In “The Secret Sharer,” Joseph Conrad tells the story of two simultaneous journeys: the literal sea journey 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 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 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 Koh-ring, 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?
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Joseph Conrad, Published by Gale, 1997.
Elisabeth Piedmont-Marlon, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.