Under Western Eyes

by Joseph Conrad

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Under Western Eyes is a novel of Tsarist Russia in which Joseph Conrad uses a personal story to illustrate the limits of political change and the concomitant dangers of blind allegiance to outmoded values, on the one hand, and fanatical commitment to a cause, on the other hand. Kirylo Sidorovich Razumov is not firmly moored into traditional Russian society because he is illegitimate and, he believes, an orphan. In place of the family connections he lacks, Razumov places his allegiance in his country. Although he is far from well-to-do, an anonymous patron provides him with adequate support for him to attend the university, a very privileged position in the nineteenth century. Razumov embraces the idea of his own elite intellectual status. Even the news of the assassination of a government minister, for example, does not deflect him from his studies, which he is confident will lead him into a good position when he graduates.

Razumov, totally detached from political currents, is unprepared to cope when Victor Haldin invades his privacy and basically demands he aid him in getting away with his terrorist act. Razumov is thrust into an ethical dilemma; his patriotism essentially condemns him to behave in ways he never thought possible: he is recruited to do political espionage work for the Tsar’s intelligence services. He had only recently learned his father’s identity and turned to him to help, and now he must pay for that knowledge. Sent away from the university to Switzerland, he is expected to infiltrate a circle of revolutionaries. Despite his willingness to do his patriotic duty, it unnerves him to realize that the people he meets are charming, cultured, and in many ways exemplify the kind of intellectual life to which he had aspired. He must, but finds he cannot, betray people who are much like himself. In particular, he cannot bear lying to Victor’s sister, for whom he develops feelings. Now he has become a traitor to both sides. Nikita, the fanatical “revolutionary” who physically attacks him to avenge Victor’s death, turns out to be an embedded informer.

Razumov is left physically disabled and displaced. He can neither return to his old life nor support himself. The very people he had once betrayed are those who will now take care of him. The example he set by telling the truth actually turned one woman, Tekla, away from the violent cause and awakened her compassion. Although Razumov is a double traitor, Conrad suggests, he became more worthy of support that the supposedly principled revolutionary she had worked for, Peter Ivanovitch.

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