- Under Western Eyes ed. by J.G. Peters
The Broadview edition of Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, edited by J.G. Peters is a complete edition of the novel in a compact and reasonably priced format which can be recommended to all readers of Conrad for its well-chosen bibliography, historical references and photographs—the edition also includes some helpful primary documents written by Russian revolutionaries and not included in other editions of the novel—but should be read above all for its excellent critical introduction. In his examination of the novel’s apparently complex structure. Mr. Peters considers the positive effects of Conrad’s narrative methodology: “The benefit of the choice to use the teacher of languages to relate Razumov’s experience instead of using Razumov’s own words (except in a few isolated instances) is that Conrad is able to present Razumov’s experience filtered through the conscience of the narrator, thus giving readers the perspective of both Razumov and the narrator.” (23–24) In Mr. Peter’s view, Conrad’s simultaneous presentation of the dissimilar perspectives of Razumov and of the Teacher of Languages contributes to the veracity of the narration and also, as strange as it may seem, to the impression of unity which the narrative gives the reader. Quoting a letter written by Conrad in March of 1909 to Henry-Durand Davray in which he assures Mr. Davray that the novel “is written very much from an English point of view,” Mr. Peters underlines the appropriate nature of the book’s title Under Western Eyes to represent the unity of its composition. (24) The critical introduction also documents the fidelity of Conrad to history as well as the full range and complexity of the Eastern and Western political implications which were woven into the narration. The analysis of the wealth of background details in the novel leads us to a deeper understanding of why Conrad struggled with the writing of Under Western Eyes as he had done with no other novel.
In a necessarily brief but well documented discussion of Russian autocracy, Mr. Peters gives an insightful account of how the absolutist positions of Tsar Alexander I (1775 -1825) and Tsar Nicholas I who reigned until 1855 were out of harmony both with the democratic reforms which were taking place in Europe in the nineteenth century and out of touch as well with the desires of the Russian people for freedom. In Under Western Eyes, Conrad describes the schema of a powerfully centralized but bureaucratically corrupt Russian central government which is in conflict with the anarchists who attempt to overthrow it, a schema which had been repeated with systemic variations in Russia throughout the nineteenth century. Internal resistance to Russian authority [End Page 145] actually increased after the country’s defeat in the Crimean War and again in 1881 after the assassination by the anarchists of Tsar Nicholas II. The Socialist Revolutionary Party carried out several other assassinations, notably the political murder of the Minister of the Interior in 1904, from which Conrad borrowed significant details for his account of the assassination of Mr. de P—in the novel. Conrad deliberately chose to portray a moment in the history of Russia when ideological differences had created political divisions which could no longer be breached. The scene was set for Conrad’s tragedy of cascading betrayals which would ensnare the Haldins, Razumov and ultimately, the Teacher of Languages, who protested vehemently that the story was not his to tell because he had no relation to it—or to anything Russian. Did the Teacher of Languages perhaps feel from the outset that the telling of the story itself was a form of betrayal? [End Page 146]
ANNE LUYAT is Professor of English at Université d’Avignon. She is author of a number of articles on Conrad and other twentieth-century authors (in both English and French) and is translator of Jacques Darras’s Les Signes del’empire (Joseph Conrad and the West 1982). She edited, with...