Under Western Eyes

by Joseph Conrad

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Critical Evaluation

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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 being favorable, instead of the threats to him that they actually represent.

Haldin is the victim of his own vision, which blinds him to reality. Razumov and even Ziemianitch become victims of Haldin’s ideas, as do Nathalie and her mother, who come to believe his deed not worth the sacrifice. Razumov, ironically, does come to accept that Haldin’s goal—revolution—is the way of the future. He, however, cannot bring himself to adopt a cause or to lose himself in a communal effort. Razumov, unlike the revolutionists, is a man without illusions. He is condemned by his lack of illusions to remain cut off from life. Razumov even comes to embrace this isolation, since to be alone is to be free of others’ misinterpretations of one’s conduct and, especially, of one’s words. Razumov illustrates Conrad’s idea of the dangers of nonsolidarity.

Coupled with the idea of the nature of appearances, another major theme in the novel is the power of words, for destructive and for constructive purposes. For the narrator, the most striking feature of the Russian national character is its loquacity. Razumov’s habit of silence sets him apart and causes his fellow students to...

(This entire section contains 1021 words.)

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consider him “a strong nature—and altogether trustworthy man,” a man to whom Haldin unhesitatingly and wrongly entrusts his life.

In the novel, words are either incomprehensible or deliberately concealing. For example, the narrator can never quite grasp what Nathalie means when she talks of ideas, because their “enigmatical prolongations vanish somewhere beyond my reach.” For the Russian, silence is dangerous—something Haldin never realizes when placing his trust in Razumov.

Razumov comes to know the awful power of words: “words . . . are the great foes of reality.” He notes, “Speech has been given to us for the purpose of concealing our thoughts.” Early in the novel, Razumov takes great delight in “deceiving people out of their own mouths,” as he takes people’s words and uses them in continuing his deception. He is always misinterpreted and begins to take a perverse delight in fostering this, putting it to his own use. Razumov, continually on the verge of confession, is clearly a poor candidate for a life of intrigue, which makes it strange that the astute Mikulin did not observe this. In his confrontations with the revolutionaries in Geneva, Razumov is compelled to play dangerously with lies and double meanings. He is still under the suspicion that he is being watched and judged and is seized by a spirit of perversity that, together with his hatred of lying and deception, causes him to confess, as he had earlier been driven to confess to Haldin.

Ultimately, his confession to the revolutionaries is motivated by a wish to “escape from the prison of lies.” In escaping from lies, Razumov escapes from words. Razumov thinks that silence and invisibility are things to be envied: “The people that are neither seen nor heard are the lucky ones—in Russia,” he tells Nathalie. What makes Haldin’s crime so unforgivable to Razumov is that “he went around talking of me,” thus creating the suspicion in the minds of the police and his fellow students that he had something to do with the assassination plot.

Razumov’s habit of silence is a cause of his original misunderstanding with Haldin and, much later, it is Mrs. Haldin’s silence during Razumov’s interview with her that is a precipitating factor in his confession to Nathalie. Razumov’s silence ultimately destroys him. Ironically, his power lies in silence. His taciturnity inspires confidence. His silence also leads to the misinterpretations of his character that lead to his downfall.