The Secret Sharer

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The Secret Sharer

Joseph Conrad 1909

Author Biography

Plot Summary




Historical Context

Critical Overview



Further Reading

Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” was written in only two weeks in 1909. This story and two others make up the book Twixt Land and Sea which was first published in 1912. Conrad considered three other titles for his story about identity: “The Second Self,” “The Secret Self,” and “The Other Self.” The tale is based on a true story about a murder on the ship Cutty Sark in 1880 by a sailor with a wicked reputation. The murderer jumped ship and was captured; he was eventually acquitted of murder but found guilty of manslaughter. Conrad’s story varies from the real tale in that the real crime was deliberate and committed by a vicious man. In the fictional version, Leggatt is attempting to save his ship from a sailor who will not obey orders. “The Secret Sharer” is considered to be both a psychological and autobiographical piece of writing, and is largely considered one of Conrad’s finest short works.

Author Biography

Joseph Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, in Berdichev, Poland. Conrad’s parents were exiled to Northern Russia in 1862 and both of them died before Conrad was eleven. He was then supported and raised by various relatives, including his maternal uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, a prosperous lawyer who provided financial aid until Conrad was in his thirties. Conrad received sporadic and irregular schooling and was often ill. He joined the British merchant marines in 1878 and traveled to Africa, Australia, India, and the Orient. These experiences would later aid and inform his writing. Due to poor health, Conrad was forced to retire from the merchant marines, and in 1894 he began a career as a writer. It was not until 1913, with the publication of Chance, that Conrad became an acclaimed writer.

Most of Conrad’s stories were inspired by his experiences at sea: Lord Jim was a story that he had heard about the ship the Jeddah; The Nigger of the Narcissus was based on his adventures from Bombay to England; “The Secret Sharer” was taken from an actual incident aboard the Cutty Sark in 1880; and Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s most famous work, is a fictional account of the author’s own experience in the Belgian Congo. On August 3, 1924, Joseph Conrad died at the age of 66 and was buried in Canterbury, England.

Plot Summary

“The Secret Sharer,” one of Polish-born Conrad’s more widely read sea stories, is a psychological tale narrated by a young ship captain who finds himself harboring a fugitive from another ship. As the story opens, the narrator has just taken command of his first ship, which is anchored in the Gulf of Siam. The captain reveals the extent of his insecurity at the beginning of this long voyage, comparing himself to the ship itself: “we seemed to be measuring our fitness for a long and arduous enterprise, the appointed task of both our existences to be carried out.” Recognizing that this journey will be the opportunity he needs to test himself, he assumes an uneasy command of a considerably older and more experienced crew.

Much to the astonishment of his crew, the captain decides to take a five-hour watch himself the first night while they remain at anchor waiting for enough wind to begin sailing. Although another ship, the Sephora is anchored not far away, the captain revels in the solitude and peacefulness of walking the decks alone.

Soon, however, his mood is shattered by a startling discovery. Pausing to pull up a ladder he believes someone carelessly left over the side, he is astonished to see “something elongated and pale floating very close to the ladder.” The shape turns out to be “the naked body of a man,” clutching the bottom rung of the ladder with one hand. The two men begin a whispered conversation, which establishes the “mysterious communication” between them that drives the remainder of the plot.

The mysterious swimming man introduces himself as Leggatt and explains that he has escaped from the Sephora because he has been imprisoned awaiting trial for killing a man. Later, Leggatt further explains that the man he killed had refused to follow orders in the midst of an awful storm and that his actions may have saved the ship and the rest of the crew. Because the young captain believes the fugitive’s story, and because he sees so much of himself in Leggatt, he decides to hide him in his quarters.

The two men are bound together by the secret they share, and the captain becomes an accomplice to Leggatt’s crime because he must deceive his own crew in order to hide the fugitive. The relationship becomes more complicated when the old captain from the Sephora boards the ship to search for and inquire about the missing man. Though he escapes detection, Leggatt now knows that he will not be treated justly if he surrenders, declaring, “It would never do for me to come to life again.” And so the two sharers of the secret devise a plan to allow Leggatt to escape to land, though he is doomed to a life of wandering.

The untested young captain commands his crew to sail dangerously close to land in order to allow Leggatt to slip out undetected. He is fully aware that he is risking not just his career but also the safety of his ship and crew. Telling his crew he is looking for “land wind,” he takes the ship so close that “the great black mass [is] brooding over [the] very mastheads.” Finally he gives the order to turn away, but he is so unfamiliar with the feel of the ship that he cannot tell in the dark if he is successful. At last he sees a marker drifting astern and he knows that he has successfully avoided losing his ship. He also knows that Leggatt has slipped away undetected; the marker is the captain’s own white hat that he thrust upon Leggatt before he left him.


Captain Archbold

Captain Archbold is the captain of the Sephora. He is searching for Leggatt, a fugitive sailor who killed a man on the Sephora and is wanted for manslaughter. When Archbold attempts to capture Leggatt aboard the nameless ship, he knows that Leggatt is there, but cannot prove it. It is here that the young captain shows just how shrewd and clever he can be. Archbold acts as a kind of comic relief in the story, illustrating that in some cases, those in charge can be incompetent.

The Captain

The captain is the nameless leader aboard a nameless ship who befriends the sailor Leggatt. Leggatt has just escaped from another ship and is wanted for manslaughter. The captain is very insecure with being in charge and is unsure of his status on board ship. The crew has been together for some time and the captain, a stranger, despite his official position has not proven himself to the crew. The captain is only 27-years old, a young man to be in charge of men who are older and much more experienced than himself. The captain identifies with Leggatt, and through this identification he achieves a greater self-definition. The exact nature of the connection between the captain and Leggatt, however, is not clear. Leggatt has killed a man and is fleeing to escape punishment, but he may have committed this act in order to save his fellow crewmembers from danger. Through Leggatt, the captain becomes a stronger and more aggressive leader, but he also shows signs of instability. The captain helps Leggatt to escape by driving his ship dangerously close to the island of Koh-ring, after which he steers his ship back on course.


Leggatt is a fugitive sailor who is wanted for manslaughter. Leggatt has escaped by jumping ship (the Sephora) and ends up on board the captain’s ship. Leggatt is a very forceful and straightforward man, who looks similar to the captain. Leggatt acts as a double for the captain, and it is through Leggatt that the captain achieves a degree of self-definition. The captain helps Leggatt hide from Archbold and ultimately helps him escape by navigating his ship dangerously close to the island of Koh-ring. For some critics, Leggatt represents the darker side of human nature. Thus, by his identification with Leggatt, the captain is examining his own dark side.

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Initiation and Self-Definition

The captain in “The Secret Sharer” undergoes a process of initiation and self-definition. When confronted with the duties and responsibilities of a captain, he is not only overwhelmed but also impressed with all the responsibilities that he has taken on. He is constantly looking for reassurance from his crew that he is doing fine. He learns from Leggatt that in order to be a good leader, he has to be more aggressive, more intuitive, and more direct. Conrad’s captain is exploring various ways in which to define himself; he must come to terms with his aggressiveness or else risk falling into insanity.

Mirror Image

The captain and Leggatt act as mirror images of each other, or as each others’ doppelgangers, as “the other” is sometimes called in literature. They both have titles that command respect, they both are young, and they both are from the same background. According to Lionel Trilling, “the two young men are virtually the same person.” When these characters first meet, the captain says, “He appealed to me as if our experiences had been as

Media Adaptations

  • “The Secret Sharer” was adapted for film and produced by Encyclopaedia Brittanica Educational Corp. in 1973.
  • The movie Face to Face is an adaptation of two short stories, “The Secret Sharer” and Stephen Crane’s “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” The movie was released in 1952 and stars James Mason, Gene Lockhart, Michael Pate, Albert Sharpe, Sean McClory and Alec Harford.

identical as our clothes.” Leggatt can be seen as one side of the captain’s identity—aggressive and dangerous. Conrad uses this mirror-image to explore different sides of the captain’s identity.

Symbiotic Relationship

The captain and Leggatt have a symbiotic relationship. That is, each is quite different from the other, but they have a mutually beneficial relationship. Leggatt receives from the captain shelter and refuge from those chasing him. The captain even helps him escape. Through Leggatt, the captain gains insight and knowledge. Leggatt acts as the captain’s double, allowing him to explore darker facets of his own identity. For Leggatt, this relationship is more practical; the captain helps him to evade capture. For the captain the value of the symbiotic relationship is less tangible; it is an opportunity for self-exploration.


Point of View

The narrator of “The Secret Sharer” is the captain. Typical of Conrad, the story revolves around this character’s reflection on past experience in order to understand himself better. Because of the thematic focus of the story, that of a man in search of identity and understanding, the narrator is often seen as unreliable; that is, because of his preoccupations, he is not always perceiving events in a clear and non-judgemental way. The captain remains nameless throughout the story, suggesting that he be viewed as a representation of the rite of passage each person must experience.

Style and Structure

Conrad’s style is seemingly simple: the story revolves around only a few events. However, the meaning of the story is complicated and ambiguous. Though the story is ostensibly about a murder, an escaped sailor and the relationship between two men who appear to mirror each other, it becomes clear that the story is actually about one man’s search for self. The precise relationship between Leggatt and the captain is never fully defined, perhaps a comment by the author that the search for one’s true nature can never be complete. Though it appears that the narrator is relating a simple story in a straightforward fashion, beneath this is the complicated journey toward self-realization. The structure of “The Secret Sharer” also reflects its thematic focus. The story is apparently the straightforward reminiscence of the captain, relating the events that took place some years before. This is complicated, however, by the interjected stories of Leggatt, who serves as the captain’s mirror image.

Historical Context

Life on the High Seas

Many of Conrad’s works, including “The Secret Sharer,” were inspired by the author’s journeys as a seaman. In 1890 Conrad went to work in the Congo. Before this time, Africa had largely been ignored by Europe, but the end of the 1800s brought a surge of interest in the continent, which experienced great changes as it became the site of rapid colonization. The 1870s sparked intense rivalry among Belgium, Germany, the United States, and older colonial powers, especially Great Britain, to create world empires. The scramble for control of Africa stirred heated debate about relations with the continent’s natives. Stimulated by the abolitionist movements of the 1800s, Europeans began to ponder with increasing frequency the differences—if any—between African slaves and themselves. Conrad shared a stance taken by others in Great Britain, namely that Belgium’s King Leopold was doing no more than ripping off riches from Africa. By contrast, many Britons felt that they were working for the betterment of the natives in Africa. They believed that they were replacing savage customs with more civilized ways. Real life atrocities in the African Congo greatly influenced Conrad.

Critical Overview

“The Secret Sharer” is considered one of Conrad’s best works. It was written in two weeks, nearly ten years after Conrad’s most famous work, Heart of Darkness. This story is based on a true incident that happened aboard the Cutty Sark in 1880. Critics view the story as typical of Conrad: the theme of self-discovery, the psychological depth of character, precise and evocative details. Like Conrad’s other works, the story is largely a psychological portrait and is semi-autobiographical. Critics have differed greatly in their interpretations of specific details and actions in “The Secret Sharer,” some interpreting Leggatt as symbolizing a “dark side” of human nature, others focusing on the story as a rite of passage. Ultimately, most critics view the story as representing the quest for self, which is both tragic and complicated.


Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton

Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton is an instructor at University of Texas Extension and the coordinator of the Undergraduate Writing Center at the University of Texas at Austin. In the following essay, she discusses the theme of self-discovery in “The Secret Sharer.”

In “The Secret Sharer,” Conrad tells the story of two simultaneous journeys: the literal sea journey,

Topics for Further Study

  • Research Conrad’s concept of the dark side of man and how he uses this theme in various works. How is the concept of a dark side of human nature treated in other disciplines, for example, in psychology or philosophy?
  • Discuss how Leggatt and the captain are related. Is Leggatt a double for the captain? What does the captain learn from Leggatt? Does Leggatt learn anything from the captain?
  • Compare the relationship between Leggatt and the captain in “The Secret Sharer” to the relationship between Kurtz and Marlow in Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness.

and the young captain’s journey toward self discovery. That his ship barely gets underway in the final pages of the story is an indication of which of the two journeys Conrad found most interesting. The young captain of the unnamed ship, who has just taken command of the vessel, and who, in his own words, is “somewhat of a stranger” to himself is given the opportunity and incentive to embark on his own journey toward self-knowledge. Conrad uses a double for the captain, to force him to look into his “self” from the outside, and to journey through his own darker side towards a greater understanding of himself. Only after completing this journey will the young captain be capable of leading his skeptical crew on a literal journey.

The opening paragraph of the story suggests that the captain’s path to self-knowledge will not be well marked. The adjectives with which the narrator describe his surroundings give clues to his sense of strangeness and dislocation: “mysterious,” “half-submerged,” “incomprehensible,” and “crazy of aspect.” The young man feels as though he is without all his familiar landmarks. He then takes his first tentative steps toward commanding his crew by rashly dismissing the night watch and walking the decks alone. Earlier in the evening he has wondered

Compare & Contrast

  • 1900s: Writers such as Conrad and Henry James write stylized stories emphasizing introspective and highly self-conscious, albeit often unreliable, narrators.
    1990s: This tradition is continued today in such writers as V. S. Naipaul, who is often compared to Conrad. Naipaul is considered a psychological and social realist.
  • 1900s: The late 1800s sees the rise of the science of psychology, and Sigmund Freud popularizes the concept of the unconscious and the practice of psychoanalysis. Human behavior is thought to stem from unconscious thoughts and conflicts.
    1990s: Psychology is an established discipline, although Freud’s theories are largely considered unscientific. Modern theories seek to explain human behavior in terms of organic and physical causes.
  • 1900s: Life on the high seas is dangerous but highly romanticized as an opportunity for adventure to working-class men.
    1990s: The mystique of a sea-faring life has largely disappeared with the advent of affordable air travel and luxury cruises that are available to many.

if he “should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly,” indicating that he recognizes that the voyage will test and solidify his sense of self, and revealing an unusual degree of self-consciousness. Of course, the journey he has in mind is the literal sort, and he cannot anticipate what awaits him on the bottom rung of the ship’s ladder.

When the captain leans over the side and sees the white shape by the hull, the appearance of the seemingly headless body alongside the ship gives literal form to the captain’s self-consciousness. He feels “painfully ” that he is a stranger among men, and that his actions might have made him “appear eccentric.” That the captain first perceives the body of Leggatt as headless is significant as well; it suggests that immediately their identities are fused by the captain figuratively placing his head on the other’s body. Their “mysterious communication” is sealed when the captain notices that “the self-possession of that man had somehow induced a corresponding state” in himself. After Leggatt reveals the reasons for his fugitive status, after he shares his secret, the captain regards the visitor and thinks: “It was, in the night, as though I had been faced by my own reflection in the depths of a sombre and immense mirror.”

The remainder of the first part of the story illuminates the ways in which the two young men share traits and experiences in common, how each man reflects himself back to the other. They are both about the same age and have attended the same training school, Conway, which establishes a kind of fraternity between them. Each of them also feels alienated from the crew of his ship. Conrad emphasizes these similarities, perhaps to the point of excess, by stressing the imagery of doubling. They are both dressed in identical clothing; Leggatt wears the captain’s spare “sleeping suit,” a designation that suggests the unconscious, the sleeping self inside the waking or conscious self. The captain speculates that anyone looking into his cabin “would have been treated to the uncanny sight of a double captain busy talking in whispers with his other self.” After several days of secretly sharing his cabin with Leggatt, and of sharing Leggatt’s secret, the captain begins to succumb to the pressures: “I was constantly watching myself, my secret self. . . . It was very much like being mad, only it was worse because one was aware of it.” It becomes clear that soon both young men will have to take some action. The sense of urgency intensifies when suspicious old captain Archbold of the Sephora questions the captain and reveals that he will have to report

What Do I Read Next?

  • Heart of Darkness (1902), a tale of a man sent into the Belgian Congo to track the elusive and maniacal Mr. Kurtz, is considered Conrad’s best work, and one of the twentieth century’s most important novellas.
  • The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), Edgar Allan Poe’s novella of a rite of passage for a young man and his love of the sea.
  • “William Wilson,” also by Edgar Allan Poe, is a story about a man’s double. A man is persecuted throughout his life by a man with the same name, who may or may not be real.
  • “The Double” by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky is another story concerning a man’s double.
  • The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem about an ancient seafarer and his experiences with the supernatural.

Leggatt’s disappearance as a suicide. The grizzled cynicism of old Archbold is in stark contrast to the young captain’s untested innocence, and Archbold’s stubborn attachment to following the rules makes the captain’s risk-taking appear even more brash.

In the second part of the story, Conrad dramatizes the mirroring, or complementary, aspects of the relationship between the two young men rather than their similarities. This shift in emphasis suggests that the self-reflexive phase of the narrator’s journey toward self-discovery may be coming to an end. The biggest difference between the two men is that while Leggatt has killed a man in order to avoid shipwreck, the captain is willing to risk shipwreck in order to save the life of one man (Leggatt). Furthermore, the young captain is hoping the experiences of his first command will make him more a member of the community of the ship and will enable him to make a name for himself on the seas and land. Leggatt, however, seeks to escape the censure of the group and the rule of the sea and knows that his existence from now on will be anonymous, that he is doomed to wander the earth without roots and that he will likely never regain his career as an officer. “It will never do for me to come to life again,” he says.

After the two of them decide on a plan that will allow Leggatt to escape to the Kohring, the nearby island that they presume to be the most habitable, the story becomes more suspenseful. Conrad poses two questions as the story draws to a conclusion: Will Leggatt get away safely? and, will the young captain avoid losing the ship and his crew’s confidence in the tricky maneuvering near the rocky coastline? The narrative focus remains, however, on the psychological dimension of the story. The events provide precisely the kind of crucible, or severe test, the young captain had been seeking in which to forge his identity. He is aware that he has gained all he can from looking into his “other self” and now he must move from contemplation to action. He must establish the same kind of “mysterious communication” with his ship and crew that he had established with Leggatt. Before he even gives the orders to sail toward land he mutters to himself: “I realized suddenly that all my future, the only future for which I was fit, would perhaps go irretrievably to pieces in any mishap to my first command.” His realization of the risks he is about to undertake is made all the more palpable because he must witness his “other self’ literally throw away his future as he slips out of the port into the dark water, in a symbolic reversal of the manner in which he happened to come aboard the ship in the first place.

Of course, the captain does manage to avoid losing his ship and crew on the reef. In the process he achieves “the silent knowledge and mute affection, the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command.” But the manner in which the captain achieves this goal leaves the reader to resolve some difficult moral issues. We are left to wonder, for example, if the captain’s newfound confidence in his command was justly achieved. He seems to take credit for planning to use the hat as a saving marker, when in fact it was an accident since he had intended for the hat to be used to protect Leggatt from the sun. This tendency looks a great deal like pride, an excess of which would almost certainly turn his crew against him in the future. Furthermore, though the captain is correct in believing that he will only be able to plumb the limits of his character in the throes of a crisis, is he justified in creating a dangerous situation just so he can test his courage and skill? Ultimately, Conrad poses a question of a more psychological nature. Is it possible to journey to the dark side of the self, which surely the narrator did, symbolized by his identification with the fugitive killer Leggatt, and emerge wiser but otherwise unchanged by the experience? In other words, is such self-knowledge gained at too high a price? Has the narrator become too much like the killer, as his willingness to risk the lives of his crew on the Koh-ring might suggest?

Source: Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.

Mary Ann Dazey

In the following short essay, Dazey analyzes the title of “The Secret Sharer” as a clue into the deeper meaning of the story.

The ambiguity in Joseph Conrad’s title Heart of Darkness is readily apparent because the nouns heart and darkness commonly suggest a variety of denotations and have a wide range in their levels of abstraction. The ambiguity in the title of his short story “The Secret Sharer,” is more subtle but equally intriguing. Although the story concerns two characters, the Captain and his physical double Leggatt, whom he pulls from the South China Sea and saves from death, the title is not “The Secret Sharers.” The referent of the singular noun sharer is, thus, ambiguous. A second ambiguity derives from the fact that the word secret can be read in the familiar pattern as an adjective modifier in the phrase secret sharer or, in the less traditional form, as a nominal in the two-member compound secret sharer (as in peace maker or aft lover).

When the word secret is interpreted as a nominal in the compound, it means information that is hidden or concealed or even unknown: two friends share a secret (hidden information), the Coke formula is a trade secret (concealed information), or the secret of happiness eludes us (unknown information). A strong brief can be made for Leggatt’s being the sharer if this reading is accepted. Leggatt confides in the Captain that he has murdered a man and has jumped ship to avoid punishment, and this information, imparted in secret, is never revealed to the rest of the crew. Interpreting the word secret as a nominal, however, presents an even more cogent argument for the Captain’s being the sharer, for it is he who receives the confidential information. When a landowner and a tenant enter into an agreement that the tenant pay as rent instead of money a part of his crop, it is the tenant who is called the sharecropper, not the landowner. When investors purchase shares in a corporation, it is they who become shareholders, not the corporation. If the nominal coupling secret sharer follows this lexical pattern in the English language, the Captain is the secret sharer.

Interpreting the word secret as a nominal in the compound secret sharer presents difficulty because of the rarity of its occurrence in written English. In oral English the shift in stress from sharer to secret would immediately alert a listener to the compound; in written English the alternate meaning is indicated by spelling the two words together (as in crosswalk), by using a hyphen between the two words (as in cross-examination), by capitalizing the words (as in Cross Village), or by relying upon the reader’s familiarity with the phrase (as in cross fire). No native speaker of English would read any of these examples of cross as meaning ill-tempered, cranky, or irritable, a meaning frequently supplied when the word cross is employed as an adjectival modifier in a common noun phrase (as in a cross infant). The lack of conditioning to reading the phrase secret sharer without topographical direction as a nominal compound makes interpreting secret as an adjectival the traditional choice of readers.

When the word secret is interpreted as an adjectival in the title phrase, the sharer becomes hidden or concealed person, a person kept out of sight. However, the connotations of the adjectival secret range from the mysterious to the underhanded: this variety occurs in such common phrases as a secret staircase, secret password, secret society, secret drawer, secret lovers, secret meetings, secret treaty, secret war, and secret business dealings.

In this short story, Conrad is employing the adjectival secret to describe a mysterious, almost mystical, relationship between the two characters. The story is told from the Captain’s point of view; and as narrator, he tells of his growing fondness for and dependence upon this stranger that he has pulled from the sea. As they spend more and more time alone together, the Captain begins to think of Leggatt as “the secret sharer of my life,” “my secret self,” and finally as “the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts.”

The fact that the title phrase secret sharer is applied only to Leggatt should resolve the ambiguity of the referent; however, connotations such as mysterious, esoteric, and mystical prohibit such a simple solution. Although the Captain sees his double as the “secret sharer,” the reader understands that he is seeing himself as the secret sharer as well. Shortly after the Captain has rescued Leggatt and before Leggatt has confessed to murder, the strange relationship between the two strangers develops. The Captain thinks, “A mysterious communication was established already between us two— in the face of that silent, darkened tropical sea.” Leggatt’s sharing his secret does not change anything. As the Captain sees the other man dressed in clothes identical to his own, he says, “I saw it all going on as though I were myself inside that other self inside that other sleeping suit.” The Captain repeatedly refers to Leggatt as “my second self,” “my double,” “my secret double,” and “my other self.”

When the word secret is an adjectival in the phrase secret sharer and means simply to be hidden or concealed, it applies equally well to the Captain as it does to Leggatt. The Captain’s need for concealment is just as great as is Leggatt’s, once the Captain has taken Leggatt aboard his ship and hidden him in his cabin. The Captain knows that had the crew learned that the murderer of another seaman was being offered sanctuary aboard their ship, they would have certainly mutinied. He observes that the fear of discovery “hung like a sword over our heads.” To attempt to discover the one secret sharer when secret is an adjectival modifier by determining which of the two men shared the most is to ignore Conrad’s masterful choice of the word sharer. What is possessed is not shared until it is jointly possessed, nor is what is given away always shared. In the case of the Captain and Leggatt, each shares all that he has even at the risk of forfeiting his own life. An analysis of the phrase the secret sharer when the word secret functions only as an adjectival

“The events provide precisely the kind of crucible, or severe test, the young captain had been seeking in which to forge his identity. He is aware that he has gained all he can from looking into his ‘other self and now he must move from contemplation to action.”

fails to support the fact that Leggatt, not the Captain, is the referent even though he alone is described by the Captain as “the secret sharer” in the story.

The ambiguity remains. Either the Captain or Leggatt can be identified as the sharer of the secret or as the concealed or hidden sharer.

Source: Mary Ann Dazey, “Shared Secret or Secret Sharing in Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Sharer’,” in Conradiana, Volume XVIII, No. 3, 1986, pp. 201-3.

Charles G. Hoffmann

In the following essay, Hoffmann analyzes the narrative point of view in “The Secret Sharer,” stating that it “creates both the psychological and thematic bases” for the captain’s identification with Leggatt.

Much attention has been given to the psychological and thematic identification of the captain with Leggatt in Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” but too little attention has been paid to the point of view which creates both the psychological and thematic bases for the identification. On the immediate narrative level the story is told in the first person by the captain himself, but on the psychological and thematic level Conrad sought to objectify the subjectivity of the first person point of view by introducing Leggatt, the captain’s “double.” If Leggatt, as the captain’s other self, is examined in relation to

“The ambiguity remains. Either the Captain or Leggatt can “be identified as the sharer of the secret or as the concealed or hidden sharer,”

Conrad’s narrative technique, then the point of view will provide us with a clearer understanding of “The Secret Sharer.”

There are three aspects of point of view in “The Secret Sharer,” corresponding to the thematic structure of the story: the first fourth of the story establishes the subjective point of view which shows the captain a stranger to himself, a man dependent on subjective impressions and moods; the long middle section creates the objectification of self through identification with Leggatt which leads to self-recognition; and the final fourth of the narrative provides an actual test of the captain’s mastery of his ship and his self. In the beginning the captain is as yet untried by the sea. His thoughts are land-bound: the fishing-stakes are like bamboo fences, the barren islets are like stone walls, towers and blockhouses, and even the sea itself seems an extension of the land. This land-consciousness is created by the subjective point of view, for what is significant about the descriptive details is the subjective impression they make on the captain’s consciousness; the scene described is not an objective narrative description, but a portrayal of a state of mind.

The narrator’s psychological sense of isolation in his role as captain is intensified by his impressions as he stands physically alone on the deck of the ship: “There was not a sound in her—and around us nothing moved, nothing lived. . . .” He is alone with his self and his ship, but he is a stranger to both. For a moment he feels a mystical communion with his ship, but because he lacks knowledge of himself as a captain, the moment is lost. This moment of communion is illusory because it is as yet only a subjective impression easily broken by staring stars and disturbing sounds. Significantly, at the end of the story the stillness, in a parallel impression, precedes the moment of his crisis as captain, but because he has achieved self-knowledge through Leggatt, the communion he feels with his ship is real, not illusory; self-confidenfly he meets the test and becomes in reality master of his ship.

Once the ship is under way, the captain shakes off his land-self and attributes his strangeness to the ship’s being land-locked. The land is now associated in his mind with unrest and doubt, and he rejoices “in the great security of the sea as compared with the unrest of the land. . . .” His self-confidence is an illusion based not on knowledge of himself as a captain, but on a subjective mood of complacency “that the sea was not likely to keep any special surprises expressly for my discomfiture.”

It is at this very moment of self-delusion that the reality of his responsibility as captain breaks in: the side-ladder had not been hauled in; a small matter it would seem, but “exactitude in small matters is the very soul of discipline.” The incident of the ladder causes the captain to return to his mood of self-doubt. Significantly, it is by this ladder that Leggatt gains entrance to the ship.

Leggatt’s appearance is not the dramatic beginning of the story for which the rest has been a mere preparatory introduction. The narrator’s conflict is essentially a psychological struggle within himself, which is subjectively dramatized in the first part before Leggatt’s appearance. Leggatt, both in his identity as the captain’s “double” and in his own story, is the objective dramatization of the captain’s secret self. The captain does not recognize his other self immediately; his first impression is that he has seen a headless corpse. What is significant about his reaction is the shock it gives to his illusion about the security of the sea. The cigar, associated with his complacent sense of well-being, drops out of his mouth and falls into the sea, for the sea has presented him with a special surprise.

Leggatt is the sea come to test the captain as a man, just as at the end it is the land which comes to test him as a captain. That Leggatt is associated with the sea is reinforced by the imagery in contrast to the earlier land-imagery of the captain’s consciousness: he is “like a resting swimmer“; he appears “fish-like” and is “mute as a fish“; and even after their first words are exchanged the captain’s impression is that Leggatt seems to have “risen from the bottom of the sea (it was certainly the nearest land to the ship)” rather than from the shore which marks the boundary of the sea. It is only after exchanging personal identities that a psychological state of identification is established: “The self-possession of that man had somehow induced a corresponding state in myself.”

Through a series of links Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway creates a “double” for Clarissa Dalloway so that Septimus Warren Smith’s death becomes metaphorically Clarissa’s “death.” Similarly, through a series of details—similarity of physical appearance and age, the sleeping suit, and their ties with Conway—Conrad establishes this psychological state of identification between the captain and Leggatt so that Leggatt’s moral crisis becomes metaphorically the captain’s moral crisis. It is the point of view which is at the crux of the captain’s identification with Leggatt and his personal crisis. To know his secret self the captain must achieve self-knowledge, but to attain self-knowledge the captain must go through an objective test of self. He has a subjective concept of himself as man and captain, but he is as yet uninitiated, a stranger to himself and to his ship. Without Leggatt’s crisis to serve as an outward reflection of his inner self, his conception of himself would remain subjective and even self-deluded as is Captain Archbold’s in his insistence that he gave the command that saved the Sephora.

Captain Archbold in his judgment of Leggatt’s “crime” is that aspect of self that has to do only with factual, legal evidence, corresponding to Captain Vere’s statement in Melville’s Billy Budd, “The prisoner’s deed. With that alone we have to do.” But Captain Archbold lacks self-knowledge and thus lacks understanding; he does not understand his own failure in the crisis of his ship, and therefore cannot comprehend Leggatt’s crisis. The narrator-captain in his judgment of Leggatt is that aspect of self that has to do with private conscience, corresponding to Captain Vere’s personal understanding of the moral justification for Billy Budd’s crime. By an understanding identification with Leggatt’s crisis, he is able to view himself objectively. Leggatt serves the same function in relation to point of view, as Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness, presenting the captain with an objective insight into himself as Kurtz’s story did for Marlow. Like Leggatt the captain is judged by his outward actions; it is this discrepancy between outward appearance and inner reality that is objectified by Leggatt’s story. Leggatt’s appearance tests the narrator’s

“Conrad establishes this psychological state of identification between the captain and Leggatt so that Leggatt’s moral crisis becomes metaphorically the captain’s moral crisis.”

conscience as a man; he is not found wanting. But as captain, he is yet untried by the sea though he is already judged by his officers. He is judged a failure as a captain by his chief mate. The mate’s preconception makes him certain that the captain has lost his ship.

“She will never get out. You have done it, sir. I knew it’d end in something like this.” In a parallel to the situation on the Sephora the mate panics at the very moment of crisis just as the captain of the Sephora did; the captain symbolically repeats Leggatt’s act of violence; and he takes command of the ship to save it just as Leggatt acted to save the Sephora.

This crisis, the last part of the three-part thematic structure, is the test of the narrator’s mastery of the ship, but he could have avoided the test altogether. Partly he is motivated by a desire to give Leggatt the best possible chance to reach shore, but basically he is motivated by the need to take command of his ship, having too long hidden himself from her. He stakes his whole future on his ability to master the ship and achieve “the way of silent knowledge and mute affection, the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command.” He will achieve this communion by meeting and conquering the challenge of the land.

It is significant that the hat he gave Leggatt is the saving mark for his eyes, dividing land from sea in contrast to the merging of land and sea at the beginning of the story. This is no conscious gesture on Leggatt’s part: “It must have fallen off his head. . . and he didn’t bother.” The hat is the symbol of the captain’s humanity, “the expression of my sudden pity for his mere flesh.” It is the symbol of his mastery of the sea and the ship—“it was saving the ship, by serving me for a mark to help out the ignorance of my strangeness.” Simultaneously he is no longer a stranger to himself nor to his ship.

As the captain gains mastery of his ship, Leggatt lowers himself into the sea. Even before, as Leggatt prepares to leave, the captain forgets him, for his “double” is no longer needed. Leggatt has served his role of providing the captain with an objective insight into himself; the land-self of the captain has left the ship, for his sea-self, his secret self, is now known to him, and the land, symbolizing doubt and danger, is vanquished. The white hat marks the spot and the moment of self-knowledge. Conversely, Leggatt has lost his identity; for him there is no more possible life on the sea with which his life has been identified. He will swim ashore and become “a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth.” What the captain has given Leggatt in return for his own self-knowledge is the freedom to find a new destiny and a new identity on land; the alternatives for Leggatt had been imprisonment, which he scorned, or death by drowning as he swam without purpose, which he would have chosen if the captain had not given him his second chance. It is no easy choice to find a new destiny; it is his “punishment.” The captain has discovered his self at the very gateway of Erebus and is saved from “death“; Leggatt must “die” metaphorically before he can re-discover himself.

Conrad achieved in “The Secret Sharer” the objectification of what otherwise would be a purely subjective, psychological state of mind by extending the first person point of view into the realm of the third person while retaining the advantage of introspective dramatic monologue. Without destroying the consistency of point of view so necessary to the psychological truth of the story, Conrad has successfully portrayed the objective truth of the captain’s secret self, which, just as Leggatt is never seen by any one else, can never really be known except to himself. It is the externalization of point of view through the device of the second self that enabled Conrad to show the development of the captain from self-doubt to self-realization, from self-ignorance to self-knowledge.

Source: Charles G. Hoffmann, “Point of View in ‘The Secret Sharer’,” in College English, Vol. 23, No. 8, May, 1962, pp. 651-54.


Lionel Trilling. The Experience of Literature, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

Further Reading

Baines, Jocelyn. Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1960.

Baines provides a comprehensive overview of all of Conrad’s writings.

Dowden, Wilfred S. Joseph Conrad: The Imaged Style, Vanderbilt University Press, 1970.

Dowden explores how Conrad’s style differs in each of his major works.

Gillon, Adam. Joseph Conrad: Rite of Passage, Twayne Publishers, 1982, pp. 153-159.

Includes guides to each of Conrad’s major works.

Graver, Lawrence. Conrad’s Short Fiction, University of California Press, 1969.

Graver examines all of Conrad’s short fiction and claims that “The Secret Sharer” is a “widely acclaimed. . . psychological masterpiece and the subject of more fanciful interpretations than any of Conrad’s other stories.”

Lothe, Jakob. “‘The Secret Sharer’: Economical Personal Narrative,” in Conrad’s Narrative Method, Clarendon Press, 1989, pp. 57-71.

Contains a useful introduction to Conrad’s life and work as well as a carefully argued chapter on “The Secret Sharer.”

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The Secret Sharer

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