Independence and Community: Under Western Eyes and ‘The Secret Sharer’

  • Robert Hampson


In Under Western Eyes, Conrad deals again with the world of anarchists and revolutionaries that he had touched upon in The Secret Agent, but, now he starts from the explicit premiss that acts of terrorism can be seen as a desperate response to an oppressive society.1 Haldin’s successful assassination attempt is described as ‘characteristic of the moral corruption of an oppressed society’ (p. 7). As Berthoud has shown, the precise significance of ‘moral corruption’ is dramatically revealed at that moment, during Haldin’s dialogue with Razumov, when he suddenly breaks down and weeps (p. 22): this collapse is ‘more than a delayed reaction to the physical shock of the explosion; it is a result of the strain of moral conflict — of being obliged to act in defiance of his deepest feelings’.2 In this respect, Haldin’s career is proleptic of Razumov’s: Razumov, too, is forced to act ‘in defiance of his deepest feelings’ as a result of the ‘moral corruption of an oppressed society’. As Conrad says, in ‘Autocracy and War’, the psychology of individuals ‘reflects the general effect of the fears and hopes of its time’.3 The aftermath of the assassination precipitates a crisis in Razumov’s life: he is forced to re-examine his own identity, and the process forces him to consider his relations to the opposed political forces in the society he inhabits.


Secret Sharer Language Teacher Ideal Code Mystical Experience Ideal Conception 
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  1. 5.
    Michael Holquist, Dostoevsky and the Novel (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977) pp. 96, 75.Google Scholar
  2. 8.
    Fleishman discusses Under Western Eyes as a confrontation between Russian organicist theories and Conrad’s own organicist ideology: ‘At the root of all forms of Russian thought, as exemplified in these speeches — the czarist general’s autocracy, the mystical student’s populism, the revolutionary’s nihilism — lies a conception of society as an organism, a real unity of its members, which has not only a historical tradition but a divinely shaped destiny, a spiritual law determining its course…. It is the religious absolutism that lies behind much Russian nationalism (Dostoevsky’s, for example) that Conrad condemns as obscurantist’ (Conrad’s Politics, p. 224). Conrad, however, had lost faith in organicism before he wrote Under Western Eyes, and this novel arrives at a more complex view of the collective and communal nature of human life. For other considerations of Conrad’s ideological confrontation with Dostoevsky, see Carola Kaplan, ‘Conrad’s Attempted Occupation of Russia in Under Western Eyes’; Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan, ‘Dostoevsky, Bakhtin and Conrad’; Keith Carabine, ‘Conrad, Korzeniowski, Dostoievski’, The Joseph Conrad Society Sixteenth Annual International Conference, University of Kent, Canterbury, 1990.Google Scholar
  3. 11.
    See Robert B. Heiiman, ‘Charlotte Brontë’s “New” Gothic’, in Robert C. Rathburn and Martin Steinmann, Jr. (eds), From Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958) pp. 118–32.Google Scholar
  4. 12.
    Jeremy Hawthorn, ‘Introduction’, Under Western Eyes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983) p. vii.Google Scholar
  5. 21.
    Raskolnikov, too, falls into a fever after his murder of Alyona and Lizaveta: ‘He was not completely unconscious, however, all the time he was ill; he was in a feverish state, sometimes delirious, sometimes half-conscious’ (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. Constance Garnett [London: William Heinemann, 1914] p. 109).Google Scholar
  6. 28.
    According to the date on the typescript, Under Western Eyes was completed on 22 January 1910. ‘The Secret Sharer’ is based on an incident which took place in 1880 on board the Cutty Sark (see Basil Lubbock, The Log of the ‘Cutty Sark’ [Glasgow: J. Brown and Son, 1924]). Conrad combined this with memories of his own experiences on board his first command, the Otago.Google Scholar
  7. 31.
    At the same time, as Hewitt notes, the narrator also tells us that Leggatt ‘was not a bit like me really’ (p. 105). The doubt that this statement creates produces the kind of hesitation that is characteristic of the narrative-technique of Gothic fiction. ‘The Secret Sharer’ might usefully be compared, in this respect, with James Hogg’s The Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Todorov has suggested that it is precisely this hesitation that characterises the fantastic as a genre. See Tzvetan Todorov, Introduction à la littérature fantastique (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1970).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Robert Hampson 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert Hampson
    • 1
  1. 1.Royal Holloway and Bedford New CollegeUniversity of LondonUK

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