Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes is a deeply cynical look at revolution in the early twentieth century. Hardly a chapter passes without one narrators of this book making a pointed observation about dilettantes or poseurs or the naive. And since this book was published in 1911, a lot of these remarks about revolution seem strangely prescient in light of what happened in Russia only a few years later. For example, Conrad writes:
The last thing I want to tell you is this: in a real revolution…the best characters do not come to the front. A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and tyrannical hypocrites at first. Afterwards comes the turn of all the pretentious intellectual failures of the time…The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement–but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims. (Part Second, Chapter III*)
The novel revolves around the unfortunate protagonist, Kirylo Razumov, who finds himself tangled up with would be revolutionaries after a bomb-wielding murderer decides that Razumov would be the perfect person to shelter him after blowing up a judge.
Just the fact that Haldin chose Razumov to provide a refuge implicates Razumov in the eyes of the authorities, even though Razumov never involved himself in revolutionary activities. He’s an average student. His greatest ambition is to win an essay competition and, hopefully, a government post. He has no family to help advance him, so he’s pretty much up a creek when Haldin shows up. There’s something about Razumov that invites people to share their secrets and ideas. It drives Razumov nuts, to be frank. Haldin asks Razumov to help him escape the city. Razumov tries, but the man Haldin hoped would drive him away turns out to be a fall down drunk. Anxiety drives Razumov to his only option: turning Haldin in. It’s the right thing to do, but Razumov tortures himself with feelings of guilt and worries to distraction about being arrested in spite of everything.
Instead of being arrested, however, the police draw Razumov into their plots and send him abroad to spy on revolutionaries in Germany and Switzerland. Razumov fetches up in Geneva, where Haldin’s sister and mother now live. He has extraordinary luck in his new job. Because he is reserved and remains silent while the revolutionaries rant and bluster, his targets think that Razumov is a man of action, not words. They fill in the blanks with what they want to believe about him. As I read, it occurred to me that Razumov wouldn’t last five minutes trying to infiltrate a terrorist organization in our time.
Razumov manages to pull his mission mostly because of the idiocy of his targets. In the end, he is undone by his own sense of guilt once he meets Haldin’s sister. She’s a forthright young woman, easily one of the best people in this book. He can’t bear to lie to her. In the end, he confesses everything–not just to Miss Haldin–but also to the revolutionaries he was spying on. This goes about as well as you’d expect, and Razumov ends up a deaf cripple.
Under Western Eyes ends in an emotional tangle. There are no winners or losers. There’s a clear sense of life–and the revolution–carrying on after Razumov is injured and Miss Haldin returns to Russia. It’s really the only way that this book could end, after all the cynicism and observations that that revolutionaries don’t accomplish much for all their talking. In the end, Razumov and all the other characters are just pawns on the board.
* I read the Project Gutenberg edition, so the page numbers change depending on font size, screen orientation, etc.