Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad
Under Western Eyes: Part Fourth and a conclusion
By the time we had reached the end of Part Third of Under Western Eyes we had discussed exhaustively the part played by the narrator, the ‘old teacher of languages’, in the simulated account based supposedly on the journal written by Razumov. So far we have seen nothing of this journal but we know that when we think we are in the middle of a series of explanations of events we are often reading an extract from the journal or a report given by one character to another character and then relayed to us through the medium of the teacher who is informing us.
At this point in the discussion we have had to ask ourselves, Who is on our side? because every time there is a new development the author wants us to identify with or against all the principal characters.
Chapter 1 of Part Fourth begins at the moment Part First ends, after Mikulin has asked ‘Where to?’ The story concerns the relationships between Razumov and other students; the most important is Kostia who robs his father to help Razumov the ‘revolutionary’ to escape. Two crucial psychological passages are when Razumov almost forgets the parcel of stolen money and when he throws it through the train window into the snow and says ‘For the people’. In each case we cannot (that is, we are not allowed to) see his motivation clearly, and as several people have said, we feel confused – not at all for the first time. I do not entirely agree with this. The author is quite clear about what is happening but it seems to me that he wants to keep information indistinct, unreliable and uncertain. That includes what we know about the fictional events.
As Razumov puts the ‘little parcel’ in his pocket he says to himself ‘It’s a dream… nobody does such things… Preposterous’ and then ‘Kostia vanished out of the dream’. The idea of the dream is pursued to the end of the chapter, except for the comment on his throwing the money away: ‘That had been a waking act, and then the dream had him again’. He arrives at last at Geneva ‘with the fear of awakening at the end’.
Chapter 2 takes us back to the end of Part Third. Razumov is on his little island, isolated, all by himself except for a statue, but linked to the rest of Geneva and the world by a bridge. The island is a public park without any public and Razumov is ‘reflecting… Perhaps life is just that… a dream and a fear’. He sits there, in a public place, and writes his secret agent report which ‘shows I am on the brink of real discoveries’. But ‘the futility of all this overcame him like a curse’. He has made no real preparations to contact the Russian authorities and has to buy an envelope, put the torn out sheets of paper into it and take his message to the Post Office. The system of communication has been designed ‘to make him safe – absolutely safe’. We do not know whether this is a straightforward description or a deeply cynical comment or something in between. The teacher sees him going down the street but apparently Razumov does not notice him. The teacher is worried for Natalie Haldin because of the attitude of Razumov and goes to visit her, but finds she is just going out to try to find where Razumov lives. Mrs Haldin wishes to speak to him about her son.
Natalie and the teacher decide to ask Peter Ivanovitch who lives on the top floor of a huge hotel. When they knock on the door of his suite Sophia Antonovna opens it. Natalie introduces herself; the teacher observes a group of men and women round a map of the Baltic Provinces; Julius Laspara is the only person the teacher and Natalie recognise, and Julius immediately assumes she is coming to write for the revolutionaries.
Peter Ivanovitch (‘the great man’) comes in wearing ‘a long dressing gown of some dark stuff’ and takes Natalie’s ‘hand in his thick cushioned palm, and put his other big paw over it like a lid’. We do not know what Natalie and Peter are saying to each other but she and the teacher leave quickly. Sophia Antonovna catches up with them as they are waiting for the lift and tells them the official revolutionary version of the Victor Haldin story – ‘and Mr Razumov will explain it all to you’.
They look for Razumov twice at his address but give up and go back to the Haldin apartment where Mrs Haldin is ‘keeping a dreadful, tormenting vigil… cruel and absurd’.
Chapter 3 As they arrive at the apartment Razumov is about to leave. He has, apparently, told Mrs Haldin the official story. Through the door the three people can see Mrs Haldin. Her position ‘suggested the contemplation of something in her lap, as though a beloved head was resting there… suffering without remedy’.
The scene changes abruptly to the Razumov diary – the author is being exceedingly bold here – and takes him from his room to the Haldin apartment. Everyone is now back together and Razumov reports himself in a mass of thoughts, especially about Natalie and the story he has just told Mrs Haldin. He interrupts the story: ‘But there is a question of fitness. Has this occurred to you?… with the monstrous hint of mockery in his intention.’ As he speaks to Natalie ‘they looked like two people becoming conscious of a spell lying on them…’ The teacher thinks they are falling in love thanks to their shared relationship with Victor Haldin. At any rate, they talk to each other for two or three pages of the chapter and Razumov becomes more and more agitated until the teacher begins to think ‘This man is deranged’.
Natalie responds as well as she can: ‘You are teasing me’ and ‘You are concealing something from me’. She states her belief in a merciful future. ‘She was unable to see the truth struggling on his lips’. He attempts to make his ‘atrocious confession’ though all he says is ‘It ends here’ and ‘looked at her with an appalling expressionless tranquillity’. The teacher is furious; Razumov snatches Natalie’s black veil and runs out with it. This is a complex section of writing where some of the events and conversation are the direct narrative of the teacher, including the direct speech of all three characters while some parts must be derived from the supposed diary.
Everyone thinks now that Razumov was responsible for the death of Victor Haldin.
Chapter 4 is the most melodramatic part of the book. Razumov goes back to his room and writes his journal up to date. Razumov seems to be addressing Natalie. He explains what has happened that evening and what his thoughts are, though the teacher, who comments later after reading it, says he thinks some of it is incoherent. Razumov finishes writing and wraps his notebook in the veil.
At midnight he goes to the hotel and finds the conspirators and confesses to them. Most of them would simply let him go but Nekator decides to punish him and breaks his eardrums. He was thrown out into the street in a thunderstorm but he could not hear the thunder. He walked as far as the Chateau Borel; he did not hear the tram that ran into him.
Chapter 5 It is two weeks later than chapter 4 and Mrs Haldin has died. We have the details of the Tekla story now, in arrears: Tekla ran out of the house and said he was her Russian relative and made sure he was being looked after in the hospital. Suddenly she ran off and resigned her job. The teacher visits Natalie. He says nobody knew what Razumov had told Mrs Haldin but she had not believed him.; Natalie hands the teacher Razumov’s diary, wrapped in her veil.
Effectively that is the end of the story. But two years later the teacher meets Sophia Antonovna and shows her the journal. She tells him that Natalie is now a prison visitor in Russia and helper of the bereaved; Sophia also says that she has visited Razumov and Tekla in a ‘two-roomed wooden house’. He is visited by other revolutionaries and they are sympathetic, especially about the punishment. She goes on to say that Milukin and Peter Ivanovitch met on a train; Mikulin gave Peter ‘a hint’ that Nekator was a police agent that he had inherited. Madame de S had not made a will and her aristocratic relatives were fighting over the inheritance; Peter had met and ‘united himself to a peasant girl… He just simply adores her’.
The theme of Under Western Eyes is crime and punishment. The setting is mainly domestic but unfamiliar to ‘western eyes’. Although Razumov was responsible for the death of Victor Haldin, what he did was not a crime. The crime was committed by Victor Haldin who was punished by being executed; his mother and sister suffered by his death. Haldin had put his trust in Razumov who brought about his arrest.
We have discussed already the question of identification, for and against what the characters do; at every point in the story we are forced to decide which side we are on: what would I do in the circumstances? The issue therefore is one of morality, personal thought and action, rather than a crime which offends the law and the state. The concept of sin is completely absent: the author explicitly claims that God does not come into the story, though we can we form our idea of morality in any way we want to.
We may think, for example, that Victor Haldin was acting morally when he killed Mr P, but was Razumov acting morally when he denounced him? Was his list of beliefs, stuck to the wall with his knife, a true reflection of his moral personality? Were his confessions, to Natalie and to the revolutionists, moral actions? Was his punishment by Nekator appropriate? And finally, was his rescue by Tekla part of his punishment? Whatever we decide, we have to choose because we are reading this particular book and no other.
There are far more issues we could consider as we sort out the attitudes the author has created in us but at present I think these points will have to do.
Today, completely by chance, I came across the term aporia. It means getting into a state of uncertainly which demands our thinking and doing something. Well, we are not all satisfied that we have thoroughly enjoyed the book. Where do we go from here?
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