The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad, 1912

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by Joseph Conrad, 1912

In "The Secret Sharer," written in late 1909, Joseph Conrad explores his favorite theme—how individuals come to know and define themselves. More intense and intellectualized than his earlier fiction, the story possesses a design, characters, setting, and style that turn in upon themselves to imply how the process of self-realization unfolds. The result is a modernist masterpiece of implication and suggestion. As a consequence the story has drawn a good deal of critical attention, is frequently anthologized, and—along with "Heart of Darkness," which it in some ways resembles—is usually regarded as being among Conrad's best and most evocative works.

Because of the story's construction the sparseness of characters and paucity of action complicate rather than resolve meaning. The captain-narrator appears to relate in a reasonably straightforward fashion the events that occurred soon after he took charge of his first ship's command in the Gulf of Siam, but questions soon arise. The narrator remains unnamed, and his character is never objectively delineated; his story is revealed to have occurred at a "distance of years" from the time of its telling; and the precise nature of his relationship with his "secret sharer," a seaman named Leggatt, is especially puzzling and never defined. Although Leggatt represents a powerful force for the captain-narrator, the nature of that force remains open to a range of different interpretations. The story is built around only a few major actions, but these events, too, are complicated by the narrative framing, interpolated stories, and first-person point of view. Even Leggatt's story (while serving as chief mate of the Sephora, he accidentally killed a sailor and escaped by swimming away) requires explication. What is clear is that, to the narrator suffering in the solitude of his first command, all details become loaded with an excruciatingly acute significance, and the strong bond he feels with Leggatt invests every circumstance with metaphorical import. The Eastern setting and the relative isolation of his ship at sea compound feelings of alienation. His identification with Leggatt, a criminal, conflicts with his untried sense of authority and duty to legalities. His investigation of this relationship is his way of exploring "how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one's own personality every man sets up for himself secretly," a concern he raises early in his narrative.

The peculiar thematic intensity of the story derives primarily from its descriptive style, from the way in which events are perceived rather than from what actually happens. Although surface details are rendered with typical Conradian precision, they take on an enigmatic or cryptic quality as they emerge through the brooding consciousness of the introspective narrator. The first sentence describing the lines of fishing stakes observable from the narrator's ship immediately establishes this quality: the stakes resemble "a mysterious system of half-submerged" fences, "incomprehensible" in its design and "crazy of aspect." Later the riding light—which attracts Leggatt—is described as having a "clear, untroubled, as if symbolic flame … in the mysterious shades of the night." Much of the secret partnership with Leggatt—the hushed whisperings, the concealment in the captain's cabin, the necessary duplicity toward the crew—is described in similar terms. In such a context it is not surprising that interpreters discover deep archetypal significance in facts such as Leggatt's initial appearance from the sea at night, naked and seeming to be a headless corpse. The L-shape of the captain's quarters; the similar size, appearance, and background of the two major characters; the hidden significance in the few proper names that are revealed; the preponderance of doubled images; and the series of references like "my double" or "my second self"—all compound possibilities of meaning. Many readers feel that Leggatt represents an instinctive capacity for action or imaginative strength and that he symbolizes one side of the captain's conflict between public and private values; Archbold, the captain of the Sephora, may embody the other side, with the narrator caught between the two.

Much critical energy has been spent exploring the significance of particular details and actions. The captain's risking his crew and ship to come as close to the island of Koh-ring as possible, for example, is usually perceived in terms of a crucial rite of passage, or the captain's hat, which remains floating on the water in the final scene, is scrutinized as being a particularly important symbol. The large number of classical and biblical allusions in Conrad's writing promotes such interpretive concerns, especially for scenes like the final one, in which the ship is described as being like "a bark of the dead floating in slowly under the very gate of Erebus." His style helps transform otherwise ordinary events into a ritual night sea passage, a descent into the underworld, or a Cain and Abel story.

The story's involved moral questions capture many of the modernist concerns with the quest for identity, the nature of evil, the pervasiveness of guilt, the value of codes of conduct, and the friability of institutions. Although the denouement seems positive—the captain feels "the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command," and his secret sharer is "a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny"—it still is never clear whether Leggatt is an evil that has been exorcised or whether his brief relationship with the captain has simply provided a timely opportunity for greater understanding. Most interpreters feel, however, that in spite of the final sense of affirmation the story suggests the process of self-definition to be both exceedingly complex and rooted in tragedy. The enduring popularity of "The Secret Sharer" seems to confirm this vision.

—Thomas Loe

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The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad, 1912

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