Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 369
Two of the important themes show the contradictions that Joseph Conrad explores in the novel. The first is patriotism, which provides much of Kirylo Razumov’s motivation for turning in Victor Haldin. The second is loyalty, which offers the countervailing force that almost supports Razumov to help Haldin escape. The tension between Razumov’s feelings for his country—which then places him in an untenable position—and his fellow student—which he decides are indefensible—create the ethical and moral dilemma at the novel’s heart. Another key theme is the importance of compassion and humanity. This is borne out by Tekla and others who take pity on Razumov and help him survive.
While Razumov seems unique in his position as an illegitimate semi-orphan, Joseph Conrad positions him as rather typical of young Russians of his time. Razumov believes in the life of the mind and is devoted to his studies. Although he socializes with fellow students, he tries to remain aloof from politics. Although he is not wealthy and he can see the need for social reform, he chooses moderation. Circumstances are such, however, that he is forced to take sides; both his own personal safety and his politics require him to abandon Victor. But being a straightforward person, he is unprepared for the cost of loyalty to the Crown. What he imagined was a single decision, to put aside his own affection for another young man, is now expected to be his general mode of operation: to infiltrate a group and betray any of its members.
As he gets to know and then love Nathalie, Razumov realizes that he is temperamentally unsuited for espionage. Because he is fundamentally an open and honest person, he later feels compelled to tell Nathalie about his real involvement in her brother’s death. His own sense of humanity undergirds his feeling that she and her mother deserve to know the truth. After he is injured so severely he cannot walk, several revolutionaries decide that compassion for him as a human being is more important than their political convictions. Tekla takes it upon herself to care for him, setting aside the revolutionary commitment that had drawn her to work with Peter Ivanovitch.