Under Western Eyes was written during a time when Joseph Conrad was making great strides forward in his achievement as a writer but was not yet receiving widespread attention. When it was first released, the novel was criticized for its remote and somber subject matter, which took Conrad further away from general public reception, especially since it followed so closely on the heels of Nostromo (1904) and The Secret Agent (1907), two other books that had garnered much critical acclaim but little public reception. Since then, critical reception of the novel has developed to the point where the novel is now considered to be one of Conrad’s greatest achievements.
One of Conrad’s aims in writing the book was to attempt to make the Russian character comprehensible to a Western reader, whose only prior experience with Russian themes, perhaps in a cheap novel or popular magazine, might have created a stereotyped impression. The novel is a terrible indictment of Russia, suggesting that Conrad may have been moved to write about what he saw as the truth of the Russian mind-set, which differed little before and after the revolution. Critics have noted the Dostoevskian nature of the novel, but it must be noted that Conrad detested Fyodor Dostoevski, so the novel may be considered a reaction against Dostoevski rather than a tribute to him.
Appearances and their deceptive nature are important themes in the book. Razumov’s quiet and solitary nature leads his fellow students to assume that he is a deep thinker, a strong character, and politically committed, while in reality he is none of these. He is more of a blank page on which others project their hopes, desires, and emotions. Haldin comes to Razumov because of his confidence in Razumov’s character. He is the first of many characters to misperceive the actual nature of Razumov’s character. Haldin is also blind to the true nature of many other things. He misperceives the nature of Ziemianitch and the inhabitants of the inn where he resides. When Razumov actually goes to the inn and comes upon the people Haldin described so glowingly, only to find them all shabby and drunk, this provides a humorous, ironic counterpoint. Even when Razumov tries to explain himself to Haldin after the betrayal is arranged, Haldin never truly understands what Razumov is trying to tell him and goes to his death still blind to Razumov’s character. He continually misinterprets Razumov’s actions, emotions, and expressions as...
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