Sunday, March 2, 2014

Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes

During the summer before my junior year in high school, my English teacher Mr. Hull assigned us Joseph Conrad's Nostomo to read before the school year began.  I purchased the book in the middle of the summer, read enough to be miserable (I was only 15 at the time), and put Conrad behind me until last month.  I have NO excuse for having ignored Conrad for this long:  in the intervening time, I also finished a Ph.D. in 19th-century literature, and have taught literature in college for many years.  By this point, I should have read some Conrad.    

One of the things I value in the reading challenges I've discovered this year is the way they make me rethink my reading habits.  Thanks to the Classics Club challenge I discovered in January, I gave a lot of thought to the holes in my reading as I created my 5-year challenge list.  Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes wound up on the list.

I found Conrad's exploration of the complexity of right and wrong compelling.  The novel hinges, generally, on two acts:  Haldin assassinates a Russian official, and Razumov helps the police capture Haldin.  Both things take place in the first 100 pages of the novel, and that's basically the extent of the action in the novel.  What follows, however, is a story about how Razumov tries to escape his guilt, how his act is revealed, and the effects of both the guilt and the revelation on him.

The reader is tempted to see Haldin, the revolutionary, as the hero who has acted against the Russian empire, and to see Razumov as a traitor because he gave up Haldin.  But as the novel unfolds, it becomes difficult to hold these positions.  Haldin sacrifices his life to a revolutionary cause, but he has also committed murder.  By turning Haldin in, Razumov betrays the revolution but also rejects the idea that murder is consistent with a righteous cause.  And yet, Razumov also has a moment where he behaves violently towards a helpless man.  The revolutionaries Razumov meets in western Europe are not saints.  There is no absolutely good or bad person in this novel--only people who respond to discreet things in good or bad ways.

I'm actually glad that I waited until this point in my life to read Conrad again.  I'm not sure I would have enjoyed this prior to 2000, when my interests turned to Russian literature and history.  As I read Under Western Eyes, I kept hearing echoes of Dostoevsky and his obsessions, and that helped place Conrad in a useful context.

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