The Lesser Conrad: Notes on Under Western Eyes

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revisits one of Joseph Conrad’s less celebrated masterpieces

The narrative style of Joseph Conrad’s 1911 novel Under Western Eyes is unusual. The narrator is not quite an omniscient third-person narrator (certainly, there is much he doesn’t know, as he keeps reminding us); nor is he a first-person narrator recounting things from his perspective (he wasn’t there any more than we were); nor is he merely the frame device for introducing the ‘found’ text of the protagonist Razumov’s account of the events, since he insists on mediating throughout, and won’t merely hand over the account of what happened fully to us. Nor does Razumov recount the events of the novel to us in the form of a verbal tale, as Marlow does with Conrad’s earlier novella, Heart of Darkness (1899). In short, Under Western Eyes has an odd narrative premise.

Under Western Eyes begins with the narrator admitting that he does not possess the necessary powers to convey the personality of Razumov, the novel’s chief subject – that he lacks, in other words, the ability to tell the story he’s about to tell. This is an odd way to begin a novel, a bit like an actor beginning a play with the awkward confession that he can’t actually act very well. Thus from the beginning the novel posits language as a barrier to comprehension, rather than an aid to it:

If I have ever had these gifts in any sort of living form they have been smothered out of existence a long time ago under a wilderness of words. Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality. I have been for many years a teacher of languages. It is an occupation which at length becomes fatal to whatever share of imagination, observation, and insight an ordinary person may be heir to. To a teacher of languages there comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot.

‘Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality’: this sentiment could almost be a shorthand for Joseph Conrad’s artistic beliefs, something we see in Marlow’s lack of faith in his own abilities as a storyteller in Heart of Darkness, his distrust of the idea that it’s at all possible for one human being to convey their own experiences to another via language in a way that does not distort, or sell short, those experiences.

But in Under Western Eyes, there’s another problem, as the excerpt above testifies. In an almost ironic turn, the narrator’s ability to use language as a means of communicating meaning has been dulled by his habitual use of language, his everyday efforts to explain and teach language. Practice makes perfect? Not here it doesn’t. What should make him more adept at using language has actually only succeeded in making him even more acutely aware of how inadequate a tool language is to convey reality. Or, should we say, languages, plural: after all, this is an international novel, and Conrad is setting us up for the international theme (a Russian spy in Switzerland, whose story will be told by an Englishman). Languages are the problem, rather than language, per se.

Under Western Eyes has often been analysed and interpreted as a response to, and critique of, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), that great Russian novel in which a Russian student, Raskolnikov (compare Razumov?) commits a murder. One of the salient links between the two novels is the concept of the confession: both novels are about characters confessing something. Conrad’s novel takes this confessional motif to new lengths, however, by making Under Western Eyes a complex network of different confessions: there is Razumov’s diary (a diary is, often, a form of private confession), which itself contains Haldin’s confession about assassinating a political figure, but there are other confessions, both written and verbal, within the novel, such as Peter Ivanovitch’s. The genre of the ‘confession’ was a central one for Conrad’s art: see his little-known 1917 short story ‘The Tale’, which features a ship’s captain confessing how he sent to certain death the crew of a whole boat during the First World War, and we can see Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1899) as Marlow’s confessing, rather than merely recounting, his experiences in the Belgian Congo (notably how he lies to Kurtz’s ‘Intended’ at the end of that book). One of Conrad’s later books, the 1915 novella The Shadow-Line, is even subtitled A Confession.

Why might Conrad have been drawn to this confessional form for so much of his fiction? For one, ‘confessional’ texts imply a sense of secrecy, something which ought to have remained secret but has been finally revealed, a sense of the personal, that we as readers are being confided in. Razumov’s confessions come to us at one remove through the narrator of the novel, and he is arguably kept at arm’s length throughout. The novel thus has confessional elements, but lacks that sense of the personal and direct which we expect from true confessions, just as Marlow’s confession in Heart of Darkness comes at us at one remove, through the unnamed primary narrator’s account.

Under Western Eyes prompts us to ask difficult questions – difficult not least because the answers that spring to mind are by no means straightforward. Conrad loved using plot developments and character traits as tropes or symbols which were part of his novels’ wider themes and subjects. Eyes and hands are also particularly important in Conrad’s fiction, and especially in Under Western Eyes (whose title even puts the eyes at the centre of things). This is partly because the written and spoken word has become so unreliable, and so non-verbal or non-written communication – especially if it is unconscious – becomes important as a means of detecting and decoding meaning.

What is Under Western Eyes about, and what does the title tell us? It’s about events in Russia and Geneva, about Russians, but seen through other people’s eyes, outsiders’ eyes, ‘under western eyes’. But whose eyes? The narrator’s (a teacher of languages); Conrad (Polish, but westernised by joining the British navy and living in England); the original readers (this is pre-Russian revolution); us, the modern readers. Under Western Eyes is told through the eyes of the English teacher; thus he acts as mediator between the (principally British) reader and the Russian characters (Razumov, but also the revolutionaries such as Haldin). This mediation is important here, as it is in Conrad’s other fiction.

Whilst we are encouraged to contrast the English narrator with the Russian Razumov, the two are more alike than we might at first think: Razumov is described early on as having a ‘frigid English manner’; Haldin calls him ‘a regular Englishman’. Both men are loners – not family men, but bachelors. Razumov writes one narrative (the diary) which forms a smaller part of the main narrative provided by the unnamed narrator. So we stand in the same relation to the narrator as he stands to Razumov, in one sense. These are the kinds of textual and meta-textual games Conrad plays in Under Western Eyes – a novel that shows his penchant for epistemological doubt and his suspicion of political and linguistic simplicity. This makes it a challenging novel to read, but one that lends itself to detailed analysis. Whilst not as famous as Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, or The Secret Agent, it deserves to be read and discussed.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

1 thought on “The Lesser Conrad: Notes on Under Western Eyes”

  1. I’ve always admired and enjoyed the complexity of Conrad’s narrative structures, and the shifting perspectives they offer; you bring them out well in your piece.


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