Sunday, November 23, 2008

Under Western Eyes: Conrad's moral dilemma

Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes is one of his three political novels, the others being The Secret Agent and Nostromo. The Secret Agent is based on a real event, an attempt to blow up the observatory at Greenwich, England, while Nostromo takes place during one of many revolutions in a mythical South American country. The focal point for all three is an attempt to eventually overthrow a government.

However, the three are quite different in concept. Nostromo concerns itself with events during an armed insurrection against a government, which is in power as the result of an earlier insurrection which overthrew the previous government and so on.

The Secret Agent, on the other hand, is set in England. A foreign government, which appears to be Russia, attempts to influence the English government to rescind its policy of being a safe haven for those suspected of terrorist acts against other governments. One of the foreign government's tactics is the use of an agent provocateur to encourage the terrorists to become active in England and thereby eliminate England's tolerance of them.

The third novel, Under Western Eyes, is a two part work. Part One is set in Tsarist Russia, while the Second Part takes place in Geneva, Switzerland, less than a decade prior to the Russian Revolution. The first part centers on a common theme found in many works. I'm sure most readers have encountered a story or a film in which one or more characters have been captured by the enemy and are faced with torture or execution unless they provide what information they have about their comrades.

I suspect that most people would argue that the individual should not give the information even though it meant torture or death, or at least hold out as long as possible. And, I think most would agree that this would be the ideal way for the individual to act, while also recognizing how easy it is to hold to this position when one is not in that position. In any case, the preferred behavior would be to withhold any information that would be harmful to one's cause, even if faced with torture or death.

Conrad, however, varies this theme in a way that makes it difficult, for me at least, to decide which is the appropriate action in this situation. The story is set in St. Petersburg, less than a decade before the Russian revolution. Razumov, the main character, is a student at the university in St. Petersburg. Conrad describes him as follows:

"In discussion he was easily swayed by argument and authority. With his younger compatriots he took the attitude of an inscrutable listener, a listener of the kind that hears you out intelligently and then - just changes the subject.

This sort of trick, which may arise either from intellectual insufficiency or from a imperfect trust in one's own convictions, procured for Mr. Razumov a reputation of profundity...By his comrades...Razumov...was looked upon as a strong nature - an altogether trustworthy man. This, in a country where an opinion may be a legal crime visited by death...meant that he was worthy of being trusted with forbidden opinions. He was liked also for his amiability and for his quiet readiness to oblige his comrades even at the cost of personal inconvenience."

It is this misconception of Razumov that leads almost inevitably to the events that follow. Razumov is seen as one who sympathizes with those opposed to the Tsarist regime and can be trusted. In truth, Razumov has no sympathy for the rebels and is simply one who wants to be left alone so he can finish his studies, gain his degree, and obtain a decent position, probably as a civil servant in that same government.

Although not a close friend, Victor Haldin is acquainted with Razumov and considers him an ally in his struggle against the government. Consequently, when Haldin and another assassinate a high ranking government minister, Haldin goes to Razumov's apartment. He asks Razumov to do two things: first is to allow him to stay there for a few hours and secondly, to contact the man who will help Haldin escape and give him information about when and where to meet later that night.

Razumov is appalled. Here is a man who has just killed a high-ranking government official, two servants of that official, and several innocent bystanders who had come to help after the first bomb had exploded and were killed or injured by the second bomb.

He sees only two possible courses of action: help Haldin or turn him in to the authorities, which would most certainly result in Haldin's execution.

Should he help him? This would certainly make him an accomplice in the death of several individuals. But, on the other hand, could he turn in someone he had known and who had come to him expecting his help? It wasn't his cause, but isn't this a betrayal?

Should he turn him in to the authorities? He didn't believe in Haldin's cause, so he wasn't betraying his comrades or the cause. Haldin had appeared on his own and not because Razumov had promised to help him. Razumov hadn't even been aware of the plot.

Haldin had murdered several people, some of whom were not guilty of being part of an oppressive government. Suppose Haldin had killed several people in the course of a robbery. Would that now make it more acceptable to inform the authorities? In both cases, innocent people had died. Was it more acceptable to kill them for a cause than for money?

There is something else to be considered. If Razumov helps Haldin escape and the government finds out, then Razumov will be considered an accomplice in the plot and most likely will be executed for something he not only wasn't involved in but actually was opposed to. On the other hand, if he goes to the government, they might wonder why Haldin came to him in the first place. Even if this doesn't happen, the government now becomes aware of Razumov, something which one definitely would not want to happen, especially if it's an oppressive government.

Razumov certainly seems to be doomed, whatever he does.

Highly recommended.


  1. You say "although not a close friend", so I don't see Razamov's great dilema. I haven't read this book, so I'm only going on what you've written here. There's probably more to it than that.

  2. Cheryl,

    Haldin wasn't a close friend of Razumov, but he knew Razumov and obviously trusted him.

    That's of course the problem; I can't put you in Razumov's head as Conrad does.

    In one sense, Razumov, by not expressing his own opinions, misled Haldin and other students, all of whom were opposed to the Tsarist government. They all thought he was sympathetic to their cause, when in actuality, he really wasn't.

    However, when Haldin appears and shows he trusts Razumov, that placed a burden on Razumov. One likes to be liked, and betraying someone who trusts you is not easy to do. Moreover, the result in this situation would be far more serious than simply disappointing someone, it would be a death sentence.

    If you are interested, I could tell you a bit more about the book.

    In any case, I definitely recommend reading it.

    November 24, 2008 6:46 AM

  3. This book sounds interesting. I noticed you mentioned reading "The Secret Agent", which is one of my favorites. If "Under Western Eyes" is anything like that book, it'll be worth reading. Do you have to know alot of Russian history to be able to read it and understand all the author intends?

  4. Cheryl,

    My four favorite novels by Conrad are _Secret Agent_, _Under Western Eyes_, _Nostromo_, and _Heart of Darkness_.

    No, an extensive familiarity with Russian history wouldn't be necessary. One should have a general knowledge, though, of the conflict at that time between the Tsarist government and those wishing to bring about change. Some texts might have a decent introduction that would spell out what one should know to get a good idea of background for the novel.

    If you liked _Secret Agent_, I think you will like this one.