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Under Western Eyes

English Review, North American Review, Crime and Punishment

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Treā€Taliesin Cardiganshire to Hilda Vaughan Biography

a novel by Joseph Conrad, published in 1911 (serialized in the English Review and the North American Review, 191011). The novel is narrated by an unnamed English Teacher of Languages living in Geneva, who is privy to the private diaries of Razumov, a student of philosophy in St Petersburg. Haldin, a revolutionary fellow-student and self-confessed political assassin, seeks help from Razumov. Questions of loyalty to the Czarist Russian state and the mixed motives of self-interest vie with Razumov's conscience. His betrayal of Haldin to the authorities and his subsequent interrogation with the head of counter-espionage, the cynical Councillor Mikulin, result in Razumov's despatch as state informant to Geneva, where he is welcomed as Haldin's brave collaborator by a group of Russian revolutionaries-in-exile. Razumov's involvement with the deception of this group, his growing sense of cynicism and non-identity, his developing affection for Haldin's innocently idealistic sister, Natalia, and his conversations with co-revolutionary Sophia Antonovna force upon him a despairing guilt and self-recognition, and he confesses his complicity. Torture and brutal deafening conclude Razumov's story but paradoxically his self-exposure signals a spiritual self-redemption. Complexities of narrative form—radical chronological disruptions, ironic juxtapositions of scene between Russia and Geneva, unsignalled shifting sources of narrative focus and information (letters, diaries, conversations heard and imagined)—contribute to the reader's sense of the unreliable interpretability of the world. ‘Truth-telling’, ‘trust’, ‘vision’, ‘loyalty’: all fall subject to a testing Conradian sceptical irony. This irony also embraces the often naïvely pompous Western European liberal democratic Teacher of Languages whose function as imaginative composer and interpellator helps highlight the self-reflective modernist concern for the nature of language: ‘Words are the great foes of reality’. Conrad's equivocal attitude to revolutionary alternatives to the evil Russian autocracy is reflected in the range of motives, self-deceptions, and moral qualities enjoyed by the revolutionary exiles. Their leader, Peter Ivanovitch, has mystic ‘feminist’ revolutionary ideas, but these sit ill with his exploitation of his idealistic secretary and serving-woman Tekla, and of his financial patron and bourgeois salon-revolutionary Madame de S—. His radical henchman, Nikita, Razumov's torturer, turns out to be another Czarist secret agent. But Natalia's burning revolutionary utopianism and her compassion for Razumov, and Sophia Antonovna's undiminished resilience, escape Conrad's pessimistic scorn. Stylistic innovation matches the intricacies of political and psychological theme to produce a work frequently compared (indeed indebted) to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment for its profound treatment of identity, betrayal, social morality, and self-confession.

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