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  • Community, Scapegoating, and Narrative Structure in Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes
  • Paula Martín-Salván (bio)

This paper proposes a reading of Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (1911) along the lines of two key concepts—community and scapegoat. The novel is structured around a pattern of repetition and variation according to which its protagonist, Razumov, temporarily enters a series of communities, only to be expelled from them through scapegoating practices. Under Western Eyes uses a ‘found manuscript’ device to have an English Professor of languages in Geneva tell the story of the student Razumov and his involvement with a revolutionist fellow student, Haldin, who seeks refuge in his room after committing a terrorist attack against a member of the Russian government. Razumov betrays Haldin to the authorities, is recruited by them to work as a spy, and charged to infiltrate the revolutionist circles exiled in Geneva, pretending to be Haldin’s acolyte. Combining sections from Razumov’s diary, extracted, translated, in part retold, and elaborated by the Professor from an inevitably Western perspective, the novel reveals in a belated way Razumov’s role as a spy for the government, and hence his precarious status as part of the exile community in Geneva.

Razumov’s trajectory in the novel moves along a series of problematic ascriptions to a variety of communities: friendship with his fellow students, clandestine brotherhood with Haldin, good Russian citizen, confidant of the government, mourner with the Haldin family, member of the revolutionist cell in Geneva, double agent for the secret services, lover of Natalia Haldin. Razumov’s ascription to these communities is problematic [End Page 169] in at least two ways: first, he fails to attain a permanent integration in any of them, and second, his affiliation to these communities is not voluntary, but forced.

The process whereby Razumov is accepted in and later expelled from these communities constitutes the focus of this essay. My reading of Under Western Eyes aims at exploring the complexities of communal ascription as a narrative mechanism, proposing the following thesis: plot turns in the novel happen whenever Razumov’s position in the world shifts regarding the communities he comes in contact with and is expelled from. Thus, I contend that communal ascription—that is to say, the act of temporarily entering a community—transforms not only the character dynamics in the text, but also the trajectory of the plot itself. Kernel events (Chatman 53), to borrow a narratological term, are those in which Razumov enters or leaves a community.

Belonging to a community, or rather entering it, is not a voluntary act that Razumov carries out as an autonomous, free agent. Instead, he is interpellated by different communities who claim him as one of them and inscribe him with their identitarian trace. Departing from classic Conrad criticism about the author’s faith in human solidarity as a form of organic community based on traditional notions of Gemeinschaft (Watt 112–15; Fleishman 47),1 my depiction of communities in Under Western Eyes draws on an anti-essentialist, contingent, and ideologically-oriented understanding of community grounded in Jean-Luc Nancy’s theoretical work on “operative communities” and the role that sacrifice and the sublimation of death plays in them. In this, my reading is aligned with Kaoru Yamamoto’s claim in Rethinking Joseph Conrad’s Concepts of Community that Conrad’s fiction problematizes the conventional opposition between modernist subjectivity and organic community through his depiction of “strange fraternity” (2–5).2 The novel, moreover, describes communities as ideological entities. Hence, both Louis Althusser’s notion of ideological state apparatuses and Benedict Anderson’s work on nationalist communities are key to my theoretical examination of how communities function in Under Western Eyes.

The instability of Razumov’s communal belonging contradicts romantic views of communities as eternal, timeless entities and, more specifically, the ideal of lifelong membership in a national community, reinforced by nationalist discourse. Instead, Razumov’s precarious and shifting communal [End Page 170] positions can be explained in terms of scapegoating mechanisms. Although Conrad scholars such as Michiel Heyns and Thomas Cousineau have analyzed these in connection to Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, scapegoating has rarely been invoked as...


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pp. 169-192
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