Christiane Bimberg – Whose are those ‘Western eyes’? On the Identity, the Role and the Functions of the Narrator in Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes

Whose are those 'Western eyes'? On the Identity, the Role and the Functions of the Narrator in Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes

Christiane Bimberg

Published in Connotations Vol. 20.1 (2010/11)

"In a very real sense, one cannot read this novel unless one has read it be-fore."
(Berthoud, "Anxiety" 6)


Under Western Eyes deals with the subjects of autocracy, democracy and revolution in Tsarist Russia at the turn of the twentieth century. Issues such as the nature of the Russian national character and the mutual perceptions of Western Europe and Russia are also thematized. The starting point of the action, the murder committed by Victor Haldin, refers to a historical event: the assassination of the Minister of the Interior, Vyacheslav Konstantinovitch Plehve, in July 1904. The setting of the novel shifts from St. Petersburg to Geneva. The characters consist of both Easterners and Westerners among whom are Russians of diverse political backgrounds living in Russia or in exile, Genevans, and the Western narrator. Their intercultural encounters and confrontations address the difficult issues of socio−cultural, political, religious, and gender identity as well as the strained relationship of West and East at large.

One of the most striking phenomena in the novel is the unnamed narrator under whose 'Western eyes' the fortunes of the Russian family Haldin, and to some extent also those of Razumov, the major protagonist, unfold. His character and his role have caused tremendous misunderstanding in literary criticism so that certain features of [→page 36] the complex text require further clarification. This provides the starting point for the present study, which explores the following questions: Who is the narrator and does he keep his avowed narrative distance? What do those 'Western eyes' really perceive and in what way is that conveyed to the reader? How is the reader impacted by the literary representations and what does all this imply for the then contemporary Western discourse about Russia? The focus of investigation here is on the narrator's perspective, his identity, his role and his functions. References to some of Conrad's non−fictional works—the essays "Autocracy and War" (1905) and "Turgenev" (1917)—are used for further elucidation.

Contextual issues

The concrete conditions under which Under Western Eyes emerged are well documented. The stages of the creative process demonstrate the author struggling with the treatment of a particularly challenging, and for him especially important, subject. Since 1903, Conrad had, after a crisis, changed the direction of his creativity and turned towards a new subject−matter: more current and contemporary themes. These touched upon personal events and experiences in his life from some time before, events which had to do with his childhood and adolescence in Russian−occupied Poland.1)

The critical assessment of this special creative phase in his life and the reception history of Under Western Eyes lead us back to essential qualities of the novel itself. Under Western Eyes was Conrad's third and last political novel, after Nostromo and The Secret Agent. This phase has ambivalently been regarded both as a period of crisis and of creative culmination.2) The reception of the novel changed and developed tremendously due to highly diverse assessments of the novel's position within the Conradian canon, in literary criticism and in the field of history.51) In particular, the critical assessment of Conrad's [→page 37] middle phase and his late fiction became much more positive over the decades.3)

However, even as late as 1991, Kingsley Widmer, though he presents Joseph Conrad as "now widely accepted as one of the modernist masters of serious narrative fiction" (84), considers Under Western Eyes by contrast to The Secret Agent "a poor but curious work of an unusual cast in the tradition of the English novel" (112) and "a considerably lesser work than The Secret Agent in style, artful ordering, subjective intensity, and insightful paradoxes" (109). As we can thus see, the assessment of the novel is still problematic though, due to various scholarly reassessments, and particularly to a number of works dealing with the linguistic self−consciousness of the novel, Greaney is able to claim in 2002 that "the critical standing of Under Western Eyes has never been higher" (152; with special reference to the studies by Fleishman, Kermode, and Szittya). The novel's thematization of linguistic, narratological and metafictional aspects began seriously to impact criticism of Conrad only from the end of the 1970s.4)

An extended discussion of Conrad's biography and the socio−cultural context of his work, i.e. Polish, Russian and Western European history and politics, especially of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has led to a more rewarding exploration of the novel's Russian theme. As a result, scholars have arrived at the opinion that though Under Western Eyes is Conrad's only work with a Russian setting, the Russian theme was a vital subject for Conrad indeed.5) Furthermore, from this point of view it is fascinating to observe the creative process of Conrad's work on Under Western Eyes, which allows insights into his original intentions and conceptions and their changes over time.6) These aspects will be considered later in this essay.

Conrad's motives and intentions

In a letter to John Galsworthy of 6 January 1908, Conrad explained what he had in mind: "I think that I am trying to capture the very soul [→page 38] of things Russian,—Cosas de Russia. It is not an easy work but it may be rather good when it's done" (Letters 4: 8). Though not sure at that time about the commercial success of the story, he was convinced that he simply had to write it (9). In his letter to J. B. Pinker of 7 January 1908, he made his motivations and intentions yet clearer:

But I think that L.W. Courtney might be approached on the ground of the story's essential seriousness—a contribution to and a reading of the Russian character. […] Here is given the very essence of things Russian. Not the mere outward manners and customs but the Russian feeling and thought. You may safely say that. And, I think, the story is effective. It is also characteristic of the present time. Nothing of the sort had been done in English. The subject has long haunted me. Now it must come out. (14)

After completion, in a letter to Pinker of 13 September 1911, Conrad spoke about the novel as a thing "so utterly unlike in subject and treatment from anything I had done before" (477). Carabine, an expert on the textual history of Under Western Eyes and its link to Conrad's biography, argues that "Conrad's volatile sense of both the subject and the scope of his novel, through several revisions, is inseparable from his discovery that his stated intention to capture the "very soul of things Russian" inexorably demanded an exhumation and exploration of things Polish" (Introduction xxvii−xxviii).

Conrad himself—in spite of the fact that the subject matter was of special importance to him, and that he was highly aware of the influence of history and biography on his writing—set himself the task of writing in an impartial, fair, truthful, and detached way:

My greatest anxiety was in being able to strike and sustain the note of scrupulous impartiality. The obligation of absolute fairness was imposed on me historically and hereditarily, by the peculiar experience of race and family, in addition to my primary conviction that truth alone is the justification of any fiction which makes the least claim to the quality of art or may hope to take its place in the culture of men and women of its time. I had never been called before to a greater effort of detachment: detachment from all passions, prejudices and even from personal memories. ("Author's Note" viii; my emphasis)

[→page 39] The reception history of the novel shows that on publication in 1911, Under Western Eyes was a failure—or at least nearly so in England and the US, whereas in Europe and Russia it received serious attention.7) Remarkably enough, the following quote from Conrad's "Author's Note" seems to suggest that even as late as 1920 he believed he had kept his authorial⁄narrative distance and that it was precisely this that explained the lack of success of the novel in England:

"Under Western Eyes" on its first appearance in England was a failure with the public, perhaps because of that very detachment. I obtained my reward some six years later when I first heard that the book had found universal recognition in Russia and had been re−published there in many editions. ("Author's Note" viii)8)

Irrespective of Conrad's own opinion, the fact remains that in literary criticism his success in keeping this avowed distance has been very diversely assessed. Some critics have not even noticed the collapse of detachment while others have expressed enthusiastic opinions about his passionate presentations. André Gide, for instance, who first made his acquaintance with Under Western Eyes in 1917, admired its "prophetic reflections about the Russian soul," saying of the theme it shares with Lord Jim that "there is no more pathetic subject for a novel." He found in it a reflection of his own concern with "that irresponsible act of the hero, to redeem which his whole life is subsequently engaged" (Zabel 118).

However, literary criticism is divided over the point of 'prejudices' which obviously imply instances of Russophilia as well as Russophobia. For M. C. Bradbrook, the 'prejudice,' i.e. Conrad's politics, especially the presentation of the conflict between autocracy and revolutionism, was exactly the reason for the unpopularity of the book in 1911, but by 1941 its premises were familiar, leading to its critical reevaluation (9). Against accusations of an unbalanced Russophobia in Conrad, E. M. Forster put forward a counter−argument:

The passions are intelligible and frank: having lived thus, thus he feels, and it is as idle to regret his account of Russians as it would be to regret Dostoevsky's [→page 40] account of Poles in The Brothers Karamazov. A philosopher would moderate his transports or attempt to correlate them. Conrad isn't that type: he claims the right to be unreasonable when he or those whom he respects have suffered. (139)

However, even as late as 1991, a statement by Widmer still accuses Conrad of being biased and links that to the category of the narrator:

Part of the difficulty is the use of a rather Jamesian narrator, an obtusely lofty−mannered teacher of languages and English literature. While the figure may have been psychologically desirable to Conrad for distancing himself from the painful revolutionism, which is almost as hopeless as that of his father, the narrative creaks badly and sometimes breaks down, as with the sentimental old Englishman who defensively provides the entitling perspective. This excuses Conrad from understanding or sympathetically presenting the revolutionaries. (109; my emphasis)

Apart from misassumptions about the narrator, narrative control and Conrad's presentations of the revolutionaries, such a judgment is all the more obsolete and absurd anyway in the light of the fact that as early as in 1947 the American critic Morton Dauwen Zabel, editor of the Viking Portable Conrad, "which marked the permanent recovery of Conrad's reputation" (Peters 123), had convincingly defended the collapse of narrative distance.9) Obviously the issue of narrative detachment remains a touchstone for literary criticism. Because it is closely associated with the identity and the role of the narrator, these aspects will be critically re−considered here.

Cosas de Russia

If we consider the literary representation of Russian issues more closely, the textual evidence proves that the contrast noted in literary criticism between Russophobia in Conrad's essays and letters and the Russophilia in his fiction10) cannot be sustained. Rather, the novel itself is a very complex narrative, offering diverse opinions and attitudes which need to be carefully differentiated from each other. Through [→page 41] the category of the narrator as a person, the action of the novel, including encounters, the speech and dialogue of the characters, and the narrative comments and descriptions Conrad uses a wide range of assessments, diverse and highly ambivalent attitudes, opinions and stances toward Russian issues which are expressed at different textual levels.

Particularly when the novel is read in close comparison with Conrad's political essay "Autocracy and War" (1905), it becomes obvious that both share a Western perspective on Russia, as well as quite a number of political observations. The negative associations of autocracy in the essay and in the novel are similar, too. The poetic images of Russia in the novel develop directly out of the political judgments in the essay, which also employs poetic imagery.11) In other words, Conrad individually, concretely and emotionally expresses in the novel what he had presented in more abstract ways in the essay. Both texts reflect the contradictions and the ambivalences of Western discourse about Russia.12)

The complex and heterogeneous presentation of the Cosas de Russia in Under Western Eyes results in a very dense narrative construct, a thorough understanding of the Russian subject. The narrative stances range from incomprehension, aversion, and critical distance on the one hand, to sympathy, empathy, and personal identification on the other. What the text therefore has to offer is a narrative full of tensions, contradictions, ambivalences and highly differentiated representations. In any case, Conrad cannot be accused of being biased or random. He achieves a certain objectivity and balance by juxtaposition and multiperspectivity, thus modifiying and qualifying each single statement. This results in relativism and pluralism. Both the revolutionaries' and the autocrats' views and behaviours are presented in the context of their devastating effects upon Russia and its people. The irony is that both sides are revealed by Conrad simultaneously to defend themselves and attack their enemies with similar arguments. Besides, Russian characters in the novel are shown to be both agents and victims of crime. Conrad's presentations are characterized by [→page 42] keen observation, penetrating insight and well−informed and well−balanced judgments. Moreover, the motives for writing the novel become more transparent after a reading of the essay: to question and challenge the inscrutability of Russia by Europe, to deconstruct the myth of 'the Russian giant' and make clear its usefulness in the current power play of European states.13)

The 'Western' perspective and the 'Western' observer

All these notions are centered in the retrospective, homodiegetic, overt, and to some extent unreliable first−person narrator. His perceptions and reactions are of utmost importance because it is his explicit task to bring the perspective of a Western observer into play. Remarkably enough, the introduction of such a figure was the result of a change of Conrad's conception of his emerging work. He had been working earlier on a story named "Razumov," whose title he regarded as 'expressive' (letter to Galsworthy of 6 January 1908, Letters 4: 8). The later change of title for the novel, Under Western Eyes, reflected a significant change of focus from Razumov to the 'Western observer' and resulted in the creation of two perspectives: that of Russians about themselves, and that of the West about the East. Zabel highly appreciates the special contribution that a foreigner like Conrad could make when writing about another nationality: "His outsider's point of vantage, if sufficiently informed by knowledge and sympathy, makes it possible for him to add something of importance, in critical insight and judgment, to a native tradition" (129). In that sense he compares Conrad to Stendhal, James, Forster, Lawrence, Orwell and Koestler (129). At the same time he points out that Conrad was also a "participant and sharer in the Russian destiny" (136).

Conrad himself called the new title "awkward" (128). As Zabel observes, it expressed Conrad's "divided allegiance between East and West, between the Slavic world and the European or English" (128). It indicated "a shift of the post of observation from the hero to a disinterested [→page 43] spectator […] and to a critical attitude alien and largely incomprehensible to the Russian" (130−31). However, it is exactly these qualities of 'disinterestedness' and 'discrimination' that need to be investigated more closely.

The narrator and 'Western observer' is presented as an aged teacher of foreign languages, who has been living in Geneva for more than twenty years. He makes the acquaintance of the two Haldin ladies because the daughter, Nathalie, plans to improve her knowledge of English literature in a reading course with him. As a result of his growing friendship with and affection for her, he becomes ever more involved in the family's hard and, for Western Europeans, strange fate. This is why he begins to support Nathalie Haldin in her effort to find out about her brother's fate. This includes the task of locating background information, making use of Razumov's diary for faithfully narrating his and Victor Haldin's story. Strictly speaking, the events watched by those 'Western eyes' relate only to one Russian family, but they are presented by the narrator in their larger political significance for Western Europe. Because what happens to the Haldins looks so strange and unfamiliar to Westerners, the narrator often emphasizes that "this is not a story of the West of Europe" (25). He is explicitly telling a story of the East for the instruction of the West: "The Western readers for whom this story is written" (112); "for this is a Russian story for Western ears" (163).

As emphasized throughout the novel, it is the narrator's function to provide an objective and detached Western perspective on events and people. The question now is, to what extent is he able to do so? The narrator often comments on his own narrative skills (cf. quotes below). Here, however, certain contradictions and ambivalences cannot be overlooked: for instance, he points out his difficulties in accessing the Russian national character and Russian problems. He particularly names matters of language (on the Russian part) as aggravating circumstances. The relative value and even the irony of the passage become fully evident only after it is disclosed to the reader at a much later point that the narrator is himself Russian by birth:

[→page 44] Yet I confess that I have no comprehension of the Russian character. The illogicality of their attitude, the arbitrariness of their conclusions, the frequency of the exceptional, should present no difficulty to a student of many grammars; but there must be something else in the way, some special human trait—one of those subtle differences that are beyond the ken of mere professors. What must remain striking to a teacher of languages is the Russians' extraordinary love of words. They gather them up; they cherish them, but they don't hoard them in their breasts; on the contrary, they are always ready to pour them out by the hour or by the night with an enthusiasm, a sweeping abundance, with such an aptness of application sometimes that, as in the case of very accomplished parrots, one can't defend oneself from the suspicion that they really understand what they say. There is a generosity in their ardour of speech which removes it as far as possible from common loquacity; and it is ever too disconnected to be classed as eloquence. (4; my emphasis)14)

In this passage we do not encounter a fundamental distrust of the representational power of language as expressed in a later quote:

the thought that because of the imperfection of language there is always something ungracious (and even disgraceful) in the exhibition of naked truth (293; my emphasis)

but rather a special distrust of the Russians' usage, of what they express about themselves and what they thus allow to be revealed about themselves to others.

By contrast, later narrative comments reveal an astonishing capability of sensing and sensitively depicting the political, spiritual, emotional and psychological conflicts of Russians in all their frustrating subtlety.15) Integrated into the descriptions of St. Petersburg and Russia are, for instance, impressive physical−poetic images of Russia, its people, urban and rural life, and life under the political conditions of autocracy. The politically connotated renditions of Russian winter landscapes express a great deal of sympathy for the fate of the country and for the common Russian people.

Under the sumptuous immensity of the sky, the snow covered the endless forests, the frozen rivers, the plains of an immense country, obliterating the landmarks, the accidents of the ground, levelling everything under its uniform whiteness, like a monstrous blank awaiting the record of an inconceivable [→page 45] history. It covered the passive land with its lives of countless people like Ziemianitch and its handful of agitators like this Haldin—murdering foolishly. (33)

In addition, the narrator also conveys the Russians' emotionality, their desire for community, friendship and solidarity. The narrator's reflections on the normality, commonness, triviality, and meaninglessness of daily life and of the desperate struggle for spiritual support reveal his true understanding and empathy.

That is, the narrative artistry inherently transgresses the political reservations expressed overtly elsewhere. Through the narrator, Conrad offers differentiated presentations of complex problems, situations, and feelings (e.g. angst, the power of political seduction, the terror of being blackmailed and trapped, feelings of betrayal, guilt, and expiation). The discourse is thus characterized by psychological depth, dialectical thinking, and a careful evaluation of contrary positions and arguments (autocracy vs. revolution). The task of the narrator, as Conrad conceives it, is to translate Russian problems and peculiarities (because of linguistic and intercultural misunderstandings) as grasped in their larger European significance for the Western reader, in such a way that Westerners can begin to understand them before European history can be addressed and shaped together by Westerners and Easterners: "The task is […] the rendering […] of the moral conditions ruling over a large portion of this earth's surface; conditions not easily to be understood, […] till some key−word is found; […]" (67).

The collapse of narrative and authorial distance

In the course of the novel narrative detachment does indeed break down. This happens contrary to two overt pretensions of the narrator: first, his laying claim to and hiding behind "fact," "punctilious fairness," being "unidentified with any one in this narrative where the aspects of honour and shame are remote from the ideas of the Western [→page 46] world," "common humanity," "reluctance" and "naked truth" (293), and second, his pretending to face the Russian national character and Russian psychology with incomprehension and astonishment. Instead, he falls into the trap of empathy and increasingly loses his narrative distance, identifying himself ever more closely with what is narrated and⁄or experienced, with events and people.

A range of factors contribute to this development, from the narrator as an individual, to the surroundings to which he is exposed. Conrad subtly combines numerous historical, socio−cultural and psychological−emotional factors. He establishes an entire sequence of psychological stages which trace the transformation of the narrator from a merely relating to an experiencing subject. The presentation of Razumov's life−story through the narrator is organized climactically in the course of the narration.

A decisive clue to the collapse of narrative detachment is discerned by means of the identity of the narrator, which badly needs clarification. In the novel he is constantly presented—both by himself and by other characters—as approaching Russian affairs and concerns as a foreigner, a complete outsider. Curiously enough, a substantial part of literary criticism has not questioned either the narrator's self−fashioning or the other characters' uncritical responses to it: the narrator is consistently, but wrongly, presented as British or English here.16) Very few critics expressly note the 'British' narrator's Russian origin or call him Anglo−Russian at least.17) The only fact that can be verified indeed is that the narrator speaks English; but whether or not he is an Englishman cannot be proved. Two hypotheses as to his identity suggest themselves. They are bound up with the narrator's language acquisition and socialization. The first hypothesis is that Russian used to be his native tongue. The second hypothesis is that English was also his native tongue or a second tongue.

At first the reader learns only about the narrator's knowledge of the Russian language (3, 4). Later the narrator reveals that he was born "from parents settled in St. Petersburg" (187) and learned Russian as a child. The town itself he could not remember any more (which, however, [→page 46] is presented through narrative comments and descriptions with an astonishing level of detail) having left it aged nine, but in later years he had renewed his acquaintance with the Russian language (187). This means that Russian is not just another foreign language for him, one which he knows and teaches as an instructor of foreign languages, but may have been his native tongue (if he had at least one Russian parent) or one of his native tongues (had at least [one of] his parents been British and lived in Russia at the time). This hypothesis can, unfortunately, not be fully proved, due to the fact that the narrator remains unnamed in the novel. His first name, a family name and certainly a patronymic would have betrayed his true identity, but Conrad, tellingly, does not grant that information to the reader.

One might nonetheless speak of the narrator's early bilingual socialization. Here, gaps remain as well—there is no information about where the narrator acquired his English. Furthermore, it is difficult to assess the quality of his English; there are no explicit statements about that in the novel.

What is significant, however, is that in spite of apparent Russian socialization, the narrator sees himself principally as a Westerner and a detached and critical outsider: "I felt profoundly my European remoteness, and said nothing, but made up my mind to play my part of helpless spectator to the end" (336); "And this story, too, I received without comment in my character of a mute witness of things Russian, unrolling their Eastern logic under my Western eyes" (381). He seems to have forgotten or at least completely suppressed that part of his past, his former childhood self, his Russian legacy and his mixed East−Western identity, characterized by hybridity, twoness, and in−betweenness.18) Textual evidence establishes the fact that, strictly speaking, this 'Englishman,' about whose identity formation between Russia and Switzerland the reader learns nothing, is actually a former Russian living (in exile?) in Switzerland for some reason, with an Anglophone identity gained somewhere else. This constellation bears a close parallel to Conrad's own Anglicization of his former Polish identity (under Russian occupation) and of the tremendous problems [→page 47] of identity associated with that.19) The implication is that the narrator's 'Western' perspective is at least partially an Eastern perspective—though unacknowledged to the end—which explains the collapse of narrative detachment even more convincingly.

In subsequent stages, the narrator increasingly loses his distance: he becomes personally and politically involved with Russia and Russians, grows ever more concerned about the Haldins, and feels more and more affection for Nathalie. He takes on psychological and ethical qualities whose value he did not appreciate at first, such as sensitivity, apprehension, emotionality, friendship, loyalty, responsibility and care, which are associated in the narrative with Easterners rather than with Westerners. Eventually he comes to understand the impossibility of his position as a well−meaning, 'dense Occidental.' The reader witnesses his helplessness in light of Russian suffering, his falling prey himself to the Russian fatalism so often noticed by himself with bafflement or incomprehension (336, cf. the quote above; "[…] fated to be a spectator, I had this other glimpse behind the scenes," 339). Distance is thus replaced by empathy. The final message is therefore sobering: All of the narrator's inside knowledge about Russia and Russians of which he is so proud of is of little or no use to him. He becomes emotionally entangled in Russian problems and begins to understand the limitedness of so−called Western superiority. Being able to help, however, is beyond his opportunities and abilities.20)

Moreover, the close intersection of theme and mode of presentation enhances the collapse of narrative detachment. For readers unacquainted with certain characteristics of Russian literature employed by Conrad, some parts of the narrative may appear challenging, but cannot be described by the epithets 'tedious' or 'exhausting' alone.21) The following narrative techniques contribute decisively to the characteristic mode of presentation:

  • • personal⁄subjective comments of the narrator and various narrative 'digressions'22)
  • [→page 49] delayed information⁄belated revelation of the true facts⁄'delayed decoding,' 'after−stories'23)
  • • multiperspectivity (presentation of a character, a story, an information, an event) from several, at times discrepant, perspectives)24)
  • • the interpolation of various documents, accounts, reports and letters, in addition to Razumov's diary25)
  • • ambiguous clues deliberately evoking double meanings⁄interpretations of the same situation (double entendre)52)
  • • the use of free indirect discourse and stream of consciousness.

In their united effect these and other strategies53) make the text a narrative with hindsight. Multiperspectivity results in mutual penetration and complementation of the information given and ever more precise narrative representations, which in turn produces constantly revised and ultimately highly differentiated assessments.

The narrator's misjudgements and personal failure

The collapse of detachment is accompanied by essential misjudgements of the narrator (and not of his alone).26) He not only misreads Russians (mainly Razumov), their appearance, behaviour, character, motives and connections, but also documents, reports, information and events. The discernment and discrimination of which he is so proud are dimmed or blocked by complex external factors so that his view of the true facts is obscured. The reader, who is better informed, becomes a witness to his mistakes and misjudgements. The absolute climax is reached with Razumov's and Nathalie's last meeting. Ignorant of its tragic implications, the narrator misreads the very end of a potential love relationship as its promising and hopeful start. This is simultaneously the moment of greatest disillusionment and deepest insight into the limited possibilities of the narrator to master the situation [→page 50] and tackle the Russian dilemma—revealed at the extradiegetic level of the narrative.

To me, the silent spectator, they looked like two people becoming conscious of a spell which had been lying on them ever since they first set eyes on each other. […] and I remained, every fear of indiscretion lost in the sense of my enormous remoteness from their captivity within the sombre horizon of Russian problems, the boundary of their eyes, of their feelings—the prison of their souls. (345)

The narrator himself, as a person, does not begin to grasp the full implication of what is happening before his eyes; he complains to Nathalie that Razumov has snatched her veil upon leaving.27)

A central factor in this causal chain is the misinterpretation of the nature of Razumov's diary, which Razumov had not written chiefly as a therapeutic measure, a confession for the purpose of psychic relief (5), but in order to carry out his spy mission. The reader learns about it when he meets Razumov on Rousseau's island: "The pages written over and torn out of his notebook were the first−fruit of his 'mission'" (316), "his first communication for Councillor Mikulin" (317), which "was to make him safe" (317). The misjudgement is all the more conspicuous because the narrator's blind trust in Razumov's document contrasts starkly with his negative, critical attitudes towards other accounts. The life stories of two revolutionaries, for instance, the famous Russian refugee Peter Ivanovitch and Madame de S−, are treated by the narrator with disbelief, irony, contempt, and doubt. Conrad employs a double fallacy here, the intersection of the diary and the narrator's own impressions: certain entries in the diary read only later by the narrator are used retrospectively to confirm and authorize his own impressions of and opinions about Razumov (e.g. the narrator's first meeting with Razumov in the gardens of the Bastions and their later chance meeting in the Rue Mont Blanc), that is to say, for self−affirmation. These judgements, often triggered by deliberate equivocation on the part of Razumov, however, turn out to be only apparently correct because beneath the surface of the narrator's impressions lie other motives than those assumed. [→page 51]

The narrator's assessment and instrumentalization of Razumov's diary

All in all, the story that the narrator tells is created through diverse means—by what he learns about events and people from other characters, by his own involvement in the action, and from his insights into Razumov's secret diary. For various reasons Razumov's diary assumes a central significance in the narrative:

  • • it provides the major basis for the narrator's information about Razumov and his reconstruction of Razumov's life story
  • • it is a decisive factor in the misinterpretations and misjudgements on the narrator's part
  • • it shapes the narrative structure which in turn impacts the reader's interpretation
  • • it addresses important intercultural issues.

Let us therefore examine more closely now how the narrator instrumentalizes Razumov's document, and what purposes the diary actually serves, as well as how successful the narrator's control over his narrative really is.

First of all, the document fulfils the function of authorizing the narrator (and the narrative) and enhancing his credibility with the reader. This is bound up with the narrator's assigning it the status of "the main source of this narrative" (192). As he states, he only added his knowledge of the Russian language to it, which was sufficient for the present purposes, the telling of Razumov's story (3, 4). The reason that the narrator assigns the diary such a high status is its documentary evidence (3, 4, 5, 7, 24). Furthermore, he trusts the autobiographical impulse, i.e., Razumov's motives for leaving such a document. For instance, he praises the self−confessional qualities and therapeutic functions of such writing, the "wonderful soothing power in mere words" (5), the purpose of self−communion, the search for some form or formula of peace. The only thing he is not sure about yet is what [→page 52] sort of peace Razumov may have expected to find through it. Last but not least the narrator regards the document as credible because it seems to be free of purpose, not meant to have readers at all.

It would be idle to inquire why Mr. Razumov has left this record behind him. It is inconceivable that he should have wished any human eye to see it. A mysterious impulse of human nature comes into play here. Putting aside Samuel Pepys, who has forced in this way the door of immortality, innumerable people, criminals, saints, philosophers, young girls, statesmen, and simple imbeciles, have kept self−revealing records from vanity no doubt, but also from other more inscrutable motives. (4−5; my emphasis)

This direct, emphatic, non−utilitarian assessment is re−confirmed several times later on. The narrator does not have the least doubt about the diary's authenticity because of its apparent self−confessional character:

These sentiments stand confessed in Mr. Razumov's memorandum of his first interview with Madame de S−. The very words I use in my narrative are written where their sincerity cannot be suspected. The record, which could not have been meant for any one's eyes but his own, was not, I think, the outcome of that strange impulse of indiscretion common to men who lead secret lives, and accounting for the invariable existence of "compromising documents" in all the plots and conspiracies of history. Mr. Razumov looked at it, I suppose, as a man looks at himself in a mirror, with wonder, perhaps with anguish, with anger or despair. Yes, as a threatened man may look fearfully at his own face in the glass, formulating to himself reassuring excuses for his appearance marked by the taint of some insidious hereditary disease (214; my emphasis)

Time and again the narrator trusts the therapeutic motive and sincere autobiographical impulse in Razumov and the authentic nature of his diary. For example, when he points out Mikulin's skill in knowing what to say in his interview with Razumov: "This skill is to be inferred clearly from the mental and psychological self−confession, self−analysis of Mr. Razumov's written journal—the pitiful resource of a young man who had near him no trusted intimacy, no natural affection to turn to" (308−09; my emphasis). That is, the narrator adopts Razumov's opinions about other people as well, indirect judgements that he is in no position to test or verify himself. Phrases such as "It is [→page 53] evident from Mr. Razumov's diary," (85) "The diary of Mr. Razumov testifies to" (86), "it stands confessed in his handwriting" (229) or "The materials he had on him" (290) prove his absolute trust in his source of information and his desire to authorize his own credibility through references to Razumov's report.28) The diary thus becomes the decisive source of reference in all questions of narrative authenticity.

Ironically, all of the purposes that the narrator does not suspect concerning Razumov's diary—the secret life of Razumov, the compromising nature of his diary, his involvement in the plots and conspiracies of history—are later revealed to be true indeed. In retrospect, the narrator's assumptions look naÏve, uncritical, wrong, and based on weak foundations. Conrad achieves this by juxtaposing the narrator's assessments with Razumov's own statements about his diary, which he continues to write on Rousseau's island. They are subtly integrated into the narratorial commentary and reveal the true purpose and significance of Razumov's stay in Geneva and of his diary: their political usefulness for espionage in the service of the autocratic system in Russia (316, 317). For the very first time, the reader sees Razumov working as a spy,29) though Conrad again also integrates a cathartic element which even Razumov himself has to acknowledge: "Alone in his room after having posted his secret letter, he had regained a certain measure of composure by writing in his secret diary" (339). That is, the function of the diary changes over time, even for Razumov. The full therapeutic and confessional nature of the document for Razumov is revealed only later—after Razumov has made his self−confession and has left the Haldins' flat.

His diary now fully becomes one of those 'compromising documents' the narrator had alluded to before (214; cf. above). Thus, at the very end, a therapeutic motive is verified, but, even more importantly, a conspiratorial motive is revealed. The narrator must also correct his former judgement that Razumov did not mean the diary to be read by anyone:

The book of his compromising record was kept in a locked drawer […]. In this queer pedantism of a man who had read, thought, lived, pen in hand, there [→page 54] is the sincerity of the attempt to grapple by the same means with another profounder knowledge. After some passages which have been already made use of in the building up of this narrative, or add nothing new to the psychological side of this disclosure […], comes a page and a half of incoherent writing where his expression is baffled by the novelty and the mysteriousness of that side of our emotional life to which his solitary existence had been a stranger. Then only he begins to address directly the reader he had in his mind, trying to express in broken sentences, full of wonder and awe, the sovereign (he uses that very word) power of her person [Nathalie Haldin] over his imagination, in which lay the dormant seed of her brother's words. (357−58; my emphasis)

For the critical reader, therefore, the assessment of Razumov's document and its instrumentalization by the narrator turn out to be a much more sophisticated affair than expected. The narrator originally resorted to the diary to be able to faithfully narrate Haldin's and Razumov's story. But the diary was only handed on to him by Nathalie Haldin after Razumov had long been back in Russia (it was sent to her as a parcel). This means that the insights gained from the diary are belated insights: "The perplexities and the complex terrors—I may say—of this [Razumov's] sleeplessness are recorded in the document I was to see later […]" (192). The use of the document therefore has several narratological consequences: first, the complete puzzle of Razumov's life and story only gradually reveals itself and, second, due to the narrator's blind trust in the diary's authenticity, several 'facts' will need to be corrected later on. That is to say, the narrative will have to be 're−written.' Conrad uses dramatic irony, juxtaposing different levels of information and differentiating between the more limited state of consciousness of the narrator as a person and witness, with the broader state of consciousness implied at the extradiegetic level (e.g. the knowledge about St. Petersburg or Russian problems). The ensuing better information known to the reader (such as Razumov's activities as a spy for the police [316, 317] or the fact that the last meeting of Nathalie and Razumov is a farewell−scene [356]) fully unmasks the narrator's naÏveté.[→page 55]

The narrator's appropriation of Razumov's diary: issues of narratology

As demonstrated above, the narrative is purported by the narrator to have been created predominantly on the basis of Razumov's diary. However, over the course of time Razumov's original account undergoes drastic transformations at the hands of the narrator.

First of all, a shift of focus can be observed: at the outset, the narrative relates the story of Nathalie's brother, Victor Haldin, an anarchist involved in Plehve's assassination and subsequently betrayed to the Russian police by the student Razumov, who feels threatened by Haldin's seeking his help. The centre of attention is Victor Haldin and, due only to his connection with Razumov (which is at first difficult to account for), Razumov as well. Later the focus shifts to Razumov as a major clue in understanding Victor Haldin's fate and finally, that of Razumov as well. Eventually, because of both the narrator's increasing emotional involvement and his growing personal appropriation of Razumov's life and diary, the narrative becomes the narrator's own story of personal failure. Szittya uses the term 'double narration' for this technique of integrating Razumov's narrative into that of the narrator's.30)

Doubtless this narrative makes a gripping story. Yet more importantly, the narrator's use and appropriation of the diary triggers a number of significant reflections that go far beyond the immediate needs of (re−)telling the story: thematized in the narrative are a number of significant aspects of narratology and literary theory, especially issues of metanarration and metafiction:

  • • the construction of the narrator⁄the narrator's identity⁄ narrative authority
  • • the limits of narrative representation
  • • the truthfulness of fiction
  • • fictionalization of history and biography
  • • the moral truth of fiction.

[→page 56] The reader is allowed to watch the narrator as he constructs his identity. As a person, he is a teacher of foreign languages. From this angle of his special professional background—somebody who professionally works with words and, consequently, is highly alert to matters of language31)—he often critically addresses questions about his own skills of narrating, the presuppositions he brings along to the narrative task, and the re−telling of Razumov's life story, which includes uncertainties about his own skills of characterization.

At first the narrator actually seems to disparage and undermine his own narrative authority:

To begin with I wish to disclaim the possession of those high gifts of imagination and expression which would have enabled my pen to create for the reader the personality of the man who called himself […] Razumov. If I have ever had these gifts in any sort of living form they have been smothered out of existence a long time ago under a wilderness of words. (3; my emphasis)32)

Yet immediately afterward he drops the problem of his personal presuppositions, calling words 'the great foes of reality' and emphasizing the general inability of language to adequately reflect reality, which is to acknowledge the limits of narrative representation. Returning then to his own skills, he describes his professional activity as a teacher of languages as having fatal effects upon imagination, observation and insight. And finishing off with a general observation again, he describes the world as nothing "but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot" (3).33)

Observations like these evoke poststructuralist notions about the instability and unreliability of (the meaning of) words and texts.34) These are complemented by discussions of the truthfulness of fiction. The narrator shows his awareness of producing his own account of Razumov's story, but at the same time he emphasizes his indebtedness to Razumov's account, the closeness of his own narrative to the documentary evidence provided by Razumov's diary (and elsewhere also to other people's accounts and reports, e.g. Nathalie's or that of [→page 57] the Russian wife of his friend the professor etc.). He compares the diary favourably to his own narrative deficits (lacking skills of fictionalizing and imagination, lacking ambition as a novelist⁄writer of fiction).35) Fact is made to appear superior to fiction. These reflections parallel various discourses in literary history about the relationship between fact and fiction in special genres (e.g. the eighteenth−century novel and autobiography). Into this discussion, an intercultural component is integrated: in addition to warning the reader of his own incompetencies, the narrator warns the reader of misjudgements due to the fundamental differences between Western and Eastern European conditions and perceptions:

If to the Western reader they [the thoughts assailing Razumov] appear shocking, inappropriate, or even improper, it must be remembered that as to the first this may be the effect of my crude statement. For the rest I will only remark here that this is not a story of the West of Europe. (25; my emphasis)

If, however, one checks these statements critically and examines more closely the usefulness of Razumov's diary for the narrator, one cannot but note a shift: at first it seems as if the narrator profits tremendously from the diary and is therefore much obliged to it. It (apparently) helps him to gain insights into the chronological and factual course of action of Razumov's life story, and, more importantly, into his attitudes and convictions, as well as into the difficult political and psychological questions troubling him, along with his moral conflicts. On the other hand, the alert reader notices that the narrator's role in re−telling Razumov's story and in appropriating it for his own purposes shifts and increases continually. The narrator transgresses factuality; very cleverly he selects and integrates single parts of the diary into his narrative according to his own taste and liking. This also includes decisions as to when and where in the narrative to integrate which passages or pieces of information from the diary.36)

When it comes to Razumov's interview by Mikulin, the process of narrative transformation proper—of Razumov's document into a narrative, into fiction, or the process of fictionalization—is explicitly [→page 58] thematized. There are in fact several parallels between the narrator's observations on this and Conrad's own creative method in the appropriation of history and biography in his fiction.37) In the foreground are issues of narrative transmission, literary quality, narrative strategies and their effects on readers. The narrator reasons about how clearness and effect can best be achieved in an invented story: "In the conduct of an invented story there are, no doubt, certain proprieties to be observed for the sake of clearness and effect" (100). Again he pretends to factuality, pointing out his own deficits in approaching such an ambitious task which does not require imagination, inventiveness or art, but, on the contrary, artlessness:

A man of imagination, however inexperienced in the art of narrative, has his instinct to guide him in the choice of his words, and in the development of the action. A grain of talent excuses many mistakes. But this is not a work of imagination; I have no talent; my excuse for this undertaking lies not in its art, but in its artlessness. Aware of my limitations and strong in the sincerity of my purpose, I would not try (were I able) to invent anything. I push my scruples so far that I would not even invent a transition. (100; my emphasis)

The end of the novel will fully reveal the narrator's deceptive artlessness. This is why, in retrospect, this passage has to be regarded as a great understatement.

The increasing constructedness of the story becomes ever more apparent to the reader demonstrating the difference between 'story' and 'discourse.' This happens, for instance, in the moment when the narrator returns to Razumov's document after he has informed the Haldins about the assassination of Mr de P−: "Mr. Razumov's record, like the open book of fate, revives for me the memory of that day as something startlingly pitiless in its freedom from all forebodings" (105). The narrator brings in his own later knowledge from Razumov's diary at a time when Victor Haldin's mother and sister do not yet know anything about their son's⁄brother's death, still hoping to see him alive. His narrative is therefore a narrative with hindsight: "Victor Haldin was still with the living, but with the living whose only contact with life is the expectation of death" (105).

[→page 59] So it becomes increasingly evident that—in spite of protestations of artlessness—the narrator rather skilfully filters, selects, arranges, links and interprets events, information and observations, directing the attention of the reader and steering and impacting his⁄her responses. Conrad juxtaposes apparent artlessness with the real artistry of the narrator, thus demonstrating his increasing influence on the narration and his manipulation of the reader, which is counterbalanced by the reader's superior information at the same time.38) The narrator increasingly appropriates and shapes the evidence accessible by him, not just re−constructing, but virtually constructing Razumov's life story. He uses the methods of a biographer, mingling fact and fiction, imposing his own pattern onto another person's life, making it a life and transforming it into his own narrative. In other words, the narrator becomes an editor.54)

The narrator makes the reader a witness of these processes, very much enjoying his power to do so. This is revealed, for example, through his treatment of Nathalie's oral account of her very first meeting with Razumov at the ChÂteau Borel. Again (as above), the thrust of the scene changes from emphasis on fact to greater fictional freedom, that is, through narrative digressions, paradoxically for the sake of greater narrative credibility. Here, the narrator interrupts Nathalie's report. He admits that his rendition of the events is based on her account, which he has not dramatized as much as might be supposed. He pays Nathalie her due, acknowledging that "she had rendered, with extraordinary feeling and animation, the very accent almost of the disciple of the old apple−woman, the irreconcilable hater of Minist[e]ries, the voluntary servant of the poor" (161). At the same time the narrator shows himself to be in the know. He smugly reveals himself as someone who has his own reliable sources of information (e.g. about Madame de S−); informants who in turn fully trust their own sources.39)

It is on occasions like these that the reader notes the narrator's growing pride in his many new and detailed insights into other people's emotions, motives and opinions, such as those of Nathalie [→page 60] Haldin, insights gained through various meetings and encounters. In addition, he expresses increasingly overt judgements about people, including contemptuous ones about Madame de S−. Once more, he professes his own position of artlessness—contrary to the position of a novelist—which he presents as more difficult to achieve than the imagination of the novelist, who only has to generate the credibility of his imaginative products through linguistic means. And because the narrator has no art and did not invent Madame de S−, he feels "bound to explain how I came to know so much about her. My informant was the Russian wife of a friend of mine already mentioned, the professor of Lausanne University" (162).

However, shortly afterwards the narrator admits to having digressed (163). His motive, as he states with an air of personal vanity and superiority, was to use his impressive background knowledge about Russian political affairs in order to enhance his own narrative credibility and to lower the limits of comprehension for Westerners:

The object of my digression from the straight course of Miss Haldin's relation (in my own words) of her visit to the ChÂteau Borel, was to bring forward that statement of my friend, the professor's wife. I wanted to bring it forward simply to make what I have to say presently of Mr. Razumov's presence in Geneva, a little more credible—for this is a Russian story for Western ears, which, as I have observed already, are not attuned to certain tones of cynicism and cruelty, of moral negation, and even of moral distress already silenced at our end of Europe. (163−64; my emphasis)

That is, other people's reports (Razumov's, the professor's wife's, Nathalie Haldin's etc.) are explicitly used by the narrator for the sake of enhancing his own narrative authority and his authenticity at large, but he uses means of his own invention, such as narrative digressions, as well, to underpin them.

In addition to coping with the difference between story time and discourse time, with selecting, arranging and digressing, the narrator deliberately and high−handedly leaves gaps in his renditions. There are two main reasons for this: first, the narrator's pleading narrative incompetence as an excuse, and second, his awareness of the different [→page 60] presuppositions for judgement and the different reactions of Eastern and Western readers. A fine such example is the narrator's description of the reasons for his decision to reduce the presentation of Razumov's moral conflicts on the evening when Victor Haldin entered his life. At the same time the passage exemplifies his absolute trust in the diary once more:

The words and events of that evening must have been graven as if with a steel tool on Mr. Razumov's brain since he was able to write his relation with such fullness and precision a good many months afterwards. The record of the thoughts which assailed him in the street is even more minute and abundant. They seem to have rushed upon him […].

The more adequate description would be a tumult of thoughts—the faithful reflection of the state of his feelings. The thoughts in themselves were not numerous—[…] but they cannot be reproduced here in all their exclamatory repetitions which went on in an endless and weary turmoil—for the walk was long.

If to the Western reader they appear shocking, inappropriate, or even improper, it must be remembered that as to the first this may be the effect of my crude statement. For the rest I will only remark here that this is not a story of the West of Europe.

Nations it may be have fashioned their Governments, but the Governments have paid them back in the same coin. It is unthinkable that any young Englishman should find himself in Razumov's situation. This being so it would be a vain enterprise to imagine what he would think. The only safe surmise to make is that he would not think as Mr. Razumov thought at this crisis of his fate. He would not have an hereditary and personal knowledge of the means by which a historical autocracy represses ideas, guards its power, and defends its existence. […]

This is but a crude and obvious example of the different conditions of Western thought. (24−25; my emphasis)40)

All these instances clearly demonstrate the narrator's skill in selecting, assigning meaning and importance, and directing readers' responses. In particular, the way in which Razumov manages to keep going on that fatal evening, desperately wishing to get rid of Haldin's presence, may, as the narrator admits, seem like a marvel to someone reading Razumov's narrative (27). This is why the narrator feels compelled (as elsewhere in the narrative) to act as a mediator of those Russian feelings so difficult to understand for Westerners which are at times [→page 62] naively and misleadingly termed 'Russian simplicity,' and yet are, in fact, more complex than that.41) However, exactly at this point in the narrative, after Haldin has left Razumov's rooms, the narrator falls into a crisis. For the very first time he grows conscious of his difficult task, the narrative mission that he had assumed at first to be the faithful rendition of somebody else's document. Here he becomes aware of his own active, creatively shaping, non−neutral role as a reporter of someone else's fortunes, conscious of his own moral responsibility. He grasps the limits of narrative representation, the difficult accessibility of the subject matter for the reader, moral truth as the only justification of fiction, and the political implications of his narrative mission. Approaching this part of Razumov's story, he senses that "the decent mind of an old teacher of foreign languages feels more and more the difficulty of the task":

The task is not in truth the writing in the narrative form a précis of a strange human document, but the rendering—I perceive it now clearly—of the moral conditions ruling over a large portion of this earth's surface; conditions not easily to be understood, much less discovered in the limits of a story, till some key−word is found; a word that could stand at the back of all the words covering the pages, a word which, if not truth itself, may perchance hold truth enough to help the moral discovery which should be the object of every tale. (67; my emphasis)42)

The role and the functions of the narrator

This leads us to the question of the real role and the functions of the narrator. Greaney notes that

he is nothing more than a sounding−board for Natalia, who values his company more than his conversation. Similarly, he disregards the semantic content of her words to dwell on their aesthetic−erotic pleasures. It would be hard to find a better microcosm of the cultural 'stale−mate' between east and west than these asymmetrical dialogues between teacher and pupil. […] for the 'impartial' English narrator the whole affair [about Haldin] is further confirmation of Russian barbarity. (158−59)

[→page 63] This assessment does not do sufficient justice to the narrator because it emphasizes linguistic concerns at the neglect of more complex and truly intercultural ones in his relationship with Nathalie Haldin.

Tanner demonstrates just that potential:

the introduction of a narrator makes possible the challenging interplay of two forms of references, two schemes of values, two worlds of experience. […] the narrator who tries to impress on us the remoteness, the al—ienness, the regrettable primitiveness of his material […]. To make such a reasonable man recount to us some deeply irrational occurrence, to make the nightmarish material pass through the complacent filter, to make the western eye strive to get into focus some seemingly unwestern form of experience—this is to achieve a double irony. (198)

In truth, the narrator adopts multiple functions and exerts a very complex role in the novel. He is at the centre of everything substantial in the novel. Plot, structure and setting—the contrasting locations of St. Petersburg and Geneva—are bound up with and realized through him.43) Additionally he provides character constellation and characterization. The literary representations include social characteristics of living, housing, feeding, dressing, and speaking. Dress, face, looks, voice, speech⁄language, expressions, gestures, walk, and body language are referred to in detail. Portraying the personalities of autocrats and revolutionaries, the narrator fashions whole biographies including social details and Weltanschauung. The reader is impacted by these descriptions, begins to see events from different perspectives, is better able to look into the individual motivations of people as conditioned by their socio−political backgrounds. He⁄she is let in on how they arrive at certain decisions, how they act accordingly and how their lives subsequently take special turns. Conrad in fact regarded his characters not as "the product of the exceptional but of the general—of the normality of their place, and time, and race. […] The oppressors and the oppressed are all Russians together […]" ("Author's Note" x).

All in all, the narrator is not only in charge of the story (intradiegetic level), but also of the discourse (extradiegetic level). Events, people, [→page 64] meetings, conversations, and information are presented from his perspective, but these impressions are modified through other characters' perspectives and insights from the diary. The narrator performs the function of the reader's guide and orientor. He steers and manipulates the mode of presentation. Last but not least, he becomes instrumental in presenting, interpreting and assessing the Cosas de Russia for the reader. That is, he functions as a linguist, poststructuralist, narratologist, translator⁄interpreter, mediator and communicator of the 'moral discovery' of the story⁄narrative, the comprehension of the 'moral conditions of Russia' to Western readers. The major difficulty that the text provides for the reader consists in the tension between the narrator's apparent Russophobia, obtuseness and personal defeat on the one hand, and his empathy for Russian affairs, his true grasp of the 'moral conditions of Russia' and his moral victory. The narrator (as a person, and as a narrative category) has thus been shaped by Conrad into a very tricky tool that only very few critics have indeed managed to recognize to its full extent.44) "Under Western Eyes has baffled its readers from the moment it was published" is Carabine's comment on the early and on later responses to the novel and its narrator ("Narrative and Narrator" 209).

With hindsight we can see that Conrad's earliest reviewers were puzzled by complex issues of authority, interpretation, and meaning that have continued to (greatly) bemuse and preoccupy subsequent critics and theorists […]. They include: the evident gaps in the double narrative between "the actual facts" of Razumov's Russian diary and the western explanations of the professor of languages and between the latter's "story" and "Mr. Conrad's" multilayered "book"; and the sheer difficulty posed by a novel that employs a bemused narrator who combines favourable and unfavourable characteristics and whose judgments, norms and perceptions are so variable that they do not "as might be expected" enable the reader to establish a stable relationship with the author ("implied" or "career") that would suggest "an interpretation" of which the narrator "is unconscious." ("Narrative and Narrator" 209)

Moreover, Carabine has demonstrated the interrelatedness of the narrator's functions with Conrad's shifting conception of the nature [→page 65] and length of his work on its way from the short story "Razumov" to the novel Under Western Eyes. Discussing the multiple and competing roles of Conrad's teller ("Construing 'Secrets'" 193, 207) as the editor and transcriber of Razumov's text (189), "as eye witness, actor, teller and commentator in relation to the Geneva transactions" (193) he sees them as the product of the "long, stop−start composition of the novel, during which the old teacher accumulated many competing uses, functions, roles and characteristics, in three narratives—his own, Razumov's and Conrad's" (209n10). Precisely for these reasons Under Western Eyes is "one of Conrad's finest narratives" (188) for him, "perhaps the most quixotic, enthralling and heroic narrative in modern English fiction" (207). "[…] it generates a multi−layered, multi−voiced, multi−perspectival novel built upon an extraordinary cycle of interpretative demands and failures, embracing tellers, characters and readers ('debauch'), while striving for coherence and 'truth' through its intricate collaboration with, and manipulation of its readers ('proprieties')" (188).55)

Summing up, one can say that the narrator certainly fulfils the functions that Conrad envisaged for him. He found him useful to the reader—because of his comments, his role in the development of the story, his supplying actuality as an eye−witness, and his giving credibility to Nathalie Haldin's position as a sympathetic friend ("Author's Note" ix). The latter observation is the more remarkable because the narrative also conveys the contrary⁄complementary impression that the narrator uses Nathalie to enhance his own credibility.


The present study has brought about a number of modifications and clarifications:

1. The contrast stated in literary criticism between Russophobia in Conrad's essays and letters vs. Russophilia in his fiction cannot be sustained. Rather, the narrative presents the ambivalences and complexities of the contemporary [→page 66] Western discourse about Russia. In that sense, Conrad has successfully conducted the business of "cultural translation,"45) has done the work of a modern ethnographer by producing a text expressive of the conflicting ethnographic subjectivities of his time.46)

2. The central task of the narrator, to bring in the perspective of critical distance as a 'Western' observer, remains unfulfilled. He is neither a real foreigner for the Russians, nor a total outsider, nor 'a disinterested spectator,' but rather an insider. The reader witnesses the personal failure of a man who is half an Easterner himself and who can no longer deny his Russian legacy, although to the end he never openly acknowledges it.

3. A more critical reading of the novel discloses various contradictions about the narrator, who suffers several defeats: in spite of all his knowledge, skills and experiences in his relationship to Russia and Russians, he falls into the trap of various misjudgements. Contrary to his supposed superiority and 'Western critical' detachment, he loses his narrative distance and cannot but act out the part of a helpless spectator of the Russian drama.

4. Yet however much he pretends to narrative artlessness, he is, in fact, very skilful in the appropriation and personal rendition of Razumov's story. This also means that the narrator does keep control over his narrative. There is no collapse of control (cf. Zabel 131, Widmer 109; Kermode 268), but only a collapse of narrative and authorial distance. On the author's part, this is not a matter of personal sentimentality, but the result of a conscious narrative strategy, i.e., a controlled collapse, which Conrad found himself justified in practising due to his origins, socialization, and biographical and historical conditioning. And he was indeed entitled to do so because of his substantial knowledge and experiences, as often as he may have played them down in public.47) This is why his statement from 1920 that he did not notice the collapse of detachment rather reveals the self−defensive mechanism operating within him. Just as the narrator seems at times to throw sand in the reader's eyes, so too does Conrad the writer.56)

[→page 67] 5. According to Zabel, these factors—collapse of detachment, replacement by empathy and sympathy—simultaneously constitute the radical power of the novel (131). In other words: failure is success or defeat is victory because of the moral grandeur implied—a typical theme of the classical Russian literature of the nineteenth century.48) The reasons for this seeming paradox are various: only thus can empathy and humanity really succeed in the novel (cf. also Zabel, 128, 129, 131, 136, 144)—a sober, unemotional style could never have achieved this. These are also the qualities that Conrad (and also Virginia Woolf)49) appreciated so much in Russian literature, especially in Turgenev (cf. "Turgenev" 46−47), whose traditions he made ample and intelligent use of in the novel. The collapse of detachment is the presupposition for the true faculty of judgement—not of the intellect, but of the heart (cf. "Author's Note" viii). The fact that Conrad took up Russian themes at the beginning of the twentieth century and presented them in his own inimitable way, is a remarkable stance at a time when Russian literature was only just beginning to achieve (full) artistic acknowledgment in the West, supported also by English translations ("Turgenev" 45).50)

6. In its complexity Conrad's text is indeed able to add to the Western discourse about Russia current at that time and to correct it through his presentation of Russian sensibility versus Western incomprehension and ignorance. Conrad offers a true intercultural psychology (cf. "the psychology of Russia itself," ["Author's Note" vii]) and perspective which paves the way for a deepened intercultural understanding. His special position and presuppositions as someone who was 'Easterner' and 'Westerner' at the same time, outsider and insider, pay off advantageously here. Conrad adds knowledge, understanding and sympathy, but also criticism, bringing in enlightened positions of which the West was in bitter need then, though it did not always recognize that fact or fully appreciate his efforts. Western discourse about Russia does indeed reach a new quality through Conrad's presentations.

Technische Universität Dortmund

Works Cited

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Armstrong, Paul B. “Cultural Differences in Conrad and James: Under Western Eyes and The Ambassadors.” Conrad, James and Other Relations. Ed. Keith Carabine and Owen Knowles. Lublin, Poland: Maria Curie−Sk?odowska UP, 1998. 39−63.

Asad, Talal. “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology.” Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Ed. James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986. 141−64.

Berthoud, Jacques. “Anxiety in Under Western Eyes.” Conradian 18.1 (1993): 1−13. <> (available after free registration at JSTOR).

–––. “The Secret Agent.” 1996. The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Ed. J. H. Stape. Cambridge: CUP 2000. 100−21.

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Bimberg, Christiane. “Deutsche und Russen — ihre Beziehungen und gegenseitigen Wahrnehmungen.” Afterword. Reise nach Moskowien: Russlandbilder aus dem Kalten Krieg. Bochum: Dr. Winkler Verlag, 2006. 183−225.

–––. “A ‘Glimpse behind the Scenes,’ ‘Trying to Capture the Very Soul of Things Russian’: Literary Representations of Intercultural East−West Encounters in Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes.” Facing the East in the West: Images of Eastern Europe in British Literature, Film and Culture. Ed. Barbara Korte, Eva Ulrike Pirker, and Sissy Helff. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010. 49−65.

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