Under Western Eyes – a novel
All a man can betray is his conscience. Joseph Conrad.
Narrated in Joseph Conrad’s rather turgid Victorian prose, this novel tells the story of Razumov, a young Russian student of philosophy who is caught up in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing attack. His conscience and ambition go to war with each other and he ends up being sent to Geneva as a spy for the Tsarist authorities.
Conrad leads the reader to confront the same moral issues as his hero: the defensibility of terrorist resistance to tyranny, the loss of individual privacy in a surveillance society, and the demands thrown up by citizenship and the defence of rulers that are not necessarily working for the best interests of their people.
The narrator of the novel is an elderly Englishman who meets Razumov personally a couple of times, who hears rumours about him, listens to personal anecdotes, and also has access to the man’s journals. From these informations he constructs a portrait of the man, but we are never sure how much of the portrait is factual and how much is imagined by the narrator. Which parts of our troubled hero are authentic and which parts are constructs observed under Western eyes.
Published in 1911 but with subject matter that is still current, Under Western Eyes is a novel of actions and consequences, conscience and betrayal.