Analysis of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer

In late 1909, Joseph Conrad broke off working on his political novel about Russia, Under Western Eyes, to write the short story “The Secret-Sharer: An Episode from the Sea.” First issued in two parts in 1910, in the August and September issues of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, it was later published, in October 1912, as the second of three stories in the collection ’Twixt Land and Sea: Tales. The story is generally accepted as Conrad’s rewriting of a killing, subsequent escape, and apparent suicide, all of which events took place on the tea clipper Cutty Sark in 1880, combined with his personal experience of first command on Otago in 1888.

In the story, a ship’s captain, the unnamed narrator of the story, reflects from some point late in life on an unusual experience he had during the initial weeks of his first command of a sailing vessel. While waiting for sufficient wind to take his ship out of the Gulf of Siam (now the Gulf of Thailand), the untried and inexperienced captain takes aboard his ship an escapee who has swum from another ship in the gulf. The swimmer, named Leggatt, was first mate of Sephora, the other ship, and was being held for eventual trial for having killed a ship’s hand. Leggatt tells his version of the circumstances leading to his present condition, admitting the killing but refusing to stand trial: “you don’t see me coming back to explain such things to an old fellow in a wig and twelve respectable tradesmen, do you? What can they know whether I am guilty or not—or of what I am guilty, either?” (536). Convinced, for a variety of reasons, that Leggatt’s act was justified, the captainnarrator recounts how he hid Leggatt in his stateroom for several days before facilitating a complete escape. An undercurrent of tension drives the story, as the captain- narrator obsesses over the inadvertent discovery of Leggatt by his crew. This tension reaches an initial peak with the arrival of Archbold, captain of Sephora. As representative of the law and arbiter of justice aboard his ship, he is seeking to recover the escapee. The final peak occurs as the captain-narrator unwillingly accedes to Leggatt’s desire to be marooned on one of the many islands in the gulf. He tells of putting his ship and crew through a difficult and dangerous maneuver at night—presented to the crew as an effort to catch off-shore breezes. Close to a shoreline that threatens the integrity of the ship and the safety of the crew, Leggatt and the captain-narrator part ways, each now apparently in control of his own destiny.

From the opening lines—and as a natural consequence of the narrator’s first-person point of view— readers are placed in a position sympathetic to the inexperienced captain: seeing with his eyes, feeling his reactions to the sensory impressions he is experiencing. This sympathy is transferred, against the grain of social conscience, through the narrator to Leggatt by the forceful associations of shared background, education, and class, as well as through continuous references to Leggatt as “my double,” “my other self,” and “my secret self.”

Conrad had variously considered naming the story “The Second Self” or “The Other Self” or “The Secret Self” before settling, with his publisher’s assistance, on the title by which readers now know the story. Much critical capital has been generated and spent on readings of the story through close readings of that title. As a function of shifting the emphasis placed on the crucial terms secret and sharer, for example, the title can point to a reading as the narrator’s finally sharing a secret out of his past with some unidentified interlocutor. It could also suggest a variety of readings constructed around the idea of an illicit sharer of one’s clothing, food, fears, bed, and beliefs who is secreted, kept hidden, from the prying eyes of others on board the ship. Critical notions spun from secrets and sharing are supported by the sometimes overwhelming recurring motif in the story, that of the double or doubling. Aside from the many explicit textual references on the part of the narrator connecting Leggatt to him, their apparently close resemblance is reinforced by the almost too obvious visual sign of paired bunches of bananas tied and hanging from the central ceiling beam in the ship’s saloon. The doubling of selected consonants in Leggatt’s name is highlighted by the singular L, which is later doubled by the L-shape of the captain-narrator’s stateroom where Leggatt is hidden. While the ship repeatedly doubles back and forth, tacking across the windless gulf toward the open sea, life aboard becomes interminably tedious, heightening the physical and psychic tensions of the young captain. The narrator recounts experiencing a sense of psychic schism, a sort of doubling of his self, brought on in part as a consequence of the ethical dilemma he faced: Leggatt violated the law, both of the land and of the sea, yet the captain-narrator understands the extenuating circumstances under which the event occurred and sympathizes with Leggatt. In the end, as the ship approaches the rocky shoals surrounding the island of Koh-ring, where Leggatt completes his escape, the now tightly focused but terrified captain reenacts with important variations Leggatt’s apparently murderous act.

The early uncertainty of the captain as to his readiness to command is mirrored in the later uncertainty of the mature and apparently successful narrator; for example, regarding the name of the captain of Sephora, he says, “it was something like Archbold—but at this distance of years I hardly am sure” (530). This lack of surety, though, is counterbalanced by the certainty with which the captain-narrator, as participant and teller, adheres to Leggatt’s version of the events on Sephora. So certain is he of that truth that he declines to relate Archbold’s version in favor of painting a picture of a petit tyrant, unfit to command a ship. Uncertainty is manifest both as reflecting and as amplifying the situation aboard ship; in his duplicitous dealings with his crew and when facing down Archbold, where he feigns deafness, the captain-narrator’s behavior raises the question of reliability. Close attention by the reader to this behavior and to evidence provided by the narrator’s own admission of a faulty memory reveals an ambivalent and ironic cast to what on a first reading appears to be a happy ending to the story.

Analysis of Joseph Conrad’s Stories

Analysis of Joseph Conrad’s Novels

Conrad, Joseph. “The Secret Sharer.” Edited by Daniel R. Schwarz. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997.
———. “The Secret-Sharer: An Episode from the Sea,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine 121 (1910): 349–359, 530– 541.
Schwartz, Daniel. Reareding Conrad. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.
Watt, Ian. Essays on Conrad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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