Places: Under Western Eyes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1911

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*St. Petersburg

*St. Under Western EyesPetersburg. Capital of Russia and center of its brutally despotic government. In the opening sections of the novel the main character, Razumov, finds himself in settings which illustrate the range and variety of Russian life during the early years of the twentieth century. These range from the slovenly stables and eating-houses of the poor, drunken peasantry to the elaborately decorated, gilded palaces of the nobility. The difference between the extreme misery and poverty of the lower classes and the arrogance and wealth of the aristocracy is displayed most clearly in the contrast between their dwellings and furnishings. When Razumov becomes involved with the revolutionary Haldin, he also becomes well acquainted with the offices of the Russian secret police, that organization totally dedicated to the repression and, if possible, elimination of all expressions of freedom and individual liberty. In a sense, the Russian locations in the novel present a sort of physical argument in favor of revolution.

Razumov’s dwelling

Razumov’s dwelling. Modest set of rooms in a Russian apartment building. There is an outer room with a couch, table, and similar furnishings and an inner room with a bed. As described by Joseph Conrad, the apartment is small, sparsely furnished but functional; it is a reasonably comfortable place for a student such as Razumov to live and work. In the novel, its major importance is to serve as the physical setting where the terrorist Haldin intrudes to draw Razumov into his revolutionary circle. The decisions made in this unremarkable apartment set the story in motion.


*Geneva. City in Switzerland traditionally known for its hospitality to exiles and revolutionaries. Its major physical feature is its lake ringed by mountains. Aside from the unnamed narrator, all the characters in the novel are exiles from the repressive Russian regime, living and plotting in the section of Geneva known as “Little Russia.” Conrad’s descriptions of the city are ironic and less than favorable; while it provides protection for the homeless, it is a city of “deplorable banality,” which appears more beautiful than it actually is. The underlying cause, Conrad implies, is the famous tolerance of Geneva itself, which accommodates any and all philosophies.

Nathalie Haldin’s apartment

Nathalie Haldin’s apartment. Thoroughly middle-class apartment in a good but modest hotel in Geneva, where Nathalie lives with her mother. It is here that the mother and sister of the executed revolutionary live and, through their meetings with Razumov and others, learn the facts about his death. Conrad is slight on the physical descriptions, since the important point is what happens to the people inside these rooms.

Château Borel

Château Borel. Ugly, decrepit mansion on the outskirts of Geneva. The château is the home of the terrorist conspirator Madame de S––, whose dubious reputation is known to all Europeans of a certain political affiliation. Like the revolutionaries within its walls, the château is a grimy, run-down place, not at all respectable and in the end not really serious. It is filled with a wild assortment of characters who preach strange doctrines.

Cosmopolitan Hotel

Cosmopolitan Hotel. Geneva home of Peter Ivanovitch, escaped Russian political prisoner and revolutionary. Like the Château Borel, this is a nest of revolutionaries intent on the violent overthrow of Russia. The conspirators’ appearance and conduct and the disorderly confusion of their surroundings are repellent; however, the danger and threat of violence are real.

BibliographyHay, Eloise Knapp. The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. Studies the variety of political thought and themes in Conrad’s work. The chapter on Under Western Eyes calls it Conrad’s “last great political novel.”Rieselbach, Helen Funk. Conrad’s Rebels: The Psychology of Revolution in the Novels from “Nostromo” to “Victory.” Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985. Discusses the consequences of Razumov’s speech and silence. Calls the novel “Conrad’s most extensive treatment of the theme of betrayal–the psychological motivations behind it and its consequences.”Schwarz, Daniel R. Conrad: “Almayer’s Folly” to “Under Western Eyes.” Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980. Contains an excellent chapter on Under Western Eyes, focusing on the novel’s “rejection of political commitment in favor of personal relationships and private commitments.”Smith, David R., ed. Joseph Conrad’s “Under Western Eyes”: Beginnings, Revisions, Final Forms. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1991. Five essays by Conrad specialists trace the development of the novel from manuscript to finished work and cover a variety of topics related to the novel.Watts, Cedric. A Preface to Conrad. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1993. A good starting point for Conrad scholarship, with general biographical and cultural background on Conrad.
Categories: Places