Joseph Conrad’s historical novel, Under Western Eyes
(1911), is considered Conrad’s thematic response to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment
(1866). Critics consider the book one of Conrad’s finest pieces of literature and a companion to another one of his novels, The Secret Agent
In Part First, an English teacher in Geneva narrates the personal record of Kyrilo Sidorovitch Razumov, a university student in St. Petersburg in the early 1910s. As he never knew his parents, Razumov holds no family connections. Although revolutionary ideas are swirling in the air, he takes no part in them, aims for a middle-class life, and considers Russia his family.
Meanwhile, the savage Minister of State Mr. de P is assassinated by a pair of terrorists, although the bomb also kills the minister’s footman, one of the terrorists, and several people nearby. Razumov enters his apartment to find a fellow student, Victor Haldin, claiming it was he who murdered the minister. Haldin’s escape plan was faulty and he asks Razumov for help, who reluctantly agrees. Haldin asks him to find Ziemiantich, who was supposed to lend his assistance in the escape.
Razumov is not pleased with his new predicament. He doesn’t sympathize with Haldin’s cause, which only reminds him of his social isolation. He is also worried that the authorities will find him and prosecute him just for his proximity to Haldin. After he finds Ziemiantich, he decides to betray Haldin out of self-preservation. He informs the chief of police and Haldin is captured later that night. Later, Privy Councillor Mikulin summons Razumov to police headquarters. There, Razumov learns that Haldin was interrogated, sentenced, and executed in one day without naming Razumov as an accomplice. Still, Mikulin is interested in what Razumov is up to.
In Part Second, the narrative switches to Haldin’s sister Natalia who lives in Zurich. There, she and her mother await Haldin’s arrival. When the narrator explains to them what happened to Haldin based on a newspaper story, Natalia takes the news calmly, but her mother is distraught. Local revolutionary leader Peter Ivanovitch attempts to recruit Natalia, but she is not interested. She does, however, learn that Razumov is coming to Geneva. She has heard Haldin talk about him and is interested to meet him. Natalia goes to the decaying Chateau Borel, home of Madame de S and her abused partner Tekla, who is also Peter’s secretary. Tekla reveals her life story. Afterward, they meet Peter and Razumov. Though Natalia is excited to meet Razumov, he feels guilty and compassionate toward her. Peter leaves and Tekla mistakes Razumov’s stoicism, a result of his discomfort with the situation, with passionate loyalty to the revolutionary cause. She pledges her help to him at whatever cost.
In Part Third, the narrative wheels back to a few weeks prior as Razumov makes his way to Geneva. In Zurich, he stays with Sophia Antonovna, Peter’s second in command. Back in Geneva, Razumov takes walks with Natalia, during which she develops a trusting relationship with him. She inquires about her brother’s final hours, to which Razumov offers indefinite answers. He is invited to the Chateau Borel and received by Madame de S and Peter, who think that Razumov worked in tandem with Haldin. In actuality, Razumov is a spy working for the Russian government. Everyone interprets Razumov’s reserve differently; some think he is devoted, others think he is hiding something. His first assignment is to bring Natalia to Peter, who prefers female followers. Razumov learns from Sophia Antonovna that Ziemiantich killed himself, leading everyone to believe it was he who betrayed Haldin.
Part Fourth returns to Razumov at the police headquarters with Mikulin. Mikulin recruits Razumov after further interviews to be a secret agent for the Czarist government in service to the Russian empire.
Back in Geneva, Razumov writes his first report to Mikulin. The narrator, who has been abrasive toward Razumov, sees him on the way to the post office. He goes to Natalia’s apartment, where she tells him she must find Razumov urgently so her mother can talk to the only friend of Haldin’s that they know. When Razumov shows up at the apartment unexpectedly, his comments imply that he was the one who betrayed Haldin.
At his apartment, Razumov writes a record for Natalia confessing his love for her and his disappointment in himself that he betrayed her brother. He mails the letter to Natalia before going to the house of Julius Laspara, another revolutionary who is hosting a party. There, he confesses his betrayal to the group of revolutionaries. They attack him, crushing his eardrums and leaving him deaf. He is later crippled by a tramcar. Tekla finds him and remains with him at the hospital.
Haldin’s mother passes away a few months later. Natalia returns to Russia, dedicating herself to charity work. Tekla takes the now invalid Razumov to the Russian countryside, where she takes care of him.
The first audience of Under Western Eyes
would have read the book after the failed Russian Revolution of 1905, but the second read it after the successful revolutions of 1917. In this regard, the book is fundamentally tied to early twentieth-century Russian and Soviet history. The book was adapted into a film in 1936, an opera in 1969, and a stage play in 2018.