. The book is actually narrated by a Westerner, after the event, using notes, interviews, etc. to piece together the story. He disclaims any ability to fully portray Razumov (Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality.) In other words, this is not a story about revolutionary rights or wrongs (they are all wrong in Conrad’s eyes) but about Conrad’s themes of fate, honor, paying for one’s sins.

Publishing history

First published in 1911 by Methuen